Esse feels like a chair. What type of chair? A folding chair.
Her sister and brother-in-law do not understand it when she tells them over lunch. If she knew they were going to pay for lunch, she would have ordered the steak instead of her ‘tiny’ meal. The last few weeks of her life have been quite haphazard – she’s lost her job, her girlfriend left her, and she’s become obsessed with the news – but it’s alright, because the internet told her she’s a Ravenclaw.
An Australian premiere from Red Line Productions, Collapsible is an existential meditation on what it means to live in a world that is determined to appear put together when it is actually falling apart. Written in 2019, Margaret Perry’s monologue explores modern day anxiety and dissociation through the journey of Esse (Janet Anderson) as she prepares for job interviews.
Janet Anderson’s command of expression is enthralling
Having suddenly no sense of who she is, Esse starts asking everyone she knows how they would describe her. She clings to the list of words like they are affirmations: smart, bubbly, shy, productive, feet firmly planted on the ground. Her experience is contrasted to that of her family and friends, who all seem to be able to carry on climbing the corporate ladder, building their nuclear families and curating outward perfection while the world continues to burn.
The post-lockdown theatre world has seen a rise in the one-person show, and in many ways, this show might suffer for that, as it is compared to those that have succeeded before it – including Janet Anderson’s own breakout performance in trans confessional Overflow for Darlinghurst Theatre Company, Sydney Theatre Company’s monumental The Picture of Dorian Gray, Liz Kingsman’s acclaimed meta-parody One Woman Show, Thomas Weatherall’s Blue at Belvoir St Theatre, and many more. But co-directors Zoe Hollyoak and Morgan Moroney build on those who have come before them by presenting a refreshing and compelling take on an universal, modern-day reckoning.
Post pandemic, Perry’s monologue is more than just a singular experience of anxiety but an urgent commentary on the way the current day overwhelms. Her text is filled with references to the plight of the working class through poetic metaphor – the weight of rocks tumbling out of one’s chest, the feeling of being outside of your body, wanting to be “clean out of my brain”. She is able to articulate the compacting feelings of being trapped between wanting to be the best and wanting to feel seen and the desire to contribute to the world.
The metaphors translate into Hayden Relf’s set, which looks like a large waiting room. To the side, elevator doors open to a lift with wall-length mirrors which turn in on Esse, and to the back is a door with a square window that becomes a reception desk when closed and opens to create a cafe table, where Esse can converse with various friends and family members.
Within the coldness of this space, Anderson’s face is a blank canvas on which the co-directors are able to paint Perry’s many characters. Anderson’s command of expression is enthralling. With delightful fervour she embodies a chauvinistic male CEO, a timid HR professional, and her obnoxiously sarcastic, put-together friends. She comes to life in these sidebars, but is then able to transition seamlessly back to Esse’s dissonance with astonishing comfort while still holding attention.
This is enhanced by the use of live video. In a similar style to STC’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, cameras set up on either side of the stage become tools for character creation – camera angles distort Anderson’s face so she can appear threatening, or zoom into her profile to reflect a moment of disconnection. The nod to Dorian Gray is symbolic in style but also content, as the film element captures Esse’s emotional collapse in the same way that it captures Gray’s descent to deviancy. The video design (by Morgan Moroney and Daniel Horten) has the potential to translate better on a larger stage. Transitions between characters and scenes can be rushed at times, which leads to information being missed, but overall it is absorbing in its service of the monologue.
The post-Covid, cost-of-living-crisis-era we have all just entered into is a bleak one. Many of us choose ignorant disenchantment rather than active engagement, just so that we can get through the day. Social media turns that choice into a perceived reality. Collapsible reminds us that things are not always what they seem, that we are all struggling, and sometimes we just need to know that others are too.
Collapsible is playing at The Old Fitz Theatre until April 1, 2023. You can buy tickets here.