The Way Things Work – Aidan Fennessy and the corruption of the Real. (Theatre Review)

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The Way Things Work

Rock Surfers Theatre Company

5 – 29 November. Grab your tickets here.

“Without getting too snooty about it,” says Aiden Fennessy in the writers notes to the current production of The Way Things Work, “corruption seems to be a very male way of approaching the task of ‘getting things done.’ And it’s not just the Top End of Town. Years ago I knew I guy who, without fail, won the chook raffle every friday night at his local pub because… well… he organised it.” And it’s this idea that Fenessy examines closely in his play The Way Things Work, taking a long hard look at the masculine approach to corruption, that includes as an inevitability, getting caught. There is no corruption without the threat of capture, and therefore it is capture that gives validity and definition to the act of corruption. As Fennessy’s play suggests, there is no real advantage to any form of corruption, as the long-term continuous effort of hiding an unpleasant truth becomes its own burden on any system. The only true advantage to corruption is ego-oriented, and this is connected to the fear (hope) of getting caught. What is the great advantage in capture? Witnesses to your own audacity. You can’t say “fuck you” to the system in secret and in the dark. As Fennessy suggests in the second act, every male enticed by corruption is ultimately trying to piss off and seduce his mother at the same time.

And therein lies the real beauty of The Way Things Work. It isn’t so much a play about corruption as it is about “maleness” and who and what we compete for on the journey to “alpha male.” In a democracy we never have anyone to blame but ourselves for our politicians, so Fennessy’s question becomes, why do we accept this? Why do we tolerate it? Why do we need our public officials, our wealthy elite and our murderers to be ego-centric males trying to impress their mothers? If people get the politicians they deserve, then what did we do to deserve this?

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Fennessy couches all this into a three act play that, cleverly uses the same two actors to portray different characters in a story of corruption that starts in the foul-mouthed halls of government and ends in the genteel speak of murderous criminals; each of the three acts representing a different tier of the same corruption scandal and each a battle between males for power over that scandal. Using the same two actors hints at the notion we are watching the same man over and over again, individuals made homogeneous by their motives. Ashley Lyons and Nicholas Papademetriou are convincing and smooth in their transitions, but as the play’s momentum builds, we start to see this is the same problem causing the same problem over and over again. It’s a subtle and nimble way to depict a complex issue that sounds preachy or (the dreaded) PC if you try to articulate it, and particularly carries weight coming out of the mouths of men.

Like all beautifully written plays it hinges on great performances and Lyons and Papademetriou more than fulfill all the expectations of their three challenging roles. They use a few devices, such as costume and accent changes, but for the most part, each has to allow for enough transformation to follow plot and enough similarity to point to Fennessy’s key themes. Both have the talent and respect for the words enough to do this, and watching becomes an exciting journey as we feel closer to the men each portray but also to the actors themselves. Our actions are always the walk along a tightrope of conscious desire, sublimated fears and the anemic mimicking of the reality we perceive and each performance brings out a delicate balance between these three that each of the men might be experiencing in his life.

Leland Kean uses minimal set changes to move the men around their various roles, keeping the focus on the dialogue and the performances. He uses key changes in energy as a distinction between the various scenes, the first where men mostly sit behind desks he imbues with a nervous frenetic style, moving through to the chilling final moments that have a zen-stillness to them. Kean and assistant director Rachael Chant keep the audiences eye on the performances, so that lighting and sound are subdued before them. Luiz Pampolha’s lights are subtle, and project a future onto the men on the stage that overlaps with their present, but for the most part it remains quietly focused on the words, leaving the intense dramatic display to the performances. The same can be said for Jed Silvers sound and Jade Alex’s costumes, coming to the fore at crucial moments, only to slip back behind the performances for the bulk of the play. It gives the play a studied air, demands a concentration of focus and places a lot on the shoulders of the two performers, but Fennessy’s words deserve that level of attention and Lyons and Papademetriou are up to it. With so much careful attention to the plot and not a word missed, the play engages deeply and keeps the audience on the edge of their feet.

Aidan Fennessy has couched his play about machismo in the machinations of a corrupt political system and this wonderful night at the theatre leaves you very convinced of his point of view. The Way Things Work might not be exactly how things work, but it is an examination of the way too many people secretly hope they work.

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