I’m not kidding. In a world of perfectly manufactured entertainment, it becomes harder and harder to find art that’s truly a challenge. We don’t often see experimental theatre in the Sydney indie houses – these local black boxes tend to prefer scripted plays scaled down – but at the tiny traverse Kings Cross Theatre, tucked inside a boisterous pub, is an anti-capitalist laugh riot of a dadaist take on a Brechtian classic.
Puntila/Matti, by Tobias Manderson-Galvin and Tom Payne of Doppelgangster, contains the fresh bones of Mr Puntila and his Man Matti, Brecht’s epic comedy that draws on commedia, folklore and rigorous political ideology to explore social class, greed, and the master/man inequity.
Here, though, Puntila (played by Manderson-Galvin, who also directs) is a Kings Cross kingpin and gross-as-fuck hustler and Matti (Grace Lauer) is an Uber driver who can’t seem to shake this guy after completing one trip for him. Of course; Matti’s trapped by the threat of any rating below five stars (by the way, the gig economy is killing us) and Puntila uses that to his ruthless, classist advantage. Also, they seem to have killed a judge.
From there, Puntila gets engaged to three women. His potential wives are in the audience, and this good-natured interaction is less confronting than it is delightful – and blessedly crosses gender lines, refusing to prey on women or unwilling audience members of any gender identity. This is only one of the ways Manderson-Galvin works to break down the barrier between audience and performer; he converses with audience members at the start of the show, inviting them into the theatrical conversation. By blasting down the fourth wall, the performance feels democratised; you might never be more aware of how essential you are to the shape, structure, and energy of a performance.
Plus, there’s a deal with the devil, a money gun, and the question of Puntila’s daughter.
(Seriously, just strap yourself in and, like reluctantly climbing in a rollercoaster at age 32 to determine if you actually do like going on theme-park rides or not, at some point you’re going to have to let of your feelings and just let the experience happen).
(Yes, I know that was a very specific example, but this is my blog and a free review and my Luna Park experience was horrible but enlightening).
(This play is not horrible! It is excellent! It’s fucking Marxist theatre in Sydney! Who knew it would ever happen! but it does work best if you meet the track before you with an open mind and a sense of inevitability: just lean in and feel the rush and analyse the experience when you leave).
The action of the play, scene changes and dialogue-heavy scenes alike, are happening over and around a heavy, brutal score (Jules Pascoe). The actors recite lines that are pre-recorded on their phones, headphones always in. There’s a lot of stimulation here – the kind that, like all the pretty things you can buy, distracts you from noticing the superstructures around you are setting you up to fail – and it’s either going to make you check out or keep you engaged (it keep me engaged. And thrilled).
There’s nudity, violence, comedy, and a general sense that the entire show is collapsing around you (but if you look closer at the chaos, you’ll see the sophistication in it: it’s perfectly pitched and cleverly planned).
A stage manager, Antoinette (Barboutis; also the show’s designer), tries to narrate and keep the show moving, but fails miserably. She seems perpetually lost – at one point on opening night she wanders out to the audience looking for a tissue – and her comic timing is so precise that it’s hard to believe this is her acting debut. It’s almost impossible to look away from her largely silent, mostly offstage bits.
The action on the stage proper belongs to Manderson-Galvin; he’s the master of ceremonies, the smasher of barriers, the wild-eyed irresistible ringleader with buckets of energy and a sly political wink.
Puntila/Matti is the most fun I’ve had in the theatre for a while, and also the most excited I’ve been by an onstage political ideologue. If you’re theatre-or-ideologically literate (like, you know Brecht and you’re familiar with Marxism or Dada) then you might feel more at home here, but even if you are cool with these concepts, the play still requires you to both switch on and let go. Imagine patting your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time. That’s what Puntila/Matti is.
It’s different, it’s funny, it’s willfully intelligent and furious at social inequity. Go see it immediately.