Writer: Athol Fugard
Director: Roger Mortimer &Deborah Edgington
Reviewer: Edie Ranvier
My Children! My Africa!, Athol Fugard’s impassioned exploration of the struggle against apartheid, hasn’t been seen on the professional London stage since its first production in the National Theatre in 1990, with the playwright’s daughter Lisa Fugard in the rôle of Isabel.
Back then, a quarter of a century ago, the play must have felt painfully, hopefully timely. South Africa may have been geographically remote from London; but the injustices of apartheid seared the international consciousness. President de Klerk had just begun his negotiations with the African National Congress; Nelson Mandela had been released from prison earlier in the year; the first concerted attempts to dismantle a social system, which yet would not be fully deconstructed until the 1994 election, were underway.
It’s this sense of contemporary urgency that gives thrust to the script of My Children! My Africa!:the pressing fear, voiced by all three characters, of being “too late”, and Fugard’s own conflicted uncertainty as to the outcomes of either violent or peaceful opposition.
But it’s an urgency that Two Sheds’ revival of the play finds hard to reproduce. Twenty-five years post-apartheid, in a country that found the notion abhorrent in the first place, the plot just feels a bit dated. An inspirational black teacher, Mr M (Anthony Ofoegbu), brings together two precocious teenagers, his favourite student Thami (Nathan Ives-Moiba) and privileged white schoolgirl Isabel (Rose Reynolds), to compete in an apartheid-defying literary quiz. In the background, an uprising is fomenting in “The Location”, the black township, and Thami must decide whether to espouse the non-violent methods of Mr M, or the armed struggle of his young comrades.
It’s an engaging backdrop, and the audience can summon some historical outrage; but with its currency, the play has lost some of its original power, and the energy of the performers isn’t enough to reawaken it. No longer subsumed into a sense of present injustice, the flaws in the play are more apparent. The dialogue, in particular, feels implausibly eloquent, a stitched-together series of monologues which sacrifices credibility to rhetoric (though the real soliloquies are correspondingly excellent).
There are some fine performances. Ives-Moiba is a fantastic Thami, charismatic and conflicted, whose seamless transitions from gentleness to fury and back again highlight the warping effects of the despotic social system which seeks to suppress him. In fact, he’s almost too good. Fugard himself wrote that he wanted the play to convey the validity of words as a form of protest – to come down, in effect, on the side of the law-abiding, literature-venerating Mr M. But Ives-Moiba’s Thami is easier to admire than Ofoegbu’s shouty, frightened English teacher. Two Sheds’ production leaves us rather in agreement with Thami that action outside the law is the only effectual response to laws so restrictive and degrading.
Ofoegbu has his moments: a speech about hope towards the end of the first act, in particular, is powerful and troubling. But it’s hard either to believe in his love for Thami and Isabel, or to understand Isabel’s devotion to him: he’s a bit too shouty, a touch too obsequious.
Reynolds as Isabel is straight out of Malory Towers, with hockey socks and blazer all complete, and gives a fine, smug performance that could leave you admiring her energy or wanting to sock her in the jaw, as your disposition suggests.
It’s an interesting, sometimes moving night out, and Ives-Moiba’s performance is a treat. But the stretch of time down which apartheid is mercifully receding has, in passing, also stripped My Children! My Africa! of a lot of the reasons for watching or performing it. It seems a good trade-off.
Runs until 16 May