Writer: Athol Fugard
Director: Janet Suzman
Reviewer: Stephen Bates
The abomination that was Apartheid has been consigned to the history books, but the voice of South African playwright Athol Fugard lives on. A Lesson from Aloes, which was first staged in 1978 and received its UK premiere at the National Theatre in 1984, has been robbed of some of its urgency by the passage of time, but its themes, relating to all those living under authoritarian regimes across the world today remain loud and clear.
Piet and Gladys are an ageing Afrikaner couple, liberal supporters of political reform in their country. It is the Autumn of 1963 and strong winds are heard howling around their small suburban house in Port Elizabeth, named, perhaps ironically, Xanadu. Piet, a former farm owner, has a passion for poetry and an obsession with aloes, resilient plants that thrive in arid conditions. Gladys, who has returned home after treatment for a breakdown, cherishes her private diaries even though her isolated lifestyle gives her little to record in them. The couple are preparing for the arrival of old friend Steve, a mixed race activist, who has recently served six months in prison for defying a banning order.
Dawid Minnaar gives Piet a quiet dignity; he is a man rooted in his homeland as securely as his aloes and resisting the political system only passively. Janine Urfane’s moving performance brings out Gladys’ mental fragility, showing her to be a broken woman, living on without any real purpose. “I am a human being, not a prickly pear” she protests to Piet, who interacts with her as if he is walking on eggshells. Her torment had been started when the authorities had seized her diaries and violated her privacy.
The arrival of Steve (David Rubin) at the beginning of the play’s second act provides the catalyst for the release of the tensions that have been bubbling under the surface. He is about to embark, with his large family, on a boat to England to find a better life. Gladys wishes that she and Piet could take a similar route to escape the clutches of a South African society that is dominated by repression and suspicions of betrayal. However, Piet remains rooted and Steve taunts him with “If I had white skin, I’d also find lots of reasons for not leaving this country”.
As director, South African born Janet Suzman, delivers a tortured political drama, made more atmospheric by the warm glow of Mannie Manim’s lighting and Rachael Murray’s sound effects. Norman Coates’ set design makes ingenious us of the confined space, encompassing an outside patio area and Gladys’ bedroom retreat.
In this play, Fugard concerns himself less with the direct horrors of Apartheid than with the wider effects of authoritarianism, the tentacles of which stretch across society. He seems to be talking to all those who support change but resist direct involvement. It is this emphasis which gives the play much of its ongoing relevance and it is the strength of the characters which gives force to its messages.
Runs until 23 March 2019 | Image: Alixandra Fazzina