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OFFICEBLOCK. Directed by Jayne Batzofin, with Christopher Beukes, Sinethemba Mgebisa, Asanda Rilityana and Marlon Snyders. At the Baxter Theatre until Saturday. TYRONE AUGUST reviews.
IN one way or another, any relationship involves the negotiation of power.
This process is even more intense in the workplace, an environment in which individuals are often forced to interact in highly stressful situations to meet ever-increasing commercial demands.
The latest production of the FTH:K theatre company, OfficeBLOCK, provides a captivating look at the power dynamics among three office workers: the overbearing senior (Christopher Beukes), the abused underling (Asanda Rilityana) and the diligent stalwart (Marlon Snyders).
Each of them has made an uncomfortable peace with their role in the company’s hierarchy (with the overzealous manager being the most enthusiastic, of course).
When they are joined by a new colleague (Sinethemba Mgebisa), they are determined to cling to their hard-won positions.
The newcomer is initially submissive, and reaches out compassionately to Rilityana’s long-suffering character.
Soon, however, he becomes familiar with the power relations in his new workplace, and self-interest takes over.
He changes from a caring colleague into a brash bully after he gets a promotion.
In a disturbing scene, he and the office manager gang up on their female colleague and utterly humiliate her, showing how sometimes even just a little power can corrupt.
Snyders’s character, who usually keeps his head down and does whatever is expected of him, also gradually undergoes a transformation – yet his newfound assertiveness is not necessarily for the better.
OfficeBLOCK is an intriguing snapshot of relationships in the workplace.
And, what is even more fascinating, is that such complex subject matter is conveyed almost entirely in non-verbal ways: facial gestures and body movements are the primary methods of communication.
The occasional flashcard is used to facilitate communication. Music is also cleverly used for the same purpose (notably Dave Brubeck’s infectious Take Five and Ennio Morricone’s distinctive track from the movie The Good, The Bad and The Ugly).
FTH:K succeeds in transcending cultural and linguistic divides.
That some of the performers are deaf is almost incidental: the production imaginatively confronts, and overturns, conventional notions of the theatre.
Despite the almost complete absence of language, the narrative is told with a grim clarity.
There can be no mistaking the cut-throat nature of the corporate world, in which practically everyone is constantly pitted against one another in the never-ending pursuit of profits.
The almost seamless way in which the story unfolds is a tribute to the cast; they are supremely confident in their respective roles.
Mgebisa, in particular, is a delight to watch: he has a highly expressive face and uses it well.
Beukes, too, commands attention with his Chaplinesque movements.
No doubt director Jayne Batzofin deserves much of the credit for her role in drawing out such fluent performances.
Her set design is also inspired. Essentially made up of four chairs and a water cooler, it highlights the conformity and alienation prevalent in many work environments. OfficeBLOCK is bold, imaginative theatre.
It dares to grapple with complex issues without using any dialogue, usually the most vital instrument of communication on the stage.
The audience is indeed able to “Listen with your eyes”, as the company’s mantra invites.
And while the production deals with serious issues in a playful, almost irreverent, manner, it still manages to starkly bring their darker aspects to the fore.
Unrestrained personal ambition and unrelenting commercial pressures, make an ugly and destructive combination.
OfficeBLOCK is theatre at its best: innovative and provocative, yet also entertaining.
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