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The Boss of It All -New Perspectives Theatre, Soho Theatre

Reviewer: Helen Tope

Writers: Lars von Trier (screenplay) / Jack McNamara (adaptation)

Director: Jack McNamara

Inspired by the Lars von Trier film, The Boss of It All re-imagines the office comedy. Taking place on Zoom, the play examines not only on the impact of Covid on our working lives, but how the traditional frameworks of authority and accountability have begun to shift.

We join Kristina (Josie Lawrence) and Ravn (Ross Armstrong) discussing a transaction. He works for a large multi-national company, and oversees communication between his boss, Sven, and his fellow colleagues. A jobbing actor, Kristina tries to surmise why she has been hired. Ravn makes a confession. There is no Sven. He has invented a fictional boss, and, Kristina will not just be performing as Sven, she will create her from scratch. A deal with an Icelandic firm is tantalisingly close to completion, and they will not liaise with Ravn: The Boss needs to make an appearance.

While exploring the banality of office life, The Boss of It All moves quickly over the gripes and petty grievances – no fighting over staplers here. Director Jack McNamara establishes the cast as we and Kristina meet them for the first time on Zoom. Ravn makes the introductions, and then leaves Kristina alone with his colleagues – known as The Creatives. Intimidatingly silent, Lise (Rachel Summers), Mette (Yuriko Kotani), Spencer (Jamie de Courcey) and Grom (a fabulous Angela Bain) sit facing us. In order to pass as Sven, Kristina has to build a rapport with these people, and decode what is going on. It is clear, from their frosty welcome, all is not well. After their initial meeting, Ravn tasks Kristina with other corporate duties; the IT webinar, where Grom vents her frustration with emojis; and the staff appraisals that descend into an absurdist nightmare.

With the Boss’ communication strictly online, Ravn has been free to manipulate his colleagues so artfully that he has built whole relationships and histories, which Kristina, to her growing horror, uncovers. The Boss is not just a convenience, she is a smokescreen.

Authority here is so distant, so removed, that it doesn’t even exist. The Boss of It All doesn’t just make the easy point that management, layer upon layer of it, is a gratuitous nonsense. The play questions leadership – if employees can be controlled and coerced by an imaginary force – who exactly are we obeying? The lines between compliance and self-preservation have become increasingly blurred, as we struggle to find meaning and reassurance not only in our work lives but beyond. Accountability – corporate, personal – becomes a vanishing point on the horizon. We are living in a Lars von Trier world, and 2020 has put that into sharp focus.

In creating a Zoom adaptation, McNamara gives us a production with the edges rubbed off. This is online communication with all its flaws: the freezing, the buffering. McNamara uses its familiarity to deploy it as another character in the play. The pauses, the missed beats, Spencer on mute – they add an extra layer of comic timing. In a play that discourages us from finding narrative flow, technology is not only the witness but our guide. Through the silences, we are led to infer. We cannot help but construct.

Despite the complexity of what’s being considered, The Boss of It All never loses aim of its intention to make us laugh. As Kristina, Josie Lawrence’s bafflement is a joy to watch. The interaction between The Creatives is delicious – Jamie de Courcey nails the role of Spencer, affable office nerd. In a comedy performed like this, there is little room to hide, and the attention to detail is seriously impressive.

When there has been so much already said about the comedy of working life, it takes a global crisis to shift our perspective. Life enacted on Zoom brings its own challenges, and as we move into a world where working from home becomes less of a novelty, Von Trier’s comedy not only questions, but unhinges, what we take for granted.

Available online until 20 September 2020

 

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