In 2006, a year after the US launched a version of Ricky Gervais’s workplace satire The Office, Lars von Trier surprised his fanbase with a whimsical comedy on the vanities of white-collar leadership.
The Boss of It All featured Ravn, the owner of a Danish IT firm, who plays along as just another worker while hiring a pretentious actor to perform the role of company head in order to sell it off to an Icelandic firm and leave employees jobless.
The phoney boss in this Zoom adaptation is Kristina rather than the original Kristoffer; she is a self-absorbed thesp winningly played by Josie Lawrence, who is funny and ridiculous right from the off. Director Jack McNamara, who adapted the film into a play in 2013, has said that this incarnation, livestreamed by Soho theatre, has been reshaped “to suit increasingly strange times”.
The co-production by New Perspectives and Soho theatre is very much its own thing, doing away with boardroom meetings and encounters over the photocopier. Instead, Zoom technology becomes part of its reinvention and it is funnier for it, particularly with Lawrence as its lead, though the cast is unanimously strong, even if characters are blunt-edged stereotypes. Its four office employees – Angela Bain, Rachel Summers, Yuriko Kotani and Jamie de Courcey – along with Ross Armstrong as Ravn bring kooky comedy in sketch-like scenes and an improv-style gusto.
Like the film, the drama has an omniscient narrator (Tone Haldrup Lorenzen) who is just as grating, although here the commentary takes a self-referential poke at the new genre of Zoom theatre. “Well, here we are staring at our screens, waiting for something to happen,” the narrator tells us. She keeps popping back between scenes to remind us of its artifice, though it never feels any cleverer or funnier: “Character have been introduced, a situation has been set up … It’s almost like watching a real play.”
The satire on remote office culture is far better; Lawrence, as the hapless pretend boss, must navigate her employees’ ire as she sets up team-building meetings on Zoom, along with conducting disastrous employee appraisals and excruciating team-building games. (“Write your own definition of the word ‘management.’”) Digital glitches are artfully simulated (or are they the real thing?) so that screens freeze and buffering stalls meetings while there is an ongoing joke about “unmuting” before speaking.
What is less effective is the delivery of Von Trier’s critique on leadership that lies beneath the comedy, according to McNamara. Lawrence is too charismatic a character to be despised so we end up loving her and her underlings do as well. The final rebellion, which features a fabulous guest appearance from cabaret artist Le Gateau Chocolat (other guests include Gemma Whelan, Anuvab Pal, Neil Hamburger, Gerry Howell and Natalie Palamides) is a feelgood moment, but the more serious stuff on office politics seems lost.
In the end, this drama lacks teeth and seems like a lark – a critique of performance and actors more than leadership – but it is thoroughly entertaining along the way.