Murray-Smith’s new play examines some big moral questions with mixed results.
Actors Pacharo Mzembe, Melanie Zanetti, Liz Buchanan and Andrew Buchanan. Photo: David Kelly.
Commissioned by Queensland Theatre, Joanna Murray-Smith’s new play, L’Appartement, is based on the playwright’s own experience of renting a high-quality minimalist Airbnb in Paris. It encouraged her to examine living spaces and relationships while exploring themes around privilege, hypocrisy, and global conscience.
Murray-Smith also takes on her first directorial role in this production, assisted by a stunning set designed by Dale Ferguson – clean white with strategic lighting and minimalist black furniture. Murray-Smith uses the separate levels well, directing her cast with an assured hand. Atmospheric lighting from Ben Hughes captures the drizzling Parisian rain perfectly and Guy Webster’s soundscape offers authentic street noises alongside carefully chosen music and songs.
Murray-Smith is respected for her acerbic writing on marriage and relationships that exposes the vulnerability of her characters. However, here serious analysis was only briefly touched upon, though her use of witty dialogue and one-liners was spot-on.
The story centres on a chic, high-powered Parisian couple, Lea and Serge, who rent out their swish apartment while they are off doing ‘good works’. Enter Rooster and Meg, an Aussie couple who have left the children at home to enjoy a belated honeymoon in the city that Meg has always dreamed of visiting. For the audience, these contrasting couples offer an opening scene both wryly funny and cringe-worthy, as we laugh at rather than with the characters. One also needs to suspend disbelief at the premise that this unlikely French couple would want to rent out their apartment at all.
As Rooster, Andrew Buchanan has some of the funniest and saddest lines in the play and his timing throughout is first-rate. Though appearing to be the stereotypical ocker bloke, with overtones of misogyny and racism, his character does develop to show that he may indeed have a moral compass.
Liz Buchanan, as his long-suffering wife Meg, does her best to counter his crudeness in front of others and gives a strongly emotional and heartfelt performance. As the play unfolds, she questions her life on many levels. The arrival of a huge strange package for their hosts triggers ethical considerations for Meg, who makes a decision that is at odds with her character as presented.
Rooster and Meg are on stage for the full play and they have some delicious moments, mostly comic, with a rhythm to their dialogue and speech patterns that rings true. Neither character is particularly likeable but their chemistry together is often electrifying, managing to gloss over character weaknesses. Ethical and moral questions are explored here only cursorily, and are certainly not sufficient to convince us that their characters are capable of this line of thought. It proves a weakness of the play.
Serge and Lea, who appear only at the beginning and end of the play, are initially presented as real and genuinely nice human beings. This veneer breaks down when they return after 10 days and find things have not gone as expected. As Serge, Pacharo Mzembe paints a fine picture of a privileged African man in French society, appearing to ignore racial barbs while being strongly comfortable in his own skin and achievements. As his wife, Lea, Melanie Zanetti gave a fine dramatic performance. Slender and well-groomed, she looked every bit the elegant, sophisticated French woman. Unfortunately, her French accent was so exaggerated as to be almost caricatured while her diction, at least in the first scene, was indecipherable.
The final scene was beautifully realised and almost rescued some of the dissatisfaction at the lack of in-depth analysis of ethical positions from the characters. The reversal of roles, with the Australians holding sway, was nicely highlighted by their respective positioning on the stage. As the Australians depart with the suggestion that their hosts question their way of life, we are left with a sombre, quietly reflective ending with its surprising denouement.
3 stars out of 5 ★★★
presented by Queensland Theatre
by Joanna Murray-Smith
Director: Joanna Murray-Smith
Designer: Dale Ferguson
Lighting designer: Ben Hughes
Composer/sound designer: Guy Webster
Cast includes Andrew Buchanan, Liz Buchanan, Pacharo Mzembe and Melanie Zanetti
3-31 August 2019
Cremorne Theatre, QPAC, Brisbane QLD
16-31 August 2019