Sebastian Rex’s stylised and darkly comical worlds can, at first glance, seem simplistic. He presents an array of deliberately flat, archetypal, characters that speak largely in clichés. Interaction is driven by the characters’ narcissistic goals, which they strive to achieve by trampling over or ignoring others. When they build relationships, it is purely to fulfil their own basic wants or bring to life their personal worldview. In this way Rex keeps the audience on their toes. His writing manages to be both exciting and annoying, getting under the skin and forcing us to confront his themes head on. He raises many questions, but never provides answers, deliberately laying down a challenge to all who encounter his work.
Rex’s style is often confused with Brecht’s alienation, but they are very different. Empathy and sympathy, though not vital, are completely valid in Rex’s work. Conversely, the idea of emotional catharsis is not relevant to him, as he believes we are able to understand things on both emotional and cerebral levels. This is often coupled with his non-psychological approach to analysing text and building characters. He says:
“Don't get me wrong - I don't deny a subconscious - I just don't dwell on it. The subject, in my eyes, is not worth over-examining. I am often criticized for not finding an emotional connection for my characters - but I don't find it relevant. Some assume that I do it because I try to alienate the audience from my characters - which is also not true. I don't mind if people sympathise with them or find a connection (emotional or other) to them, but it's not at the top of my priorities. This also means there is no need for subtext in my writing. I feel that there’s been so much attention put on the subject since the formation of psychology and the introverted aspects of humanity have been examined to death and I think we should stop the constant search for justification. My characters are there to talk about an idea. I put them in a theatrical situation that must be engaging, and hopefully funny at times (so that an audience engage with the text) but my characters’ psyche, subconscious, subtext, emotional reasoning, psychological interpretation, naturalistic being or whatever you want to call it, is not important in my works – just as I believe that they are not important in life. What we say and what we do is far more important than what we allegedly mean or what in our personal history leads us to a certain action.”
In his earlier works, there are two distinct character types. On the one hand there are the oppressive characters (such as Harry, Ingrid and Veronica in Living With…) and on the other, the innocent and almost childlike victim characters (such as Toby in Toy Boy). The complete physical and/or emotional destruction of the victim presents to us a world in which there is no compassion and where the innocent man has little chance of survival.
In his more recent works, Rex has dismissed the childish helpless victim. Now, instead of presenting a dichotomy between oppressors and victims, he creates characters that are simultaneously oppressor and victim (such as the unnamed abusive characters in Spare). At times his later characters are actually victims of their own oppression. They are still motivated by their narcissistic needs and they work endlessly to achieve them, showing little or no regard to others who exist around them, yet these quests are destined for failure as the characters become victims of both their own passions and the passions of those around them. The characters spend all their time chasing their dreams and, in doing so, inevitably cause their own downfall.
In his most recent plays, Fulfil Me Fully, Phil and The TragiComedy of Mac-Beth, the characters all fulfil their wishes. However, this fulfilment is never satisfying and the characters become trapped in a vicious circle, desperately trying to find meaning in their lives. This eventually leads to their emotional or physical demise. Rex makes his characters aware that they are fighting a losing battle in their quest for meaning as they soon realise they are merely pawns in the hands of greater powers who control the world of the play (Phil in Fulfil Me Fully, Phil and Ste, Whit and Che in The TragiComedy of Mac-Beth). These beings play with the other characters symbolically and physically, directing them to their failure. Yet these greater powers are often also leading a futile existence determined by factors beyond their control. All Rex’s characters, therefore, are destined to be miserable and frustrated, and the worlds created have no meaning or purpose.
Rex’s vision is post-absurdist. His characters are miserable and trapped in a world that turns their lives into an ever-expanding nightmare. However, Rex’s world is not just meaningless and absurd as that of Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot, as Rex also takes away his characters’ hope. Godot exists in the world that Rex creates and he is fully engaged with the misery of its inhabitants, at times even sharing it.
In The TragiComedy of Mac-Beth, Rex develops these ideas further. Like Shakespeare’s original characters, Mac and Beth are driven by an ambition to usurp the ‘king’. However, in Rex’s play this drive does not stem from a lust for power, but from a desperate and pitiful desire to find meaning and to repress depression. It’s a pathetic aspiration compared to that of Shakespeare’s power-crazed couple, because Rex’s Mac and Beth aren’t motivated by greed but by boredom. As in the source material, the elimination of the king does not give them what they were looking for and, according to Rex, this encapsulates the misery of life and the incapability of humans to find meaning. The existential emptiness motif is symbolised in this play by Ste, Whit and Che, who become central characters in the drama and move it forward. They play with Mac and Beth and give them no other option but death. This culminates in a magnificent scene, in which Rex places his protagonist as a blind man trying to find the path to his end.
This is the second time Rex has taken an existing classic text and adapted the linear crime-and-punishment structure of the source material using his cyclical style, in which an endless chain of flawed characters are driven by internal and external forces which trap them in pathetic, unsatisfying lives, leading to a violent and tragic death. His Mac and Beth are far removed from Shakespeare’s flawed tragic couple; here we find two grey, pointless workers whose only sin is hoping to become slightly greater than they are.
Using such a well-known play allows Rex to place his characters in a destiny that is not only written in advance, but also known to all in advance. In The Woyzeck the action begins with the execution of the protagonist, and in The TragiComedy of Mac-Beth, the audience can sail through the play as if on a ship in a storm with a captain that can try to steer but is incapable of changing its course. But even though their life is pre-destined, the protagonists have the means to alter this destiny. They can still change their minds or do something different. This usually happens as death is fast approaching. As Che says: “The ball may roll for all involved, but every man can be absolved”. In this way The TragiComedy of Mac-Beth is not simply another Shakespearean adaptation, but an original piece of writing which uses the classic text as its driving force, allowing Rex to present his view of the world.
“Tackling Shakespeare was much harder than Buchner. I had the advantage with Woyzeck of translating the text from the original German, so it gave me more leeway to use my own language, but with Shakespeare, it’s obviously already written in English, and I wanted to make sure I gave the Bard all the respect he deserves, and not ruin it. I obviously, at no point was trying to make his or Buchner’s plays better – only different. In both cases, I wanted to take the basis of what the plays were – find their essence and try to translate it into my mind and see what comes out.”
Despite the apparently bleak ends of many of his characters, Rex does present hope for human kind. Hope exists, his work tells us, but there are consequences to it, and the hope of happiness is always marred with the tragedy of existence. We see examples of this throughout his work, from Toby’s discovery of love resulting in his death in Toy Boy, to O being rescued by Maddy only to be enslaved by her love in Living With… , the two lovers dancing their endless dance in a London club in Mind The Gap, to Mac’s final redemption at the end of The TragiComedy of Mac-Beth:
“I think my endings are happy endings. That’s why I regard my plays as comedies. What has to happen happens – and that’s a good thing. The characters that end up dying are usually better off dead, and I don’t see that necessarily as a tragedy. I also believe that happiness isn’t always better than unhappiness and therefore ending miserable isn’t necessarily a bad ending.”
As Rex directs his own plays, it is difficult to discuss his writing without considering his approach as a director. His direction complements both his writing style and ethos, and vice versa. He says:
“I have always been able to keep the writer out of the director’s rehearsal room, but not as successful in keeping the director out of the writer’s laptop”.
His directorial concepts clearly seep into his writing, a key example being the gender-neutral characters in some of his plays, which allow him to cast a male or female performer:
“I wholeheartedly believe that, though there are some unavoidable physical differences between men and women and some professions in which a distinction needs to be made between the genders for various reasons, theatre is not one of those occupations. I believe that an actor has to develop their tools to be able to portray anything regardless of what it is. Therefore if I cast for Hamlet, I would like to be able to take on the best actor who can play the part without trying to make a gender-based statement.”
The one-dimensional, often pathetic characters might distance his audience, but through his direction Rex succeeds in adding a vital layer of humanity, and other directors who might stage one of his pieces would need to remember that his clichéd and grotesque world is a direct and honest mediation of our reality. Rex describes himself as a symbolistic writer/director, and he tries to use symbols that are clear to audiences, such as clichés or songs, to show us something relatable yet distant:
“Theatre is not real. It should tell us about the world without actually showing it, for therein lies its real power. Art is about interpretation. What one creates – another translates and that’s what makes it exciting and interesting. My aim as a director is to ensure that there is a path the audience can follow. I fill this path with as many symbols as I possibly can to ensure that the destination (whatever that may be) can still be thought provoking. People can choose to understand a show on whatever level they want. If they want to take it at face value, I aim to create enough surface entertainment for that to be enjoyed and if people want to look deeper – there is always something more to look for.”
Despite the often bleak existential statements that form the basis of Rex’s style, his productions never feel heavy. His writing is full of playful humour, wordplay and wit, and it is very common to hear audience laughing in his shows. Meanwhile the intense energy and precision of his direction ensure that the philosophical questions at the heart of his plays stay in the mind long after the laughter has ended.
Gilat Vet, Artistic Advisor for Acting Like Mad, from the foreword to “The TragiComedy of Mac-Beth”