In an age when misinformation is hotter than the government’s latest gas plants, Triumph of Man: A Comedy in Two Acts is a rollicking parody of the construction of truth and power. (Image supplied)

By Anisha Pillarisetty | @nishkinsilk

The tables in the brightly lit foyer of RUMPUS theatre are almost all occupied, with framed blurbs along the wall introducing the team behind James Watson’s Triumph of Man: A Comedy in Two Acts. There is no entrance to the theatre in sight. It’s easy to assume that the play has begun with the audience gathered exactly where the cast want them, pondering the artifice of their own realities.

As it happens, the foyer is not where the play takes place, and the entrance to the theatre is hidden in plain sight – behind the front desk, and through a cavernous corridor.

Whether intentional or not, this momentary disorientation foreshadows the metatheatrical techniques underpinning The Triumph of Man. Metatheatre was used by many modernist playwrights to remind the audience of the constructed nature of the play, and hence, of reality, especially in relation to art and the artist.

The Triumph of Man, set in a fictional dictatorship, walks the tightrope between metatheatre and cinematic flair, suspending (just enough) disbelief with well-timed agility.

The set is sparse and director Mary Angley’s playful use of space leaves no brick in the fourth wall untouched. The audience face each other with their gaze swaying between the plush armchair on a raised platform on one end, and ropes hanging from a bare wall on the other. The tension between the peach, cushioned throne and the dungeon is realised by the minimal props, tongue-in-cheek sound themes and emotive scoring.

The actors slip in and out of their multiple roles with masterful ease. Yoz Mensch’s gripping use of voice is first heard when they play Karl, the General’s ex-pillow bearer, using the length of the stage to narrate their fall from grace to two imprisoned actors. In an animated performance – heralding many more to come – Mensch, rope still tying them to the dungeon wall, captures the absurdity of manufactured truths.

Unlike the ones in the foyer, the frames hanging behind General Ferdinand’s throne are empty, drawing attention to the metaphorical distance between the audience and the fictional General’s over-the-top demands and the characters’ theatrical costuming. Mensch crafts every gesture – drumming their fingers, slumping down in their armchair, slurping their soup – producing a meticulous, humorous rendition of the General, teetering between deep insecurity and despotic self-interest.

Arran Beattie and Chris Best as the kidnapped actors One and Two fill the space with dynamic performances that are seamlessly choreographed. While the duo instantly entertains with their comedic back-and-forth, they also deftly plate up insightful dialogue.

Poppy Mee, Grace Boyle, and Ellen Graham effortlessly transition between vastly different characters. Mee’s performances as Artemon and Bec are compelling, incisive depictions of the struggle of resisting all-powerful forces in the face of one’s own complicity.

Boyle as Erasmus, the General’s in-house actor, gives an energetic performance, effectively portraying the thrall of power and the clamour of disillusionment. Graham excels as the State guard, lollipop in hand, a parody of hard-boiled detectives and the deceptive altruism of authority.

Even in its many references to other texts – from the more obvious play-within-a-play to the incongruous costuming of the State’s guards – the production remains ambiguous enough to keep the audience guessing.

Where the script lacked in tightness it made up for in its acute self-awareness. The cinematic narrative ploys – heightened by sound effects and voices bleeding into following scenes – mark the collision of the comical absurdity of the production and the audience’s own realities.

The press release for the play opened with a series of questions including, “What are our duties once we’ve left the theatre?” As the play ends, phone screens light up, and the audience streams out, the question remains.

The Triumph of Man: A Comedy in Two Acts, presented by James Watson and Papermouth Theatre, is showing at RUMPUS theatre until September 26, 2021.