Writer: Athol Fugard
Director: Diane Page
Athol Fugard’s play caused quite a stir when it was written in 1972, challenging audiences with its tale of love between a white woman and a black man set during South Africa’s apartheid years. It demonstrates, in a sometimes brutal manner, how the state could easily intervene in people’s private lives. But after 50 years, Statements After An Arrest Under The Immorality Act no longer shocks.
Errol and Freida are engaging in some pillow talk. He’s telling her about evolutionary theories despite the fact, we learn later, that he believes in God. With the couple sat on the edge of a grey hole built into the floor of the Orange Tree stage, it takes a while to realise that they are actually in the library in which she works and in which he studies, waiting for evening to become darker so he can leave undetected, unseen by prying neighbours.
This hole, part of Niall McKeever’s design, causes a few problems for actors and audience alike. It becomes an obstacle in the representation of the intimacy between Errol and Freida, and it’s difficult for Shaq Taylor and Scarlett Brookes to really show the love that binds them so closely together that both risk imprisonment if caught. And when they are caught, they are stretched out on opposite sides of the hole, not in a lovers’ embrace. For the audience, especially those members in the second row of unraked seats, whole sections are the play are lost to view when the actors are in the hole, or sit on its ledge.
In the play, which wavers between naturalistic and symbolic, information about the couple is slowly revealed. That Errol is married and is cheating on his wife is a greater surprise, to British audiences at least, than the fact that he is breaching the Immorality Act. Indeed, his last name Philander suggests that for Errol adultery is a regular occurrence. But Taylor makes it clear that this affair is a one-off, and that his greatest crime is that he loves too much. At first, Taylor gives Errol an enthusiasm for life, for his job and for the college course he is taking, but this optimism is ground down as he realises that he is trapped by all sides.
As Freida, Brookes is nervous and taut, and after the arrest, tired and jittery. Freida loves Errol but, although she may not see the colour of his skin, doesn’t see her own privilege and this blindness becomes a gulf between them. She thinks that he is too proud to ask for water for his drought-affected town, but instead he’s too ashamed. Taylor and Brookes ably show the differences that keep their characters apart, but not the love and sexual attraction that keep them together.
The Immorality Act prohibited interracial sexual relationships and was not lifted until 1985. Here, the state is depicted through Richard Sutton’s Detective Sergeant J. du Preez, who reads his own statement pertaining to the couple’s arrest. His presence on stage adds an authoritarian menace, which fits well with Fugard’s style. Rajiv Pattani’s lights are also effective in conjuring up interrogation scenes but some of Esther Kehinde Ajayi sound design could easily be confused with traffic on Richmond’s roads.
Sight and sound issues aside, Diane Page’s direction of this short, sharp play is coldly efficient and a chill reminder that history is not so long ago.
Runs until 2 October 2021