Written by Marius von Mayenburg
Translation by Maja Zade
Directed by Matthew Dunster
Cast: Charlotte Randle (Ulrike), Jonathan Slinger (Michael), Brenock O’Connor (Vincent), Steve John Shepherd (Haulupa), Ria Zmitrowicz (Jessica)
“Do you want me to nail this chicken to a cross?” asks Charlotte Randle’s Ulrike at one point in this densely-packed and painfully funny play. It’s not fully clear whether this is a serious question or not, which captures the experience of seeing Plastic in an ethically-sourced nutshell.
It’s a play that grows progressively darker the closer it moves towards its grim conclusion, yet even then the laughs don’t stop coming. Like many a good comedy it is ruthless in guying the pretentiousness, hypocrisy and condescension of the middle classes (smart urban Berlin here, though it could be any European city) but it also has serious and uncomfortable points to make about the nature of art and how the western world lives now.
Rapid and beautiful as a shark, Matthew Dunster’s production takes place in a stylish, minimalist apartment cleverly designed by Jean Chan to resemble a stylish, minimalist art gallery of the Damien Hirst Newport Street kind. This is exactly what it will later become, complete with an unnamed visitor wandering through it and enjoying the show. But perhaps it has been a gallery all along? That is certainly the claim made by posturing conceptual artist Serge Haulupa, probably the play’s most quotable character. He’s a very recognisable figure: the celebrated enfant terrible who gets more terrible with age but never stops being an infant, played with evident relish by Steve John Shepherd.
Haulupa’s personal assistant Ulrike and her husband Michael begin the play by introducing themselves and each of the other characters directly to the audience. When they point out, smirking, that ‘Haulupa’ can’t possibly be a real name and that Serge is, in any case, being played by an actor called Steve it feels as though von Mayenburg is paying mischievous homage to Bertolt Brecht but only at the end of the play will the full extent of this de-constructed alienation effect be revealed. It’s not the innocuous hoot it first seems.
Ulrike is professionally glib and efficient but chaotic in her home life; all the privilege and principles of her background having left her with no preparation or aptitude for genuine emotional relationships. Randle plays her with wonderful wasp-like energy, monstrous and hilarious most of the time but pitifully fragile when the sadness at the core of her life is eventually laid bare. Jonathan Slinger is equally impressive as Michael, a doctor who can save lives but barely live his own, long since enfeebled by notions of correctness and endless right-on compromise.
As Michael and Ulrike’s son Vincent, Brenock O’Connor gives an acute but unshowy performance, playing a diffident lad at the start of his teens with a great deal of truth and few words. Vincent lacks most social skills and has a stunted grasp of boundaries, having spent his entire life being sidelined by parents whose priorities lie elsewhere and who don’t even realise how desperately he craves their attention.
The final, pivotal character is the family’s latest ‘home help’ Jessica, a graceless and taciturn young East German. We are never told the reasons why her predecessor Danuta left but before long we can make a pretty accurate guess. This is a home beyond help.
Jessica nevertheless finds herself becoming indispensable to the family and eventually to Serge as well. Ria Zmitrowicz is absolutely outstanding: flint-eyed and darkly expressive despite her character’s requirement to speak in careful, almost rationed syllables. She gradually takes on all of the responsibilities that Michael and Ulrike so conspicuously avoid. The indignities, the inappropriateness and the breathtaking condescension she endures are as insulting to her as they are funny to the audience. Young though she is, Jessica has more common sense and maturity than the rest of the adults combined. Every other character in this dysfunctional household (where everybody claims to be too unhappy to sleep) tries to make her either their confidante or muse. Jessica’s forbearance has its limits of course, and she eventually takes decisive and devastating action. Her gradual envelopment by the sad, strange world of her employers is handled with admirable subtlety by both Dunster and von Mayenburg.
Although Vincent’s story feels slightly under-explored, Plastic is a tightly written work and perhaps less obviously confrontational than many of the writer’s previous plays. This may be because it’s so sustainedly funny (its original title Stück Plastik is a multiple pun) although the humour never masks or distracts from the points being made or the emotional truths. The boundaries between art and life are blurred in it from beginning to end. As presented by Dunster it’s a highly memorable piece of theatre that embodies a truth uttered by very few people, ever: if you want good comedy, send for a German!
Seen 23rd March 2017