Review: PERPETUAL FRUSTRATION MACHINE is a Gripping Descent Into the Dark Inclinations of Humanity

December 10, 2018

by Mitch Ziems

Psychoanalysts propose that, just as we have an instinct for self-preservation, so do we have a drive for self-destruction. Death is as much a part of our existence as life itself, and so we unconsciously seek out our own destruction.

This haunting theory is the basis for Perpetual Frustration Machine, the new work from former Cirque Du Soleil artist and NICA Performance Coordinator Zebastian Hunter and acclaimed Australian writer Stephen Sewell.

Credit: Jodie Hutchinson

An amalgamation of circus arts and dramatic theatre, the show flows through sequences exploring how the drive has pervaded our daily lives. From the ruthless battle for success and status that ends with a hollow victory, to our vain desire to constantly compare ourselves to others, the sequences are rife with discomfort and sardonic humour.

Exceptionally cast, each of the four performers play a distinguished role on stage. Debra Batton seethes with frustrated energy, defining the drive in every word and action. Adam O’Connor-McMahon is charming, and delivers some of the shows best dialogue. Seth Scheuner, on the other hand, remains mostly quiet, letting his palpable presence speak volumes instead. And then there’s Stephanie Benson, who brings beauty to the chaos as she puts on a display of circus arts.

Credit: Jodie Hutchinson

Hunter’s choreography is the real star of the show, however. There’s a haunting, desperate motivation behind each step the quartet take, discernible from the moment you enter the theatre to find them performing menial tasks on each corner of the stage. And while more traditional circus art pieces are scarce through the show’s 60 minutes, each embodies an undeniable power. There’s a violent energy to Benson’s hoop work that seems to enchant even the other actors, and when O’Connor-McMahon starts throwing darts in the air, before stepping out of its descending path at the last moment, several audience members clapped quietly in relief.

Stephanie Howe’s production design is restrained, but inspired. A tangle of wires glow blue as they rise from the stage like the trunk of a tree, and end dangling over the seats. It’s a subtle reminder (if one is needed) that we are connected with the actions playing out on stage, whether we admit it or not.

Credit must also go to Ian Moorhead for an unnerving and captivating sound design that perfectly complements the visual direction.

Credit: Jodie Hutchinson

At the heart of Perpetual Frustration Machine is a question: can we – as individuals, as communities, as a species – ever hope to overcome the drive, and rediscover the joy and appreciation for life that we had in our youths? Should we hope to overcome the drive? Or are we bound to inevitably descend into what the synthetically-voiced narrator terms “the black night of the dark soul”?

The answer is revealed in an outstanding conclusion that is likely to prove one of the most memorable moments of indie theatre in 2018. It’s reason alone to attend Perpetual Frustration Machine this December.

Perpetual Frustration Machine is on from December 7 – 23 at Theatre Works, St Kilda. For bookings and further details, see or call 03 9534 3388.

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