I first discovered Ross Mueller’s Construction of the Human Heart in 2008 or 2009, in the university library, and became fascinated by its conceit, its design and its delicious ambiguity, but until now have not had a chance to see it performed. Enter then, Apocalypse Theatre Company with their current production currently playing at the intimate Tap Gallery theatre in Darlinghurst. Written in one act, Mueller’s play unfolds with a directness and a beguiling fragility, and exposes the very constructedness of theatre.
Perhaps better called ‘Deconstructing theatre’, the story revolves around a Couple, two unnamed characters, simply referred to as ‘Him’ and ‘Her’. They are both playwrights, we discover, and as the play unfolds over its lean sixty-five minutes, they build around themselves as much as us a fortress of words. But, like the best defences, it begins to crack, until their words crack open, meaning bleeding onto the stage, and they desperately cling to their disappearing words, to themselves, to each other, trying to remember how to go on, how to Be.
Directed by Dino Dimitriadis, the play unfolds as it should, almost in real-time, in front of our eyes. It’s a bit like a staged reading, in a way, an open rehearsal, albeit one which is entirely scripted. Dimitriadis’ direction is subtle, invisible, perhaps too much so, but it suits the piece perfectly, and there is a roughness to it, an uncomfortable aftertaste which Mueller deliberately writes into the script, and which is left raw by the actors and director. In a way, its self-reflexive theatre – by being purposefully raw and rough, it both exposes the artifice of theatre at the same time as erecting its own: the reality of its two writers trying to live, continue, telling stories.
As Him and Her, Michael Cullen and Cat Martin are well-matched. While Cullen’s Him has a real anger underneath his playfulness, there is also a real vulnerability, and at the play’s end, as the pack of cards crumbles around them, you can see just how scared Him is at the very real possibility of it all unravelling beneath his very feet. As Her, Cat Martin felt as though she was perhaps acting too much, that Her was too much of an act. Despite this veneer of artificiality, there were many tangible moments between the Couple, where their playfulness and nature of their relationship rose to the fore and created a little bit of stage–magic. The moment late in the piece, Scene Eight in the script, where they sit on the bed together, against the wall, as Him tells Her about the new play he’s working on – there’s a rough magic there, as in many other instances, and it comes as much from the director and cast as from the simple – and clever – use of three bare light bulbs to create an ambience and cocooning depth in the space.
Mueller’s script is deliberately ambiguous, constantly switching between ‘on-script’ – essentially the ‘play’ we are watching – and ‘off-script’, where moments of ‘real life’ seep through the cracks and break the barely-apparent fourth wall. There are shades too of Matt Cameron’s much-studied Ruby Moon, as the Couple have a child, Tom, a boy who may or may not exist, depending on the situation, given circumstances of the scene, or whether they are off- or on-script; whether they are creating their world or whether it is falling in slabs around them. It is as frustrating and perplexing as it is intriguing and captivating, and Dimitriadis’ directorial navigation does not falter across its duration.
As Construction of the Human Heart lays its heart on the (bare) stage for all to see, so too the actors bare their souls and their craft; by its end, you may as well believe that the play has happened to them in its entirety and they are merely relating it to you. Nothing exists outside of the four black walls of the theatre; indeed, it seems as though the theatre itself is built from words, a feat that is as old as theatre itself. To quote Stoppard, our world as much as theirs is built from “words, words [;] they’re all we have to go on.”
Theatre playlist: 22. Lost Fur, Carter Burwell