COLLAPSIBLE, Red Line and essential workers at the Old Fitz, 11 March-1 April 2023. Photography by Phil Erbacher
Margaret Perry is an Irish playwright whose first play was picked out of the unsolicited pile and staged by Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, and later adapted for radio and broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Titled Porcelain, she then came up with Collapsible (2019 and an award-winner in London and Dublin) and most recently in 2022, Paradise Now! She is a thrilling talent to watch.
Also in that category – a thrilling talent to watch – is Janet Anderson, the just-out-of-NIDA actor who takes on the 70-minute monologue at the Old Fitz with astonishing confidence and skill. Every few years an extraordinary presence lights up a stage and you say (preferably not out loud) “WHO is THAT?” And it turns out to be Cate or Toni, or Debicki or Snook and the world is never quite the same again. In this instance, it’s simply Anderson. And aside from her virtuosity on stage, because there are two live cameras involved here, it’s quickly obvious that – clichè but true – the camera loves her.
Directed by Zoë Hollyoak and Morgan Moroney, Collapsible is simultaneously funny and painful as Esther – Essie – experiences and relates to us the loss of her job and her girlfriend and therefore, her identity as she thought she knew it. The bursts of laughter that ripple through the audience, before slamming into the solid rapt silences that follow, are because it’s impossible not to recognise her plight in ourselves and be delighted and appalled. Are we really so fragile in our sense of self that a Buzzfeed quiz or a friend’s opinion can either confirm or deny our personhood? Shockingly, because we live in a time of deconstructed humanity, dodgy self-improvement, and fake news, the answer is: yes!
Essie inhabits a nowhere space that might be a waiting room, a lobby, a foyer (there’s a lift), or an institutionalised office. There is a small TV screen above the door, pale grey paint and a pale grey floor, a couple of deliberately not comfortable chairs and, occasionally prowling the perimeter: the cameras and their operators. (Another astonishingly creative use of the Old Fitz stage, this time by Hayden Relf with integrated and equally creative lighting by Morgan Moroney.)
The live images of Essie – minimally used and somewhat abstract, rather than Dorian Grey – are projected onto the back wall of the “room” as she talks to the camera and the audience even as she also switches characters in conversational exchanges.
As time passes and failed job interviews stack up, Essie becomes preoccupied with the vacuous nonsense that lies beneath the deeply shallow requirements of HR mavens: describe yourself in one word. What will you bring to the job/company? What is your greatest strength/weakness? When the honest answer to all those questions should be “Don’t be ridiculous”, how is Essie – or anyone – ever going to land a job?
Perry’s script is preternaturally perceptive and sparkles with droll, dry humour. It’s also wicked in its portrayal of the unwitting grandiosity arising from the KardashTikTokGoop society whose values have upended us into something barely recognisable as human. Or humane. No wonder Essie begins to think she might be a chair – of the collapsible sort.
Along with co-video designer Morgan Moroney, composer, sound, and co-video designer, Daniel Herten has created an atmosphere of visual and aural dissonance that vividly illustrates what’s going on in Essie’s mind. It’s a paradox for the audience as the experience of watching and listening is profoundly sad, scary, and hilarious by turn. There, but for the grace of Someone, go you and I.
Are you a “self-starter”? Are you an introvert, or an extravert, do you think you’re more like Richard Nixon or Barack Obama? Do you want the damn silly job anyway, or do you simply want to pay the rent? Is there such a thing as an honest cover letter for your work of fiction known as a CV, or is honesty foolish? Don’t all answer at once – or groan with recognition at how puerile is so much First World life.
As already said, Anderson is heart-stopping in a nuanced, intelligent, and luminous performance, aided by her co-directors and surroundings. Collapsible is outstanding and recommended without reservation.