Collapsible – Dublin Fringe Festival – Review
By Diana Perez Garcia
Performances – 17 – 21 September
Venue – Peacock Stage at the Abbey Theatre
“I spend a lot of time on the Internet” crisply states Essie (Breffni Holohan) at the opening of Margaret Perry’s one-woman show Collapsible. She reels off a litany of the Buzzfeed personality results she has gathered in her desperate online search for herself: if she were a cute little animal she would be a lamb; “Pretty in Pink” is the movie she would be; she is an introvert; she is an extrovert; she sometimes enjoys staying in; sometimes enjoys going out; as a US president, she is Richard Nixon; Obama on a second attempt. The list continues until it dissolves into a senseless nothing.
Essie is perched on top of a small platform sustained by a narrow pillar. Sand cascades from it every time she shifts position while relating the tale of her unravelling, as if it were rapidly crumbling beneath her. She is surrounded by pitch darkness and the jagged outline of three metal beams tilted on their axis close in on her. A spotlight falls on her allowing the audience to take in every nuance of Holohan’s riveting embodiment of a young woman desperately clinging on to sanity. Alison Neighbour has created as fitting a set as could be imagined for a performance and a text that manage to strike a fine balance between irony and fragility. Holohan proves to be quite the acrobat: tensely suspended in mid-air while juggling a torrent of words that insistently nudge her towards an existential edge.
Perry’s text deftly spirals in and out of Essie’s memories as she recalls fragments of encounters and conversations following a crisis that saw her lose the woman she loved and quit her job at the kind of company everyone would like to work for, according to her friend Liz, one of the many characters Holohan ventriloquises in the course of the show. As she inhales the scent of a “fennel and cracked sea salt candle,” Liz tells Essie that she buys “something nice every week” as it is important “to do stuff for you”. Hardly the solution to the troubles of a woman rapidly losing any notion of herself. Liz’s consumerist platitudes are part of the fine tapestry of empty answers Perry has devised for Essie’s pressing identity questions. This is not just a show about a woman on the verge of collapse. Essie is an emblem for a culture enthusiastically marching into a chasm. We are all on the verge of collapse.
In theatre, desperation is often the voice of truth and Perry has created a character that can dole out plenty of truth. As Collapsible unfolds we realise how reduced Essie is: not only jobless, but heartbroken and increasingly alienated from family and friends. The script eloquently articulates the experience of depression as Essie tries to voice her feelings through striking and, at times, humourous, metaphors. She feels like “a folding chair”, she explains to her sister and her boyfriend in the course of a restaurant dinner where she eats a tiny amount of food because she does not know if she will be footing the bill for her own order.
Throughout the piece Essie collates a series of words from family, friends, and ex-lovers to describe her character, as if she were “crowdfunding a list” of personality traits. She thus hopes to articulate the best possible answer to the dreaded questions about strength and weaknesses that are always asked at the job interviews she is attending. A few of those interviews, invariably set in a sterile version of the corporate world, are replayed for the audience. Essie keeps adjusting her formula as she is turned down from each position until she gives the kind of answer that manages to frantically mirror capitalism’s unquenchable thirst for renewal and self-destruction. Tellingly she gets the job at the point where her mania is reaching fever pitch. This company is all about “innovation and disruption,” her future boss tells her before she breaks out into a delirious tirade about her “militant perfectionism.”
It is tempting to add Essie to a rapidly growing canon of fictional young women at sea. Simultaneously sharp and fragile, she could give Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag or one of Sally Rooney’s brittle heroines a run for their money. Ultimately, though, the most admirable aspect of Perry’s text is that it transcends the specific condition of her character to make us examine our own collective precarious position.