Striptease, the first piece in this resurrection of Słavomir Mrożek’s absurdist shorts, part of the Citizens’ Up Close theatre season– opens with the clash of thunder and its two be-suited protagonists flung across the chalk-scrawled floor into the audience’s hastily retracted feet. Dropped into these unexpected surroundings, the two nigh-identical everymen (Ross Allan and Robert Jack) try to logic-out their predicament. Concepts of justice, punishment and obedience are picked apart before the situation is compounded by the appearance of a mysterious disembodied hand, which instructs the men to hand over one item of clothing at a time, invulnerable to pleading and pandering until the two men willingly run into a pair of handcuffs in a desperate attempt to please their unknown captor.
The satire is baldly-and brutally-direct. In the face of tyranny, when all kinds of justice are dispensed with and life is at stake, which is more precious– intellectual freedom? Or physical freedom? The Citz’ minimalist production suits this frankness well. The tally-marked floor littered with abandoned briefcases eerily suggests an endless stream of prisoners; the stark house lights and minimal sound-effects emphasising both the bleakness the characters’ situation and the audience’s collusion/inclusion in all of it.
Out At Sea dances with similar themes. When the audience return, a blank oval has been cleared in the centre of the chalked-up floor, and performers-Allan and Jack, joined this time by the wheedling Samuel Keefe-stay inside these lines, their own clearly delineated desert island. Their only other possession is an old chest, which holds all the paraphernalia of a posh dinner – excepting the food, which they’ve recently run out of. There is, of course, only one thing for it, and the men set about trying to decide which one of them will become mincemeat for their fellow men.
More of a character study than Striptease, the three actors lure our sympathies and our laughs. Jack’s cut-throat brute and Keefe’s wheedling unfortunate are meaty (ahem) caricatures played against Allan’s straight man. Peter Kelly is the unexpected fourth entity upsetting their plans, gleefully basking in the audience’s laughter and the invisible seawater. In the end-almost cruelly-the decision is taken out of their hands, leaving the three of them with the knowledge of how easily they dehumanised their fellow unfortunates.
Lacking the lyricism of Beckett, Mrożek ‘s satire is no less brutal, although it wounds with a hammer instead of a knife, and with a target more overtly political than existential. He swerves from offering any straight answers. Instead, he exposes the childishness of the arguments. In Striptease, our two desperate prisoners are reduced from their business suits to little boys in short trousers. In Out At Sea, the men present increasingly ridiculous odes to their own inedible-ness. The chalk-marked ‘set’ reminds us both of a prison cell and an abandoned classroom, and the disembodied hand, of course, is the schoolyard bully, who needs no good reason to pick on the weaklings other than that he can. It chills with the same mangled innocence of Lord of the Flies.
Is it better to defy, and perhaps be punished? Or to acquiesce, and cuddle tight around the idea that at least what happens to you is your own choice?
The conundrum feels uncomfortably relevant, especially here in Glasgow, one of only two local authorities that voted for Scottish independence in last year’s referendum. The affirmation that imagination equals freedom is also maybe a squeamish one for theatre practitioners. Artists of all colours have never balked from sticking it to the man– but in this climate of fast-frittering arts funding, what compromises are made to artistic expression to make it palatable to the powers-that-be?
The laugh-out-loud double-bill is a challenge and also a warning that leaves each to decide for themselves what true freedom looks like. This was the kind of economical, subversive theatre the Close Theatre Company was known for, and the Citizens could do worse than heeding their own warning and making the Up Close productions a permanent part of their programme.