Writer: Athol Fugard
Director: John R, Wilkinson
Designer: Laura Ann Price
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
Hello and Goodbye, a York Theatre Royal production in the Studio Theatre, is revelatory in more than one way. For one thing, it presents the world of poor whites in South Africa in the apartheid era, though even they recognise that the blacks get it even worse: in the Depression years of 1931-32, we are told, whites took the menial jobs regularly performed by blacks who in turn had no work at all.
The major revelation, however, is that this is the work of Athol Fugard. Still active today at 87, he made an international reputation in the 1970s for a series of superb plays depicting the injustice of apartheid such as The Island and Sizwe Bansi is Dead, both devised with the great African actors John Kani and Winston Ntshona, and, slightly later, “Master Harold”…and the Boys, dealing with the relations between the races and unconscious racism.
But Hello and Goodbye, written in 1965, is quite different, though the eye for human suffering and the devices we use to ward it off is already there. Fugard displays a Pinter-esque ability to create unspecified menace and an ambiguous reality, characters with a hinterland that we suspect and grope to understand. Also like Pinter, he knows you can be funny without being cheerful. The result is a challenging, involving play, qualities shared by John R. Wilkinson’s direction, both just about managing to hang on to a roller-coaster of changes of tone.
In Port Elizabeth a scruffy dirty young man twists himself into agonised movements as he launches into a long monologue which reveals his alienation from other people and considers seriously whether he is mad – he decides not. The house is even filthier than he is, the set consisting of a symbolically fractured wall, piles of rubbish and a few items of cheap furniture, old, battered, overturned.
The young man is Johnnie who lives there with his bed-ridden father. When his sister Hester arrives, Johnnie claims not to know her: it has been 12 years after all. She seems tougher, more together, but her life in Johannesburg turns out to have been squalid and rootless. She has returned to claim her share of the compensation money paid to their father when he had a leg blown off by dynamite when working on the railways. Eventually, this leads to the two of them searching through box upon box in which their father has saved old papers, old clothes, old junk, enough to spark a revisiting of their youth, for the most part a bitter experience.
We sense that things are not what they seem, but the details elude us. Why is Johnnie so frantic at the thought of Hester going into his father’s bedroom? Is Hester really his sister – or an impostor? If she is Hester, what is she fleeing from? How dangerous is the air of menace she carries with her? All these trouble us, but the main focus remains the broken lives of the two characters.
As Johnnie Emilio Iannucci is tortured, physically and verbally, opening up chasms of terror beneath the conversational normality than he sometimes achieves, then loses. Jo Mousley’s Hester is, if anything, even more complex, a more rational being, but in her own way equally tormented, menacing and bitter, surprising herself occasionally with tender recollection.
Hello and Goodbye is not a perfect play, but it’s one that concentrates the mind and the emotions, and this committed production does justice to its wayward genius.
Runs until November 30, 2019 | Image: Jane Hobson