Out at Sea

New Athenaeum Theatre, 24 The Octagon, Dunedin

20/03/2023 - 22/03/2023

Dunedin Fringe Festival 2023

Production Details

Writer: Slawomir Mrozek
Direction: Blaise Barham
Lighting Design: Grace Howley
Sound Design: Blaise Barham

Sahara BreeZe (SBZ) Productions in conjunction with The Experimental Theatre Collective (ETC).

“When it’s a matter of the public good, sentiment is out of the question.”
Starving, stranded on a raft out at sea, ‘Fat’, ‘Medium’ and ‘Thin’ employ a logical application of democratic and other political processes to debate who should be eaten. Will it be ‘Fat’ who manipulates the masses with their political ideals to create a false social reality, or the opportunistic middle-class ‘Medium’ with his excellent cooking skills, or the downtrodden ‘Thin’? Who will make the ultimate sacrifice?
This absurdist, satirical, and very funny play is staged in the round and includes music by Polish composer Frederic Chopin and sung traditional Eastern European folk songs. It is directed by Blaise Barham and performed by Aimee Freeman, Brent Caldwell, Chris Cook, and Sarah Barham, and was first revived in New Zealand by this cast as part of the Revival Season at Allen Hall, Dunedin 11 & 12 August 2022. Written in 1961 by Polish absurdist dramatist Slawomir Mrozek, it is as relevant today as it was then.

Performance time: 6pm


Fat: Aimee Freeman
Medium: Brent Caldwell
Thin: Chris Cook
Postman & Butler: Sarah Barham

Lighting Operator: Tabitha Littlejohn
Sound Opearor: Cait Gordon
Stage Manager: Becky Hodson
Front of House Manager: Meko Ng

Comedy , Theatre ,

60 minutes

Polished and energetic

Review by Alister McDonald 21st Mar 2023

For a few years in the latter half of the 1960s, at the height of the Cold War between East and West, the dissident, self-exiled Polish dramatist Slawomir Mrozek (1930 – 2013) was briefly taken up by the English-language theatre. The most famous illustration of this was the Royal Shakespeare Company commissioning a version by Czech-born Tom Stoppard of Mrozek’s first full-length play, Tango (1965). It premiered in London in 1966 and three years later was on the main-bill at Wellington’s late lamented Downstage Theatre. Unlike the Czech Vaclav Havel, also deemed an acolyte of the Theatre of the Absurd by Martin Esslin, who remained in the Western headlines post-perestroika, post-glasnost, post the fall of the Berlin Wall, having moved on to a political career, interest in Mrozek waned. His plays from the 1970s onwards were not translated into English and he led a peripatetic life in France, Mexico and, for a time, in his post-Solidarity homeland.

That he seemed no happier there under democratic structures than he did under the Stalinist version of Communism might have been anticipated from his early one-act play, Out at Sea (1961), now probably his most-performed play in the West, with student and studio productions keeping it afloat. It is currently on show in the Dunedin Fringe Festival at the New Athenaeum Theatre in a production which debuted last year as part of the Allen Hall Lunchtime Theatre programme on the University of Otago campus. The director Blaise Barham’s Sahara BreeZe Productions is also touring the production to Arrowtown next month.

The play is a dramatization of the philosophical and economic thought-experiment about who should survive when the resource base is inadequate to allow all to do so. On a raft on the ocean surrounded by the audience in the round are three men, Fat, Medium and Thin. Their food supplies are apparently exhausted and cannibalism becomes the rational response to their situation. The question is, how to determine who should be eaten? Each is given a chance to articulate why they should be allowed to survive. An election is held but the result is clearly fraudulent. So much for democracy. Authoritarianism is similarly a dead end from an ethical perspective.  Justice is proposed as a decision-making mechanism by Fat, the most manipulative of the characters, but it is clearly susceptible in the play to bare-faced lies in the interests of self-preservation. Class-based ‘historical’ justice is also mocked when it is revealed that Fat in fact has an aristocratic background.

Throughout Fat and Medium have tried to pressure Thin towards self-sacrifice, appealing variously to his sense of loyalty, good breeding, devotion to duty, love of his neighbours, and status as a madman. By the end of the text, Thin is relenting but not before he has made a crucial discovery. Near the start he has told us that he has ‘always been an egoist.’ Near the end he distinguishes true freedom from ordinary freedom, the former existing only where there is none of the latter. He is going to make his own freedom through existential choice, rather than be the passive recipient of whatever freedoms society deigns to grant him.

The hammer and sickle logo of the Soviet Communist Party on the flyer signals a somewhat reductive reading and presentation. The production gives the play a non-specific Eastern European context, interpolating stings of Polish, Ukranian, Yiddish and Romani folk songs. There is energetic Slavic-style broad comedy playing by Otago University Theatre Studies students Aimee Freeman (Fat), Brent Caldwell (Medium) and Chris Cook (Thin). A curiously uncredited Sarah Barham appears in the frequently doubled walk-on (or perhaps swim on) roles as the Postman and Fat’s family’s Butler.

[Spoiler alert] Going beyond the published Grove Press translation of the script, the production offers a coda in which a concealed weapon is produced by Thin who proceeds to kill Fat and Medium in a revolutionary gesture that seemed to satisfy many in the audience but, having done so, turns the gun on himself. [Spoiler alert ends.]

Complacently rooting the piece in a long-gone Soviet-era seems to me to undercut its statement. The play is surely an anarchist writer’s ‘plague on all your State houses,’ be they totalitarian or democratic. The spectator’s sympathy for the anarchist standpoint and their view of its practicality in a world of six billion people and mass societies will probably determine how convinced they finally are by the play’s depiction of its theme. But it is anarchism not nihilism which the text seems to me to endorse. It is a very moot point whether what has replaced Communism in Russia and Poland is any great advance on what preceded it. The contemporary West similarly has nothing to be smug about, with its Big Pharma, Big Farmer, Big Finance and Big Cyber entities far outweighing in destructive Kafkaesque influence on citizens’ lives, freedoms, and the planet anything ‘big’ governments can now do.

The production, which was polished and energetic throughout, has nonetheless allowed Dunedin audiences an introduction to the cartoon-like (the author’s original form of artistic expression) satires which typify Mrozek’s early short plays and the opportunity to experience one of them should be welcomed accordingly. It is also, perhaps surprisingly, the only explicitly political theatre piece in the Dunedin Fringe Festival line-up (politics also largely absent from the stand-up routines I’ve seen so far) and should also be welcomed and seen for that reason alone.


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