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Theatre Reviews Racism and mental health dramatically interwoven

MAYER WAKEFIELD is taken inside the mind of someone grappling with deep-seated torment and the struggles to overcome it

Conundrum
Young Vic

BILLED as a “tale of self-discovery, liberation and bliss,” Paul Anthony Morris’s long-awaited Conundrum isn’t exactly packed with the latter. It’s a difficult, uncomfortable 70 minutes but it is all the better for it.  

The Conundrum at hand is the life of Fidel (Anthony Ofoegbu) who in the process of “decluttering” has begun rummaging through a lifetime of paperwork.

Diaries, bank statements, exam results (all A+ except a D in sports) and a series of rejected job applications on the basis of “overqualification” are reminders of a life before a breakdown.

What is revealed is a persistent struggle for acceptance that has been derailed by a toxic concoction of racism, institutional failures and childhood trauma.

Haunted by soundbites from his school teacher’s — “No more lofty ideas!” “You didn’t win” — he frantically scribbles detailed recollections of the human anatomy onto the floor of Sean Cavanagh’s exposed set.

Morris takes you deep inside the mind of someone grappling with deep-seated torment and the struggles necessary to overcome it in a similar fashion to Steve McQueen’s Alex Wheatle film as part of his Small Axe series.

Except here there is less narrative and more a fragmented series of moments that manage to come together to create a visceral picture of a mind which doesn’t want to be “corralled into straight lines” by a racist society.  

None of this would be possible without an extraordinary, contorting performance from Ofoegbu.

Quite literally grappling with the crushing weight of expectation that Fidel experiences he moves seamlessly through different phases of his life using a blend of mime and dance, while producing charged emotional power throughout.

It would be easy for the movement aspect to get tiresome, but Morris (who also directs) segments the performance cleverly, never allowing it to become too predictable.

As the evening reaches an unexpected conclusion, Morris seems to offer up the possibility that the British “society not yet evolved” responsible for Fidel’s suffering may yet be adapting to understand black lives like his.

In a week where a leaked report highlighted ongoing failures of NHS mental health services in relation to black people, it feels regrettably overoptimistic.  

Runs until February 4. Box office: www.youngvic.org.

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