The feminist scifi Mara Korper is challenging, enjoyable and possibly the smartest theatre you’ll see this year, says Robert Reid
We’re shown to our seats in the plastic boxes and told to select a card from one of the seven or so laid out before us. The card assigns us to workgroups of various sorts and gives us a superior to report to. I have a vague recollection of reading somewhere that Mara Korper – written and directed by Jayde Kirchert and presented at Theatreworks by Citizen Theatre – would be a participatory production with no further explanation, although of course I might be remembering wrong. But this does at least suggest we’ll be called upon to do something during the show.
While we wait for the show to begin, we’re encouraged to visit the Mara Korper website, where there is a lot of detailed historical background for the fictional world, including sayings from the world’s holy book and hymns sung by the people there. There’s also the opportunity to interact with The Mother through the Motherbot, a chatbot built into the site, which is a pretty basic Eliza clone.
Mara Korper is a postmodern feminist speculative fiction set in a world a thousand years after the human Y chromosome has been wiped out in a plague. The society that has developed in this new world has become repressive and ideological. It worships a divinity known as The Mother and is run by Mother Administrators, a matriarchy with a distinctly Catholic aesthetic. Gendered pronouns have been replaced by the neutral Sie and Ser and strict laws govern the body, or as it is referred to in this new world, “the korper”.
It is written in The Book of the Mother that: “Our korpers are sers (the Mothers) and we will maintain them while they are on loan to us.” A deep division exists in the ideology of the Mother here. If our korpers are only on loan to us and all return to the Mother at the end of their use, then who are we? Who is the Mother loaning these vessels to, who are we that inhabit them? These are the kinds of questions that the Mother Administrators would probably prefer its citizens not pursue.
In this atmosphere we find Mara (Emily Carr), the Winston Smith of this dystopia, a mid-level employee who works in reclamation. They are part of a team of three who strip the korpers of deceased people of useful materials – skin, bone, organs, nutrients – the sort of process that one imagines would leads to the production of Soylent Green.
Mara’s workgroup is disturbed to learn that their supervisor, who was chosen for the world’s highest honour – birthing a new korper – has died during the process and consequently a new supervisor will need to be appointed. It is assumed that Mara will move up to become the new supervisor but before this happens, sie is awarded a new assistant, the suspicious Konrad (Shamita Sivabalan) who spies on Mara to earn the promotion for seirself.
Incidentally, the responsibility of the original supervisor’s death is placed solely onto ser own shoulders. along with an ominous warning from the superiors that sie had not been taking proper care of ser korper and this is what resulted in ser death. The inability of authoritarian governments to admit mistakes or take responsibility for their actions remains a human trait a thousand years from now, and recalls the failed harvests of Stalin’s Russia and the variously disastrous responses to pretty much all of 2020.
Mara’s partner Fedenka (Freya Pragt) works for the Mother as a kind of therapist/inquisitor. In scenes that are reminiscent of movie torture chambers, Fedenka “works” with Patient Patrice (Jordan Barr), a korper who has transgressed against the rules of the Mother, attempting to alter ser korper in order to make it more “square”. According to the Word of the Mother, korpers must remain “circular”. Square and circular are also associated with terms like angular and sharp for the Square, and soft and round for the Circular. Even with the Y chromosome gone a thousand years from the earth, the old binaries still lurk in the shadows.
One of the things that’s most accomplished about Mara Korper is the construction of evolved social rituals. It conjures a depth of cultural development with the addition of simple gestural movements to presentations of identity, like a formal addition to one’s name. At other times it gets a little in its own way; for instance, the replacement of the terms for death and mortality with the word “abortion” is accompanied by a gesture which unfortunately reminded me a little of the dab. Even so, each altered social ritual paints a consistent picture of a world ruled by catechism and dogma.
The drama unfolds along predictably dystopian lines as Mara begins to uncover a dark truth about The Mother’s society and it is revealed that Fedenka, despite ser work allocation and seir almost gleeful cruelty while going about it, is secretly engaged in the forbidden practice of becoming square seirself. Mara’s investigations into the mystery leads ser to discover that all the korpers are physically being controlled by a mechanism hidden within them. This mechanism makes them gag and choke at the mention of their “insides”, especially if, like Fedenka, they are uncomfortable with how their insides are represented by their outsides. These investigations draw the attention of the Mother Administrators, and the story becomes a tense race to see if Mara will learn the whole truth or if the full authority of the Mother Administrators will fall on ser before sie can change the world with it.
Both the writing and the direction are detailed and intelligent and the performances are engaging and cheeky. The interplay between the rude mechanicals of the play, Hans (Kayla Hamill) and Bray (Barr), is adorable and endearing. Hamill is a scene stealer to be watched throughout as both the characters she presents display a disarming sense of humour that one must imagine is Hamill’s own. Carr as Mara brings the innocent optimism of the Kafkaesque hero to her role and Pragt lends her own tough but fragile intensity to the role of Fedenka. They make a perfect couple crushed by who they are and what they know in a world that refuses to accept one or believe the other.
There’s also a lot of knowledge about theatre in the construction of this work. There are dramaturgical elements lifted from the ancient Greeks (the chorus), the Elizabethan (stock characters) and the Brechtian (direct address, historicisation), that work together smoothly to make something unique. Even the boxes the audience sit in lend a Brechtian air to the proceedings in a postmodern, Marius von Mayenberg, sort of way.
As an aside: Theatre Works, I love you. but we need to talk about the boxes. They muffle the sound from the stage, and while the reflections of the actors sometimes make for interesting juxtapositions, they often confuse the view. Overall, they make for a very specific experience. I wonder, as the world acclimatises to Covid Normal, if these boxes are still necessary. Sitting in one of them really does emphasise how much being in the same physical space as the performance is a vital part of the live theatre aesthetic.
It’s worth noting too that, though Mara Korper feels like it’s a serious drama with serious ideas that deserve interrogation, it’s not without its sense of theatricality. The need to address the audience in the round is often solved by the teeny tiniest stage revolve I’ve ever seen; the striking design (Stu Brown) relies mainly on cold and harsh lighting states (Clare Springett) and futuristic wimples and habits (Aislinn Naughton) that look like Star Trek nuns.
The music (Anthony Lyons) is an intentionally jarring and repetitive soundscape that reminds me of Kraftwerk, Phillip Glass and Vangelis. There’s so much music you could almost consider it experimental music theatre or maybe scifi opera. The cast sing several atonal hymns to the Mother, suggesting that music and song are elements of performance that have become ritualised into the social practices of the Mother’s world.
It’s a very long night in the theatre – the night I went clocked in at just under three hours including interval, I think – but it’s well worth it. There’s no moment when the performance lags or the arguments it makes begin to pall, although there are some long monologues that might benefit from some judicious editing. Luckily, they’ve mostly given by Kayla Harris as Superior Clarence, so they don’t begin to drag.
My only real quibble is that the ending is a little unsatisfying. Mara’s investigations do bring to light – at least for ser and Fedenka – how they are being controlled, presumably freeing them from the control of the Mother. Rather than resolve the story, either by having Mara bring down the Mother in a Hunger Games-y clash of wills or by doing a Logan’s Run-style escape together with Fedenka, the final scene becomes a dreamscape that takes Mara once more through the elements of the conspiracy sie’s already uncovered. Long as the night is, it still feels like there could be one more scene, to show us the consequences of the truths Mara has discovered.
As the lights come up and the cast take their bows, it dawns on me that I’ve been holding this piece of paper assigning me to clean up and reclamation duties by the Mother Administrators for the whole show. I wonder what the point of this was. Aside from being required to stand when the Superiors enter the space, as one would for a judge or official party (which old knees in the audience start to feel by the third hour), there’s no more call for participation. I’m all in favor of building the narrative experience beyond the stage, but it’s got to be done carefully and purposively. The cards give us the expectation of a job to do, which means at least part of my attention throughout the show is focused on waiting to be called up.
Inevitable comparisons will be drawn with The Handmaid’s Tale. It obviously shares territory with Margaret Atwood’s novel, but for me this work is more in line with the work of Caryl Churchill or Alma De Groen. Mara Korper is challenging, thoughtful and thoroughly enjoyable. And possibly the smartest theatre you’ll see all year.
Mara Korper, written and directed by Jayde Kirchert. Composed by Anthony Lyons, designed by Stu Brown, costume design by Aislinn Naughton, lighting design by Clare Springett. Performed by Jordan Barr, Emily Carr, Kayla Hamill, Asha Khamis, Erin McIntosh, Freya Pragt, Ursula Searle and Shamita Sivabalan. Citizen Theatre and Theatre Works.