Directed by Margaret Thanos and produced by Dream Plane Productions, Labyrinth is an ambitious, well-oiled show that rekindles the ashes from history and quickly catches fire.
The year is 1978 and the world is brimming with economic opportunity and prosperity. Oil-rich countries are investing in international banks, that in turn, are eager to lend to prospective clients. John, an awkward and docile young graduate is being interviewed at one of the biggest banks in America. His callowness lands him the job, and his first task is to write credit reports to facilitate loans to developing countries in Latin America. These reports must be written favourably despite John’s alarming research that indicates the loans will never be repaid. John is reassured “countries don’t go bankrupt” and is manipulated to believe his work altruistically enables infrastructure projects in countries such as Mexico, Brazil and Argentina. Shortly after huge loans are made, interest rates begin to soar and John becomes sucked into a vortex of chaos and corruption that cripples Latin America to its knees and threatens the world with economic ruin.
Beth Steel’s play about the Latin American debt crisis is ruefully relatable to a contemporary Australian audience. The aftershocks of recessions, chronic unemployment, political unrest and corruption are still relevant in global news headlines that have become all too familiar.
Steel’s play is peppered with spicy dialogue and cinematic-style transitions that moves the action along like a relentless tidal wave. John, though being an unwilling co-conspirator of the Latin American financial disaster, is swept up in events just as much as the victims of soaring interest rates and corrupt political regimes.
Labyrinth at Flight Path Theatre in Marrickville is a masterclass in directing an epic show of this magnitude, with 12 actors playing roles across multi-cities and timezones. Director Margaret Thanos, herself an advocate for social justice, didn’t want to direct a play that was merely entertaining, but one that would speak directly to the audience. “I feel that accurately representing events in a way that is sensitive and speaks to the audience is the heart of this play,” Thanos says.
The set design, also created by Thanos, shifts effortlessly from interiors to places beyond, as we go jet-setting with the characters around the world. For a play that takes place in multi-cities and locations the transitions had to be smooth, quick and purposeful, and Thanos and crew nail it in a way that is as enjoyable to watch as the actors themselves. A men’s urinal is resourcefully fashioned and plausibly used giving much ponderous delight on how the idea for the contraception was conceived.
Movement director and cultural consultant, Diana Paola Alvardado does a superb job of creating a chaotic rhythm for the play, and was visibly pleased with the results. The opening scene – a job interview in a drab and unassuming office – explodes into a constellation of financial frenzy as characters swarm into the hive like an army of angry bees. The riding and wheeling of furniture like chariots feels inspired by Mad Max Fury Road.
Lighting design by Jas Borsovszky is on point and effective. Lighting directions written into the script (such as ‘lights go epileptic’) are reflected in the play. There’s also wonderful contrast between the hot scalding glare of the office and low lighting in John’s apartment, evoking feelings of tension and anxiety that eventually turns nightmarish as it becomes transparent there’s nowhere to hide.
Sound design by Sam Cheng scores the play with upbeat pop music from the 80s to set the tone and era of financial optimism. Background noise in early scenes rises to fever pitch when all hell breaks loose. Some of the actor’s lines are drowned in the mix, but there’s enough action to know what’s implied – particularly when one of the ensemble cast members (Diego Retamales) mimes a chilling sequence of civilian suicides.
Costumes by Holly-Jane Cohle and assisted by Lily Moody fit the bill perfectly. John, in a mismatched dowdy suit at his job interview, later attires in royal navy blue as his confidence grows to take his place among the ranks of faceless men. “One look and I should be able to price you by the yard, unspool you all the way back to the bolt at Brooks Brothers,” quips Charlie on John’s first day, sounding a lot like Meryl Streep’s famous jumper speech in Devil Wears Prada. Suits and corporate attire are very much symbols of status and power in this play, but it’s very telling who wears the pants.
As for the cast, Matt Abotomey perfectly embodies John, not making him cartoonish like Jekyll and Hyde, but deeply conflicted – and idealistic – with a shameful secret. As a man, is he to be forgiven for indulging (just a little) in the hedonistic pleasure of the 80s? Or, is he destined to turn out ‘just like his father’ who seems proud of his own moral turpitude?
Richard Cox as John’s estranged father, Frank, plays his role with all the charm of a used car salesman. His annoying brash extraversion overwhelms his son’s quiet demeanor, eventually consuming his son’s sanity.
Camila Ponte-Alvarez as Grace is fiery and sincere as a sassy journalist who tells it like it is. Her confrontational scenes with John work best when not overshadowed by loud music, though it certainly adds to the drama.
Rick and Philip, the two ‘side-show’ characters reminiscent of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern from Hamlet, are gender-bended (played by Tasha O’Brien and Rachael Colquhoun-Fairweather respectively). The choice of female-identifying actors dressed up as hirsute males was not solely for comedic effect, though they did get the biggest laughs of the night as they contemplated the absurdity of the world in their own whimsical and very Leunig-esque way.
Finally, the show’s producer and cast member, Angus Evans, does a stellar job in the role of Charlie, a supercilious wonder boy appointed as John’s mentor. Evans impressively oozed cold, calculating, charm as Napoleon in Animal Farm. In this play, he reprises that charm like a demented Willy Wonka meets Emperor Caguila, spinning his world of pure imagination where consequences don’t exist and sweet money never runs out.
Labyrinth is on at Flight Path Theatre in Marrickville from August 17 – September 3.
For show tickets and times go to https://www.flightpaththeatre.org/whats-on/labyrinth
For an interview with the show’s director, Margaret Thanos, go to https://sydneytheatrereviews.com/interview-with-margaret-thanos-director-of-labyrinth/
Image credit: Clare Hawley