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Review: Zaffé at Malthouse Theatre - Melbourne Fringe

Review by Liz Baldwin

The audience enters a room decorated for a wedding feast. There are no seats here, no stage, just places set at long tables festooned by flowers. Cast members rove around, offering pomegranate cordial and Polaroids. Someone hands around an iPad with a long-distance auntie on screen, insistent on saying hello to everyone. The attention to detail in the set design is impressive – down to the rich scents permeating the room.

For the first fifteen minutes, we’re left to our own devices. Printed cards at each place setting encourage us to ask questions of our neighbours, from playful (‘how would you play this plate as a musical instrument? Please demonstrate’) to seemingly random (‘what were you doing on August 4th?’, a date which returns poignantly later in the show). There is a nervous buzz in the air; conversations start and stop. It’s not quite clear who is in charge or when the show will begin – or maybe it already has.

Throughout the remaining hour, Zaffé plays with the boundary between performance and experience. The show evolves organically, with no host and very little structure. There is music and wedding speeches led by the cast. But as the night progresses and the audience is invited onto the dance floor, the boundaries between cast and audience seem to dissolve: surveying the scene, I lost track of who was a performer and who had paid for their ticket. A show so dependent on its audience’s willingness to participate takes a risk – it could all fall flat if they refuse the invitation, or are mired in embarrassment. But the gamble paid off in this case, creating a surprisingly personal shared experience in the high Tower room atop the Malthouse Theatre.

The scripted performances are diverse. Musical performances are a highlight, alongside varied monologues. The tone swings wildly between – and sometimes within – segments. A mostly comedic routine from a life coach uncle, offering fringe financial advice on a dodgy QR-coded website – ‘don’t trust the banks, buy gold!’ – is tempered by references to the 2020 explosion at the Port of Beirut. A recorded monologue about the heartwrenching loneliness that can accompany migrating to a new city leads into a tabbouleh recipe segment, including strict admonitions about the distinction between bulgur and cous cous. These tonal shifts underscore one of the core themes that emerges – the way joy and melancholy can coexist in the same moment.

Ultimately, it’s a show about family and community. In this wedding party without a bride and groom, we’re encouraged to reflect on both the connections we have before us – with the cast, with the other audiencegoers – and those we don’t. The emotional climax of the show is a monologue about a young man’s relationship with his mother back home, delivered as he prepares tea over a quivering flame. The performance delivers a moment of genuine feeling – all the more impressive as the actor wrested back control of a room that was minutes ago dancing to an Arab-pop version of the macarena.

Zaffé is a risky experiment of theatre – but it pays off to funny and moving effect.

Image Supplied


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