“What are stories, but mystery boxes?” [by James Wenley]
It was at 1:37am that I had a lightbulb moment about this play. I couldn’t sleep – my mind was too busy deconstructing what I had seen and thinking about what I was going to write. Usually, I can put a play away for the night and come back to it the next day. Not this one. My mind was whirring – and then: a realisation that added a new layer of significance. What this play is really about. Maybe. I can’t mention it here, but after you go see and this, maybe we can talk about it. And you should see this. There: that’s my mystery box for this review.
In All Your Wants and Needs Fulfilled Forever, the protagonist Simon Simon (Eli Kent) orders a mystery box advertised on television. Filmmaker J.J. Abrams famously did a 2007 TED Talk about a box he had bought in midtown Manhattan but over three decades later has never opened. Abrams says “What are stories, but mystery boxes? . . . What’s a bigger mystery box than a movie theater? You go to the theater, you’re just so excited to see anything — the moment the lights go down is often the best part”.
At the start of the show, the play’s talking light-bulb (who has been doing a star turn in the production’s excellent promotional videos) expresses very similar sentiments about the Q Loft Theatre as the lights go down.
Eli Kent, you are a hack. Let us count the ways. A play about a young man, who can’t make up his mind, whose father has just died? Hamlet (and didn’t you do already do that in Black Confetti?). A massive genre and tonal shift in the third act using a form that the protagonist detests? Adaptation. A further reality behind your reality controlling what you see and experience? Truman, I know that’s you hiding in Plato’s cave.
Let me put it this way: there is nothing original about this play. It is yet another in the white middle class privileged angst genre. The light-bulb apologises for this. Why make your central protagonist male? Victoria Abbott wants to make her female supporting characters three-dimensional people, but will this serve Simon’s hero journey? Does this come across as sexist? You can sense Eli Kent tying himself in knots over this. The play is very self-reflexive of the around the representations it is putting out there, and the anxieties it has about this. Simon Simon has mummy issues alongside unresolved feelings around his father’s death from a motor neuron disease, treats his girlfriend like an object (she’s represented as a naked dummy with an impossible figure), and suffers from crippling ennui. He goes running, feeds his pet rats, channels surfs, orders his mystery box, and is disappointed when he opens it and discovers there is nothing inside.
Let me put it another way: this is the most original play I’ve seen in a long time. Simon Simon is only part of the story. He exists in a stage box; it is blank and bare but not entirely neutral, the light hits the space and bounces back at us with a harsh fluorescent light. Outside the three walls (plus invisible fourth walls) of the box is an intriguing jumble of props, filing cabinets, signs and notes etc etc. There’s a raised bank of TV monitors and an area for sound recording – you can tell, because of the screen of egg-cartons behind it for soundproofing. This is the domain of Victoria Abbott, Hamish Parkinson, Joel Baxendale, and the talking light-bulb.
The light-bulb is in charge, or thinks it is anyway. The default text-to-speech vocals give it an impersonal, unemotional tone and imprecise comic timing. Both narrator and dictatorial director, it orders the three actors around to serve Simon’s story, and makes snap recasting decisions. Their last run resulted in “zero satisfaction”, and this time they must achieve results. The actor-crew feed in catalysts and threshold points to bring Simon Simon to the narrative abyss. Problem is, they aren’t very good at this, and find it difficult to keep the plot structured and moving towards the natural and logical narrative conclusion. “Real life” does not always conform.
An intricate world of interactions and intentions is created in this “back-stage” space, and the haphazard team-work between Abbott, Baxendale and Parkinson is a joy to watch unfold. They try to avoid entering Simon’s space as much as possible, but sometimes interventions are necessary – Abbot suits up with a white hoodie so she will remain unseen. The trio deconstruct stage illusion, to show all the joins, but at the same time the magic of theatre is upheld – we don’t see how the lightbulb works.
In the New Humanist Paul Mason argued that today people’s being “determines their consciousness in a way not possible at any other time in human history, because their being is plugged into other “beings” and ideas have become the “material” of their existence”. Theatre here has been slow to investigate this, and different ways to conceive of character. Kent and company get it, and this makes this work especially exciting. Kent says the play shows “the nature of today, how everyone absorbs so much stuff all the time and what that does to us”. Simon Simon is as much a character as he is a stimulus machine. His repeated action is to hold out his finger, searching for the next input. His identity is made up of a meta-whirl of pop-culture fragments.
What makes this all so brilliant is that Simon Simon, modern Everyman and lab-rat, whose destiny is controlled by the other actors and the light-bulb, is played by playwright Eli Kent (and share some clear biographical details). Interestingly, Kent did not originate the role in the 2014 Wellington season – there Simon was played by Simon O’Leary. Here, Kent’s performance is a conceptual masterstroke full of significance, especially because the form itself questions the primacy of the playwright. This is not just Kent’s play, but belongs also to the minds of his collaborators. It’s in tiny, tiny font in the program, but the credit is “written by Eli Kent with V Abbott, J Baxendale, R Kerr, S Leary, S Trubridge, M O’Shea, H Parkinson”. That’s director Robin Kerr, producer Molly O’Shea, designer Sam Trubridge, and the actors. I also should single-out Lighting Designer Marcus McShane and Composer/Sound Designer Gareth Hobbs, whose authorships are essential to the success of this production. There’s a wonderful metaphor for the creative process in this. Further, the play is concerned with what might have been: ideas trialed and rejected (and dropped and refined after Wellington and New York seasons) and roads not traveled. The ghosts of dead darlings haunt this work.
And there’s even more going on than just that. Big existential questions. Life and Death. Chaos. Creation. Incredible imagery. Spoilerish things I can’t name here.
Wants and Needs has layers upon layers to decode, and many lingering questions. Not the frustrating kind, but the sort your mind enjoys working away at, and might lead to early morning realisations.
When there’s nothing new under the sun, The Playground Collective dares to be meta-original. Outstanding, inventive, exciting – a surge of creative current. Satisfaction 100%.
All Your Wants and Needs Fulfilled Forever is presented by The Playground Collective and Q Presents and plays at Q Loft until 19 September. Details see Q.