Conundrum review – intense existential crisis gets lost in abstraction

·2 min read
<span>Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

I keep waiting and hoping for the story to land. Written with burning intent by Paul Anthony Morris (artistic director of Crying in the Wilderness, associate company of the Young Vic), Conundrum is about a man, Fidel, experiencing a full-blown existential crisis. There are references to the impact of systemic racism and one specific mention of lockdown but, otherwise, few concrete details. There is pain. Frustration. Sorrow. But despite a committed and multi-dimensional performance from Anthony Ofoegbu, this feels closer to a dramatic experiment than a fully alive dramatic experience.

Anthony Ofoegbu as Fidel in Conundrum at the Young Vic.
Anthony Ofoegbu as Fidel in Conundrum at the Young Vic. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

The action unfolds on a largely empty stage, which is full of scrawled words; snatches of memories, moments and dialogue from Fidel’s life. Around the stage is a white line that glows brightly when Fidel feels particularly upset. It’s a simple but effective set from Sean Cavanagh, which suggests a life full of restless reflection – but one that is somehow static and claustrophobic too.

Key phrases, alluding to fighting against the system, bubble up frequently (“I must be 10 times smarter”). There are snippets of philosophising and atmospheric scenes set in a psychiatric ward, which seem to be alluding to a troubling accusation – which Fidel mentions briefly – that perceiving racism is merely a mental affliction rather than a real, lived experience. But we never move beyond the intriguing set-up and down into the enlightening details.

Fidel repeats the anguished cry again and again: “I know who I am.” The trouble is that we, the audience, do not. What is his background? How has he reached this point of crisis? At the very least, what is he feeling beyond this frustratingly anonymous sense of anger and displacement?

All these questions remain buried in the corners of Fidel’s mind. The most revealing moment is bound up in some lovely movement work from Shane Shambhu. Miked up to the max, Fidel breathes heavily and deeply. He practises what looks a lot like tai chi and, despite remaining still, finally begins to own the stage on which he stands. Fidel’s body stays rooted to the spot but his arms and legs seem to move independently, with beautiful and arresting freedom.

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