‘There’s a trick to this game’

JACK BROPHY reviews ‘The Grönholm Method’.

A window into the obscure workings of authority in our everyday lives, ‘The Grönholm Method’ vividly represents the strain created when individuals confront an impersonal power. Catalan playwright Jordi Galcerán Ferrer’s play is interested in the secret processes of corporate power, drawing us into a story with flashes of human vulnerability and an exploration of an insidious malevolence that seems to permeate all of modern society. Despite the creeping sense of unease in these scenes, Ferrer lightens the play with comedy, creating a scattershot satire of the modern business environment. With a strong cast and under the compelling direction of Carlotta Ipsen, UCLU Drama Society’s production skilfully tackles the challenge of this complex play through the use of metatheatre.

The play takes place entirely within a small meeting room. Four people, mostly strangers, are competing in a group interview for an executive position at a large, but otherwise ill-defined, corporation. They wait for their interviewers to arrive, but no one does. They eventually deduce that they are being watched, and that it is how they act amongst themselves that will determine which of them is successful.

The themes of surveillance and judgement in this production are given immediate urgency through claustrophobic staging. Putting UCL’s space issues to fruitful dramatic use, the production team have crammed a black box theatre into the Clubs and Societies conference room. The audience sit in utter darkness, watching the starkly lit characters speculate that they might be being observed. In a meta-theatrical gesture, which epitomises the play’s commitment to humour-in-darkness, one of the four characters, Rick Foster (Lovis Maurer), creeps down-stage, and briefly enters the shadows, to gaze into the audience and ponder who might be watching this show.

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The interviewers remotely reveal increasingly perverse challenges designed to test the participants’ interpersonal skills: emotional intuition, resilience, and, most importantly, the ability to perform and deceive. As each character is pushed to their emotional limits, the play exposes the dark secrets lying just beneath the surface of their ambition. The descent into moral confusion begins when Foster is forced to deceive his fellow candidates with an elaborate lie about a workplace scandal involving an intern, convincing them to support him in the aftermath. Maurer’s nuanced performance captures the pathos of a lonely careerist, insufferably sparky and energetic at work, but deprived of any genuine human connection.

As the deceptive nature of his task is revealed, Foster’s celebration in the face of his success muddies the waters: the corporation rewards those who are keen and adept manipulators, but so does the theatre. This production of ‘The Grönholm Method’ is as much about acting, in its artistic and social manifestations, as it is about how one ought to act. This theme finds its consummation in Alberto Lais’ excellent performance as Frank Porter. Authoritative, cynical, mean, Porter thrives under every challenge the corporation throws at him, especially when it comes to manipulation. In a spasm of twists concentrated at the end of the play, Lais’ ability to flip his character from confession, to assertion, to defeatism, then defiance keeps an unwieldy ending strong and taut. As much as the play derides his ability to tell a tale convincingly, it could not function without an actor who can do exactly that for the audience.

For all the metatheatrical focus of the Drama Society production, the heart of the play lies in its scathing satire of corporate immorality, and how it finds its way into our every interaction. There is a touching reclamation of common decency between Melanie and Carl (Roíse Anne and Akshay Nugent respectively) when the former’s mother suddenly falls ill during the interview. It turns out, however, that even this moment of possible redemption is not what it seems, and the world of the play, the world it suggests that we live in, is darker than ever. A play with no heroes and no hope, but a play with a message, with ‘The Grönholm Method’ the Drama Society have created some very striking, relevant theatre.

Photo credited to Danté Kim.