‘Gratuity’ was everything I hadn’t expected and more: a self-aware, ironic and deeply sarcastic critique of theatre in all of its traditional forms (and of the critique itself). Kafka-esque in the extreme, it manages all of this without pretention and with superb comedy.
‘I’d tell you what the plot is, but frankly, it wouldn’t make any sense’
The aim seems to be to defy convention at every turn: the play opens with ‘Living in a Crazy World’ being sung a capella from the common room balcony; the audience then enters the darkened auditorium to find the actors stood in rows, straight-faced, eyes glaring; then the spectators finally discover that no seats have been set out.
Instead, pillows and duvets have been laid upon boxes on the floor, plastic cups full of sweets are placed in various places and the whole set is decorated with abstract statements written on thin strips of paper.
One of the actors, dressed with the only flash of colour amid a sea of noir attire, represents ‘Theatre’, as the seemingly spontaneous bursts of song constantly remind us. “It’s theatre!” they sing: eyes rolling, voices jeering, jazz hands mocking after every scene.
In one particularly strange part, Theatre is slapped repeatedly by a Russian interrogator (who occasionally regresses to a child-like mentality), is stabbed in the eye with a fork and is later shot in the back by Jane (an oft-molested dancer who dreams of being a neuro-chemist).
And if Theatre is dead, is anything permitted? A soliloquy over a denied love between a banana and a grape suggests so. And hilarity, as they say, ensues: the audience screeches, gasps and, at times, chokes with laughter.
At one point, the cast unexpectedly acts out a scene from Hamlet, creating a stark contrast to the unknown oddities of the other scenes.
As the scene progresses, the characters slowly become the actors, beginning with a smile, then a chuckle, until the whole of the cast, and the audience with them, are doubled up laughing, no-one certain whether the characters’ laughter is intentional or not.
I’d tell you what the plot is, but frankly, it wouldn’t make sense. It really doesn’t matter. Gratuity is more than a piece of ‘theatre’. It is an experience.