by Sarah Linney
“You keep on hammering away, forcing the fit… Because that’s what you’ve got to do, right? The way it’s always been. And you’re exhausted. But the effort…well, that’s not the problem. Just look at the damage you’ve done to all those pegs.”
Tale Be Told Theatre’s dystopian play Square opens with a young man in trouble at work for taking too long to visit the bathroom, and descends into blood, screams, violence, terror and betrayal by the end. (So pretty much a normal day at the office, at least in a couple of the places I’ve worked.)
Cocky, laddish Norman (Kulraj Thethy) and uptight, exacting supervisor Norma (Terri Ann Creaser) work together in a suffocatingly rule-bound corporation. Norma takes a fastidious, almost sadistic pleasure in enforcing endless core directives covering every aspect of Norman’s working day; but he kicks against the system from the start, railing against her instructions with sarcasm, anger and a good deal of swearing.
Their job seems to amount to nothing more than waiting for round pegs to appear in a box and then putting them into a machine. Norma’s joy when the pegs are round, “perfect”, is evident – but when a square peg appears, things take a horrible turn and dark secrets emerge.
Performed entirely by just two actors, the 45-minute show at Camden’s Etcetera Theatre was impressively executed, requiring both of them to memorise huge amounts of dialogue. Thethy was particularly strong as Norman, oscillating between bellowing rage and impassioned frustration, and it was impossible not to root for him despite his laziness, drunkenness and (apparent) salaciousness.
The message of the play, as you may have guessed, is that we live in a world where square pegs are forced to fit into round holes – and that this is wrong. Square is hardly the first piece of work to tackle this premise, and although very cleverly conceived, its short length does not allow for a plot with huge complexity, or for the arguments for and against conformity to be explored in great depth. It is dramatic and compelling – you certainly have to keep watching – but occasionally some of the arguments and dialogue felt underdeveloped. I enjoyed it very much, but it reinforced, rather than challenged or added to, my world view.
But in the days after I saw the play, I kept thinking about it, and I realised something: the fact that I had found its premise familiar showed exactly why it was needed. The belief that conformity is neither necessary, nor even particularly desirable, is one I have arrived at only after long years of struggling to accept myself and believing that if only I could be like other people, and not ask so many questions, I would be so much more satisfactory. Until my early thirties, the idea that people might like you because of, not in spite of, your individuality, that what is presented as normal might often be vacuous and even harmful, and that we need to be asking some big questions about the world, was not something I had seriously entertained, and I had no idea that there were so many other people who thought like me. The aspects of working life which the play depicts as ridiculous – the enforcement of petty, dehumanising rules, the crushing of independent thought, the inability to admit that both the role one performs and the company itself are largely pointless – did not seem far-fetched to me but frighteningly familiar.
“Why can’t we build a new machine? Why can’t the machine change so everyone can fit?” Norman asks in anguish at one point. It shouldn’t be a radical idea; but until we, as a society, decide to build our new machine, works like Square will continue to be needed. Seven years ago this play would have been revolutionary to me; to a lot of people, it would still be revolutionary now.