Australian theatre lovers would understandably get excited if a play’s title has the bonus of “written and directed by Joanna Murray-Smith” attached to it, so you go into this production with hopes high. Commissioned by Queensland Theatre, the world premiere production at QPAC’s cosy Cremorne Theatre hits most of the right notes and definitely doesn’t disappoint those who’ve been impressed by previous Murray-Smith works such as Honour, Bombshells and The Female of the Species.
The playwright’s first directorial outing, L’Appartement (no relation to the French movie) is full of cutting humour, thoughtful musings on cultural appropriation, and a suitable amount of relationship delving to provide some post-performance topics of conversation.
The first element that strikes a note is the stunning set design and lighting, courtesy of Dale Ferguson and Ben Hughes respectively. The entire play takes place in a stark, minimalist Parisian apartment with a huge glass window to one side where we look over to the balcony, French doors and a room beyond of a much older and more traditional building. The impact of this alone immediately sets up a dichotomy between old and new, traditional and modern, authentic and… perhaps pretentious. It’s also a subtle reminder of how inappropriately modern buildings are erected so that they overpower their older counterparts without any thought of the impact they have – an argument constantly playing out across the world.
We open on two 30-something couples chatting over glasses of wine and learn that the two Aussies, Meg and Rooster (married actors, Liz and Andrew Buchanan) are going to be staying for a week at this plush Airbnb owned by Serge (Pacharo Mzembe) and Lea (Melanie Zanetti) while they’re away.
The contrasts between the two couples are amusingly obvious, with Rooster unable to stop saying “Cool!” to nearly everything coming out of the oh-so-cool French couples’ mouths. The Aussies are taking some much needed time out from their young twins while the childless Parisians are able to jet off for exotic adventures. Sports teacher Rooster and office furniture salesperson Meg are very much overwhelmed by the impressive good deeds of Serge and Lea who do things like dig wells in remote Asian villages.
Once the hosts are out of the picture, the tourists – who marvel at a kitchen bench top that’s empty of clutter – hit back with even more wine and things gradually start to unravel. Constant rain puts a dampener on their holiday, their hopes for some sexual intimacy, and a planned romantic evening out. As so often happens in these types of comedies, as the alcohol is imbibed, frustrations are expressed and feelings that have been lurking beneath the surface spew out into the open. Several chuckle-worthy conversations would be very familiar to long-time couples everywhere, like someone brutally criticising the other, then immediately following with, “That’s not a criticism, by the way.” And Liz Buchanan’s rendition of the 1970s pop song, Mickey is a crowd-pleaser.
The second half of the play features a parcel that’s delivered to the apartment which Serge and Lea have bought on their travels and sent ahead. What ends up being inside it and the debate it’s a catalyst for is interesting fodder that you suspect could have gone even further and is perhaps too neatly and superficially dealt with in the final couple of scenes. Upon the French couple’s return when they discover that the Australian visitors have taken some liberties with their apartment and their parcel, all of the previous bonhomie and international diplomacy is put aside to make way for a raw argument about just what cultural appropriation and insensitivity is. Rooster can’t understand why it’s racist to ask a black-skinned person born and raised in Paris where they’re from “originally”, but it turns out his indignant hosts could probably learn a thing or two about cultural insensitivities as well.
Murray-Smith’s not-too-showy directorial debut shows she can work well to get the most out of her actors. In fact, I wasn’t really aware of the directing as such so it seems she wanted to let the play and the actors speak for themselves – possibly indicative that as a writer, Murray-Smith knows the beauty of letting what’s on the page lead the way.
Between them, the actors have a host of well-earned awards and accolades, and all of them are spot-on in their character portrayals. Unsurprisingly, the Buchanans have got appealing, effortless chemistry and carry the bulk of the play very entertainingly, while the lesser seen Zanetti and Mzembe do an admirable job of their French accents, with hopefully no French audience members finding it culturally insensitive!
Until August 31
Main photo: Pacharo Mzembe, Melanie Zanetti, Liz Buchanan and Andrew Buchanan. Photos by David Kelly