Queensland Theatre presents the world premiere of L’Appartement, a dramatic and occasionally absurd comedy by acclaimed and prolific Australian playwright Joanna Murray-Smith, who is also making her directorial debut. Set against the backdrop of a chic Parisian apartment, the work paints a painfully real portrait of a marriage, and attempts to explore questions of privilege, culture, ignorance, and hypocrisy.

Pacharo Mzembe, Melanie Zanetti, Liz Buchanan and Andrew Buchanan. Photograph © David Kelly

Australian couple Meg and Rooster (Liz and Andrew Buchanan) arrive in Paris for a lavish getaway – 10 days in the city of love and lights without their three-year-old twins, staying in an apartment that is as impractically beautiful as it is expensive, enjoying all the food, wine, and romance that Paris has to offer. But upon meeting their departing Airbnb hosts, high-flying and accomplished young French couple Serge (Pacharo Mzembe) and Lea (Melanie Zanetti), their romantic idealism begins to unravel and tall poppy syndrome sets in. When Meg unwraps a mysterious package delivered to the apartment, the couple’s passive aggressive bickering descends into full-blown chaos that comes to a head with the return of their hosts.

The work addresses the idea of Paris as a lovers’ pilgrimage, the romanticisation of French culture, and the disappointment travellers often feel to discover that it is just another city, and that they are the same people with the same problems despite being there. As a playwright, Murray-Smith is known for her sharp, nimble dialogue and her forensic examinations of marriage and long-term relationships, and both are present in L’Appartement. Meg and Rooster’s marriage is under the microscope as they are shown to be keeping secrets from each other, grappling with parenthood and its effect on their relationship and sense of self, and struggling to meet in the middle. Inher first directorial role, Murray-Smith makes full use of the space and multi-level set in her staging of the work. The reversal of roles and positions in the final scenes, when the French couple return to their apartment, is especially striking.

Unlike the shining, minimalist apartment setting, the heavier themes of L’Appartement feel cluttered and disorderly. Ideas of superficiality and authenticity are central, as the work seeks to examine the hypocrisy of the middle class with a global conscience, the guilt that comes with privilege, and the ways in which people attempt to assuage that guilt. Neurodiversity, racism, and Australia’s history of genocide are all raised fleetingly, but left unresolved with minimal further discussion. These incomplete conversations become a jumble of moral assertions with no concrete outcome, and nothing learned or gained by either the characters or the audience. The conclusion of the play is light-hearted and genuinely funny, but ultimately unsatisfying with none of the play’s meatier issues resolved.

Andrew Buchanan and Liz Buchanan. Photograph © David Kelly

Exceptional performances and expertly crafted tension by the cast of four carried this work over its undecided moral ground. All of the characters in this work are complex and imperfect, but recognisable even in their most outrageous behaviour and decisions. Meg and Rooster, in particular, are deeply flawed and increasingly unlikeable, which makes it all the more impressive that they are also so relatable. Murray-Smith holds up a mirror to our own relationships, forcing us to see ourselves and cringe.

Liz Buchanan gives a natural and emotive performance as uptight and analytical Meg, and has excellent onstage chemistry with Andrew Buchanan as affable Rooster. Zanetti and Mzembe are impeccable as the effortlessly chic Serge and Lea, and their affected French accents are consistent throughout.

Set design by Dale Ferguson allows for many depths and levels to be utilised, welcoming the audience into the sleek apartment and the emotions, insecurities, and buried pains unravelling within it. Composition and sound design by Guy Webster is used to tell parts of the story, to set the scene more completely, and to emphasise the pivotal moments of the work through a collage of songs and street sounds from Paris. Lighting design by Ben Hughes complements this, and the clever use of handheld light sources at one point in the play is particularly memorable. In keeping with the themes of the work, the designers work with Murray-Smith to create a Parisian setting that is recognisable to Australian audiences, rather than focusing on the realities of Paris itself.

L’Appartement starts strong and maintains great potential as an astute examination of morality and marriage in the modern world, but falls short in the second half with underdeveloped ethical arguments and a number of loose ends remaining. In spite of this, the cast deliver remarkable performances and there are moments of laugh-out-loud comedy throughout.

L’Appartement plays at QPAC’s Cremorne Theatre, Brisbane until August 31