‘The wit of the performances, both physical and verbal, is riveting’: Alison Croggon on The Temple at Malthouse Theatre
Back in 2008, the Malthouse Theatre brought Marius von Mayenburg over from Germany to devise a script for theatre by collaborating from the ground up with director Benedict Andrews and some of our leading actors. The result was Moving Target. Equal parts fascinated and frustrated, I ended up seeing it twice.
I thought Moving Target signalled an exciting approach to creating a script, a method opening out of actorly play that created a possibility “in which performance is an integral part of the script, in which gesture and words are organically linked, each emerging from each.”
The show crashed for me when the glorious suspension of play began to be weighted down by the desire of the writer to spell out meaning. “[Mayenburg] needs more of the poet in his work, more of that blind, even foolish trust in the currents of process, if this work is to take flight, if he is to drop the conventions of writing a play in favour of playing… towards the end, the writing asserts its dominance and narrative becomes the controlling impulse of the theatre.”
More than 10 years later, The Temple creates an intriguing rhyme with Moving Target. It’s been devised by some of our leading comic performers in tandem with theatre artist Nicola Gunn and Gavin Quinn, the director of the Irish company Pan Pan. Again, local artists are working with an international guest. Again, they are devising a script through a collaborative process that’s led by the multiple meanings of “play”.
The similarities don’t end there: in both cases, the actors are confined on stage in a set that’s effectively a box (although in Aedín Cosgrove’s design of The Temple, there are exits), which creates a strong sense of claustrophobia. The set in both productions was littered with ordinary objects – chairs and so on – that remain curiously opaque, generating through the actions of the performers a strange, sinister sense of unease. In the case of The Temple, the difficult suspension of meaning is satisfyingly carried all the way through the production. The sense of action, bodies and text informing each other is palpable, and it generates a profoundly interesting performance.
The conceit is that our five characters – Thomas (Aljin Abella), Tennessee (Ash Flanders), Davinia (Genevieve Giuffre), Jackie (Mish Grigor) and Qori (Marcus McKenzie) – are all in an anteroom in a larger building which we presume is the Temple. The room is furnished with clear plastic chairs. Forestage is a table covered with retorts and test tubes filled with colourful liquids that look like cordial.
Each performer drinks one down at random intervals throughout the show. The shadow of “drinking the Kool-Aid”, a colloquialism that now means unthinking acceptance of public relations schtick, is strong from the start. We often forget that phrase derives from the Guyana-based cult The People’s Temple, led by the charismatic Jim Jones. In 1978 it ended in an orgy of death when Jones led a mass murder-suicide of 918 followers, including more than 300 children, who were forced to drink cyanide-laced Flavor Aid.
The characters on stage certainly seem to be part of a cult; or perhaps it’s a wellness retreat or some kind of reality show. In any case, a mysterious process of unselving is taking place off stage. For most of the show, we witness the incidental conversations and games that occur between them in the interstices of this process.
Part of the sense of airiness in The Temple is that, until we get to the end – and even then, not quite – we’re never privy to what is happening in the larger institution. This forces us, as audience members, into the present moment: in this show, the behaviours of these five characters on stage determine more about them than their fragmentary narratives. This is true of all successful plays, of course; but in this case it’s the whole focus of the text.
This in turn throws the emphasis of the show squarely onto the actors: although there are splintered narratives around each of the characters, the realities we witness on stage are created through the interactions of the performers. The moment the performances falter, the entire reality falls apart. Fortunately, this happens only at the beginning: on opening night the first 10 minutes or so felt very sticky.
Once the actors warm up and begin to fully inhabit the stage, The Temple becomes a dark delirium of play. It’s sometimes a little too clear that the scenes have emerged from drama exercises, but the wit of the performances, both physical and verbal, is riveting. The sense of focussed alienation is amplified by Tom Backhaus’s powerful and various sound design.
It’s often very funny, but the jokes and physical comedy are the sparkle over a vision of humanity that’s unforgivingly bleak. All the games are cruel and self-destructive. The characters abuse each other, ignore each other, treat each other like objects. This, it becomes clear, is part of an ongoing and deliberately conscious process that is leading to its own dark end.
Each character nourishes a black hole in the centre of their psyche: they seem incapable of compassion, especially for themselves. Quinn’s director’s note talks about the lie of empathy: “If we acknowledge the falseness of empathy we are able to move towards a more radical, powerful way to communicate.” Echoes of Artaud, I guess. Certainly, there are a lot of lies about empathy; it doesn’t mean that the quality itself is dishonest.
The most powerful aspect of The Temple is that it shows what happens when empathy doesn’t exist. We’re watching human relationship enacted as a series of conscious behaviours designed to be looked at: a narcissistic hall of mirrors in which the self is absent.
It’s the kind of relationship exemplified by the influencers of Instagram, perhaps, or the stereotypes that drive a show such as My Kitchen Rules, in which everyone plays out their ordained roles, performing their feelings for the amusement of a real or imagined audience. It’s a desperate alienation in which, in the end, nothing has purchase and nothing is real. And yes, in this infinitely painful and infinitely numbed purgatory, the only possible truth is death.
Disclaimer: Alison Croggon’s play My Dearworthy Darling will be performed later this year at Malthouse Theatre
The Temple, created by Gavin Quinn, Aljin Abella, Ash Flanders, Mish Grigor, Nicola Gunn, Marcus McKenzie, directed by Gavin Quinn. Set and lighting design by Aedín Cosgrove, by costume design by Harriet Oxley, sound design by Tom Backhaus. Performed by Aljin Abella, Ash Flanders, Genevieve Giuffre, Mish Grigor and Marcus McKenzie. Malthouse Theatre. Until May 26. Bookings
Contains some nudity and adults content
You can read a full list of trigger warnings here