"I write theatre pieces because the stage is where I like to think best. Sometimes I write because something irritates me or I find something funny and I like to share that with the viewers like you re-tell a joke, or because I want to spend time with certain actors rehearsing, or because I have a nightmare, or I'm looking for a specific piece and I don't find it so I get down and write it myself. Sometimes I write because I want to play a game, sometimes because it is my profession which I have learned, but mostly I write out of habit."
- Marius von Mayenburg
If any writer is an animal of the theatre, it's German playwright Marius von Mayenburg. Since 1999, he has been a dramaturg at the Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz in Berlin. As the company's writer in residence, he's written around a dozen plays, which have made him the most produced German playwright in the English-speaking world. Mayenburg has also collaborated on some of director Thomas Ostermeier's celebrated Shakespeare productions - Ostermeier's Hamlet, Measure for Measure, Much Ado About Nothing are all translated and adapted by Mayenburg.
His engagement with English theatre extends to contemporary plays: he's translated Sarah Kane, Caryl Churchill and Martin Crimp. As a working director and dramaturg, he's a writer acutely aware of the particular form he works in. And, as the quote above makes clear, theatre is a form in which he likes to think: all Mayenburg's plays have a sense of provisionality, of a process being enacted before our eyes.
Perplex, which premiered in Berlin in 2012, has many of the hallmarks of Mayenburg's plays: its playful, apparently transparent theatricality recalls The Ugly One (2007), in which an ugly man is made irresistibly handsome through plastic surgery, although to the audience he appears exactly the same as before. In this playful satire on the contemporary obsession with appearance, Mayenburg is spinning a centuries-old theatrical obsession. One of Mayenburg's abiding interests is the fluidity of identity, a fascination that goes back to Shakespeare's gender bending and identity games in Twelfth Night or The Comedy of Errors.
It is, of course, an obsession grounded in the very nature of theatre itself. If we watch a play, we are already watching people - actors - transforming themselves into other people. This transformation, if it works, is deeper than pretence: it is a convention which everyone in the theatre, audience and actors, accepts for the time that the play exists, and which generates its own reality. It's why we cry when Lear reconciles with Cordelia, or when Blanche Dubois is led brokenly to the asylum. At the same time, we simultaneously understand that they are actors, that they assume these roles and will, when the lights go down, relinquish them for their ordinary lives.
Part of theatre's particular enchantment is how, in its ephemeral bubble of time, we willingly enter the realities created for us, while knowing at the same time they aren't real. When artists play with this understanding, it becomes metatheatrical. It's a trick Shakespeare often uses in comedies: half the hilarity of Twelfth Night's plot against Malvolio is that the conspirators delightedly witnessing him falling into their trap are horribly visible to the audience, but completely invisible to Malvolio.
But it's not simply a comic device. One of the most powerful moments of metatheatricality ever written is in King Lear, when Edgar leads the blinded Gloucester to the edge of a cliff so he may cast himself off to his death. The power of the scene depends on our knowledge that the cliff doesn't exist, that Gloucester is standing on a bare stage. It's a moment when Shakespeare nakedly exposes the imaginative machinery of his theatre.
This is a short extract from a longer essay published in the program for Perplex, available at the theatre for $10.
With an extended Q&A with Marius von Mayenburg, a note from director Sarah Giles, details on Plato's Allegory of the Cave, rehearsal room photographs and lots more, the Perplex program is a magnificent way to extend and deepen your night at the theatre.
Perplex, 31 Mar - 2 May 2014, Wharf 1 Theatre
Photo of Marius von Mayenburg © Iko Freese / drama-berlin.de