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The Confidence Man

A technical tour de force, subverting key notions of theatrical performance.
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Image: Skye Sobejko

Fifteen minutes before the performance, six volunteers from the audience are taken to be briefed on their roles in the show. A mere 15 minutes later, heads ensconced in outsized full masks, six small spotlights pick them out from their seats in the audience and they commence acting their parts.

Far from inspired improvisation, this is full-scale puppetry, made possible by precise use of modern technology. Each character has their own soundtrack, complete with stage directions, their own lines, the lines of other nearby characters and atmospheric musical score. The outsized masks sitting on their heads fit headphones feeding this soundtrack to each volunteer as the 45 minute, multi-layered drama unfolds. Moving around outlined marks on the theatre floor, sitting on furniture, walking a dog, pouring drinks and counting money, each volunteer is a human puppet, responding as fast as possible to the onslaught of directions. Director Zoe Pepper, who also co-wrote the script, oversees matters so that the device does not become a gimmick. The Confidence Man is a full-length drama compressed into simultaneous, precisely calculated, real-time action, with all characters following their own storylines, together. As for the audience, watching this while wearing our own headsets and using smart phones to select individual characters to follow, we could attend several times without seeing the same storyline twice.

The core of the tale brings a large sports bag full of cash into Peter’s family home, courtesy of his old friend, Sam. Years of history are mulled over by the two older men, while Pete’s wife Susan considers what might have been and daughter Anita is impressed by Sam’s charm and style. Their worlds are about to collide with that of Alex and Maria, living a very different lifestyle to pets, garden and mortgage, and with firm views about the ownership of the sports bag and its contents.

Due to the nature of the performance, there is little to say about each performer’s physical presence except that the directions are tight and keep the bodies moving which also removes awkwardness and indecision on the part of the volunteers. The richness of delivery lies in the impressive vocal recordings, with subtle but consistent shifts in sound quality between spoken lines, thoughts and stage directions. Technical details have been considered and skilfully applied, allowing vocal quality to put its own cast on the generic movements of the physical performers. With the addition of the vocal palette, Alex is brutish, Maria high as a kite and Pete perennially defeated by life’s challenges. Each vocal performer captures the nuances of the situation, which is impressive but rendered even more so by the careful editing to make sure all timing of sound and light cues are spot on. Rebecca Baumann’s mask design treads the fine line between practicalities of fitting over headphones, providing adequate vision for the wearers and distinctively matching the images provided for the audience’s smart phones – all of these are achieved, in an impressively grotesque manner.

The end of the show sparks an immediate desire to see it again, to follow the characters and stories missed the first time around. In a measure of the triumph of technical excellence working with quality material, The Confidence Man is intriguing, but reflects the real world, where the audience never can be omnipresent.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

The Confidence Man
Presented by Perth Theatre Company and Side Pony Productions
Directed by Zoe Pepper
Written by Zoe Pepper and Adriane Daff
Composed by Ash Gibson Grieg
Audio arrangement and sound design by Sam Price
Mask design by Rebecca Baumann
Lighting design by Lucy Birkinshaw
Produced by Gemma Pepper
Voices performed by Igor Sas, Brendan Ewing, Andrew Hale, Talei Howell Price, Kate Neylon, Adriane Daff, Mikala Westall, Will O’Mahony, Sean Walsh, Kym Bidstrup and Brent Hill.

Studio Underground, State Theatre Centre of WA, Perth Cultural Centre
30 April – 10 May 2015

Nerida Dickinson
About the Author
Nerida Dickinson is a writer with an interest in the arts. Previously based in Melbourne and Manchester, she is observing the growth of Perth's arts sector with interest.
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