Direction: Gavin Rutherford (written by Joe Musaphia)
Circa Theatre; Circa One (May 11 – 26)
We walk in past the murals of The Great Leader and Madame Great Leader and we’re sat in front of two huge doors. Behind them…The Great Leader. He’s having his nap. With a loaded gun. Two guards (Stephan, played by Andrew Paterson and Boris, played by Simon Leary) are having the dilemma of when and how to wake him.
Problems is part satirical existential crisis, part exploration of tension through physical comedy. Thanks to the vision of the playwright (Musaphia firing out killer one-liners) and the director (Gavin Rutherford on the other side of the stage for the first time in Circa’s main studio) we have a confidence in the set-up; they both know something we – at first – don’t. Thanks to the actors we’re pulled into a world where farce is a way of holding up a mirror, where truths come barbed, where we slowly feel the pull of allegiances.
Simon Leary has been never less than extraordinary across a half dozen plays over the last year or so at Circa – and in a variety of roles, comedic, dramatic, both, he’s usually the star. Here he’s met and matched by Paterson, so much so that in any other hands this play could so easily fail. For all of its great humour and a strange though palpable political pathos, it’s the actors that drive it home. This could be said for many shows, sure, but this two-hander plays out like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead before it, as Waiting for Godot knows too, it’s about the breathing spaces, the things not said, and then the total and utter service to the script, to getting those words out and in the right order and hitting their marks.
As Problems plays out we learn that these allegedly loyal servants are vexed for more reasons than just when and how and where to wake their Great Leader; they’re in this job with different ambitions and allegiances, they’re both there due in large part to who they know – they just happen to know two separate vestiges of the top brass.
So, yeah, there are nods to Stoppard and Beckett and, perhaps more pronounced, Armando Iannucci, but what Musaphia is asking us to ponder, I think, and it’s delivered magnificently through the filter of Rutherford, Paterson and Leary, is to consider trust in an age of endless paranoia, spurious speculation and surveilled coldness. To think deeply about how and where and when two people can now ever be on the same page when it’s not just (and has never been) about who you know rather than what you know; in fact it’s always been about how what you know is so deeply and directly informed and influenced by almost nothing else but who you know. It’s about the personal and the political both always meshing and never meshing.
Problems is in some sense a trojan horse of sorts. You’ll be thinking deeply about all the truisms (and many other -isms) long after you walk out the door having spent 80 minutes in so many belly laughs.
A quite incredible triumph.
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