The Underpants – Expressionism made modern with wit. (Theatre Review)

The Underpants

Sugary Rum Productions and The Seymour Centre

31 October – 23 November.

You can grab your tickets here.

Images: David Hooley

Sugary Rum Productions offers us it’s trademark depth and complexity with The Underpants, a comedy written during the Weimar Republic by Carl Sternheim and adapted by Steve martin during the presidential campaign of George W. Bush. Steve Martin adds some trademark absurdism to the avant guarde expressionism of the original that relocates the play and gives it an energetic freshness that modern audiences will find accessible. In the capable hands of director Anthony Gooley, the whole comes together with a charming emphasis on the duplicitous nature of Victorian era conservatism and the way it was engaged to submerge the modern horrors of misogyny and anti-Semitism. This carries some cold comfort for those of us shocked by the refusal of facts in the post-truth era of Donald Trump. Carl Sternheim reminds us it has always been this way, and uses the sublime anxiety of expressionism to give us a unifying vision through which we can arrive at consensus.

Ultimately, it is through the horrific character Theo (performed with chilling lucidity by Duncan Fellows) that we find an evocation of expressionist terror – The Clerk. Anthony Gooley offers us a Theo infused with a touch of Eichmann, and Duncan Fellows performance calls forth Kafka and the bureaucrats of Kurosawa’s Ikiru – that endless talking that dominates anyone who hears it. During The Underpants, woman, Jew, poet and scientist are all defeated inside an endless rambling rationalisation that the writers cleverly shroud in a jovial spirited romp. The world the characters inhabit is an emphatic form of representation that finally embodies the absence of any political or historical consciousness. These are they that decide the fate of the world, yet they take no responsibility for it, choosing instead to rationalize their day and their complicit part in a broader mechanism that contains them. Sternheim died before the end of World War Two, so he lived to see Nazism in all its glory, but missed its demise. The Underpants was written a decade before the second world war began, but one can see the anxiety the Jewish writer brings to his savage critique of the middle class.

Brought to the fore in this production is the question of comedy. Steve Martin’s use of a clumsy Americanised aesthetic allows us to see through the fun and laughter to a glaring and cold underbelly. In his trademark approach to absurdism, Steve Martin brings identifiable tropes that give the German play a much-needed transparency. The Underpants seems unapologetically American in its way of being German. This connects the audience to a modern day intuiting that brings the play alive. Steve Martin is a very funny man, and surprisingly, so is Carl Sternheim. The way that The Underpants is funny is very modern, and this gives access to a stirring and troubling realisation that history may be repeating itself in our current day.

The Underpants is aided in this transition by a potent lighting affect by Benjamin Brockman that forms character depth and reveals subsumed personal sacrifices in a way that reveals narrative as well as visual effect. A woman walking toward her marital bed is given due gravitas particularly while posited against a bird trapped in a gilded cage. Lighting is used to link inference associated with characters and vibrantly create the idea that a small apartment can become a cage. This is further enhanced by Ben Pierpont’s sound that includes muffled calls from outside the apartment and precision effects, including a very funny window gag, perfectly timed. Sitting on an Anna Gardiner designed set that evokes colour and cheeriness, The Underpants is a cohesive series of well-constructed ideas that form an inspiring whole.

Anthony Gooley calls forth excellent performances without an exception. The aforementioned Duncan Fellows is a stand out as the classic nightmare of expressionism The Clerk, Theo Maske. His wife is played by the always delightful and talented Gabrielle Scawthorn who contorts her gorgeous face into subtle but very witty commentary on all happenings around her. Tony Taylor and Beth Daly provide excellent comic foils for their roles, and bring a warm sense of enormity to the play. Robin Goldsworthy and Ben Gerrard give us comic character performances replete with precision timing, great personal wit and strong physicality. Fight director Scott Witt works with the pair to produce a fight scene that is one of the cleverest things I’ve seen on a stage, and choreographer Cameron Mitchell does an equally superb job with a dream sequence.  It’s all held together upon the night by Christopher Starnawski who does the thankless and tireless task of stage management.

Anthony Gooley has brought to life a very interesting play, that successfully gives us that rare combination of comedy with a heightened intellectual complexity. Laced with Wagner and touched by Nietzsche, the judgement of the German bourgeoise comes through with an intensity that can only be presented by a German, yet it’s felt by each of us. The Underpants is a beautifully presented production, typical of Sugary Rum, yet its quality does not detract from its earthy message. Indeed, like so much art today, it successfully makes us question our Anglo roots and has us look with fresh eyes at what we may have inherited from mother Europe.