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Protean Productions presents

Coming Home

Nadim Sawalha and Cat Simmons in Coming Home

Photo by Damian Robertson

 

by Athol Fugard

 

Director: Cordelia Monsey

 

Designer: Victoria Johnstone

 

Lighting Designer: Michael Nabarro

 

Sound Designer: Marcus Christensen

 

Assistant Director: Elayce Ismail

 

Arcola Theatre

 

8 June – 3 July 2010

 

 


 

 

A review by James Buxton for EXTRA! EXTRA!

As the eyes of the world sit transfixed watching Italy vs. Paraguay in the first leg of the World Cup in South Africa, a handful of people sit in the intimate black box theatre at the Arcola's second studio and witness the anguish of a destitute, young, black South African woman and her dreams of a better life for her son, in Athol Fugard's heart rending 2009 play.

The sequel to Fugard's 1997 play Valley Song, Coming Home  begins with Veronica Jonkers (Cat Simmons)  and her young son, Mannetjie (Jamel & Jaden Matthias or Panashe & Taanashe Mwatsiya) returning to her deceased Oupa's, (Afrikaans for grandfather) (Nadim Sawalha) shack in a village in the Karoo Desert, the region in which Fugard was born. Worn out but full of excitement for the future, Veronica sits her son down on the rusty bed and paints him a picture of the new, better  life they will have here, away from the evils of Cape Town, where she went to fulfil her ambition of becoming a singer. Her self-reassuring optimism however is interrupted by the noisy arrival of Alfred Witbooi (David Judge) a simple minded country boy who she used to go to school with. As the action unfolds, Veronica is visited by the ghost of Oupa who reminisces over her birth, the death of her mother in child birth and her lack of a father. Oupa talks of his humble origins, working the land and leaves disappointed with Veronica's unchanged ambition to sing. As the play progresses, four years pass and the young Mannetjie is replaced by a slightly older boy who resents Alfred's close, platonic, relationship with his mother. Due to his educated upbringing, Mannetjie sees Alfred as a bumbling simpleton, but fails to recognize his good heart. However both are thrust together when she forces Alfred to marry her as she reveals to him the secret that she has hidden from everyone, she is dying from AIDS.

Set in a run-down shack, the floor is a dirty white, while Hessian cloth covers the back of the set. A wall runs along the back with a shelf holding some old cups beneath a window and in the corner some pots, pans and a crushed can of cooking oil sit below the shelf. The furniture is sparse with a bed upstage and a simple table downstage right.  The intimacy of the theatre and the lack of an elevated stage means the audience is level with the set, surrounding it on three sides,  allowing you to be  completely immersed  in the environment. Johnstone recreates the kind of shack that hundreds of thousands of people live in today in townships and slums all over South Africa. However this being set in the desert, it is free from the noise of the city, only the bark of dogs disturbs their dwelling.

Cat Simmons as Veronica portrays the weariness of a woman who is struggling to keep her head above water with mesmerizing dignity.  Simmons wears an old tattered skirt and cardigan, with an African head dress wrapped around her hair, her battered white sandals reveal the dirt and grime on her feet and legs from the long journey home. You feel her initial enthusiasm for their new home and the almost hysterical hope that she has for a better quality of life for her son. When Oupa tells her the story of her birth, her eyes fill with a glorious pride and her face glows with a mischievous smile. Yet as the play progresses, the dire reality of her situation begins to take its toll and Simmons displays the lethargy and bitterness of a woman who has endured the abuse of men and a struggle  with alcoholism. She embodies the shame and social stigma of having AIDS in South Africa and at times is gripped by a paralysing fear - that if anyone were to find out, her beloved son would suffer the repercussions of  bullying and share her social stigma, making his life unendurable. Fugard leads us to the play's powerful dramatic climax halfway through the second act when Alfred asks if Mannetjie also has it. Veronica unleashes all her pent up fear and frustration on the naive young man in an overwhelmingly, emotional rage of fury, claiming he is  “pure and clean as the day he was born” echoing the Biblical sentiments that characterize the popular belief held by many impoverished people in South Africa, that AIDS is some kind of divine punishment. Simmons's accent captures the delicacy of the Afrikaans, Dutch influenced dialect and remains constantly believable.

David Judge as the simple Alfred Witbooi provides a massive burst of energy as he smashes through the doorway, grinning inanely at Simmons. In chequered shirt, three-quarter length cut off trousers and black boots, Judge looks just like the country boy who has spent his life working the land. His energy nicely counteracts Simmons solemn aura as he stomps about the stage, shouting and laughing. He maintains an indomitable optimism, tipping carrots and cabbages out of his Hessian sack for her, but  once he discovers the reasons for her solemnity, a serious, uncertainty takes hold of him. When he realizes the only way he can help her is by marrying her, to look after her son when she is gone, he takes on the attitude of a scolded schoolboy, refusing but eventually giving in. Judge maintains a good accent that is sometimes reminiscent of a Brummie.

Nadim Sawalha as Oupa, holds the stage with great presence and gravitas. The curls of his messy grey hair under the straw lights give the impression of a man more concerned with actions than looks.  In a kind and captivating way Sawalha tells a powerful anecdote to Mannetjie about a frost that happened one year that killed nearly all the seeds he planted, from which only one plant grew. Sawalha brings his memory to life in the manner of a wise, old, story teller, savouring each word and slowly engaging the boy. Sawalha's style is so effortless and engrossing that you forget he is even acting.  Fugard's metaphor for AIDS as a frost resonates when Oupa inquires what kind of seeds Mannetjie has in the old baking soda tin he used to keep his Pumpkin seeds in - Mannetjie replies “words”. Sawalha displays Oupa's uncertainty as his practical mind tries to come terms with such abstract principles, he asks him “Where is your acre to plant these words?” and Mannetjie points to his head. Fugard shows us how the young and old generations can learn from each other.

Coming Home is an emotional journey that remains engrossing throughout.  Fugard gives us an insight into the life of South African's that we do not see on the TV or in the World Cup. He gives us the painful reality of what life is like for many people who have to live with AIDS and are too ashamed to seek help for it. Monsey's direction, allows the action to unfold gradually, while the blocking occurs in a truly naturalistic way.  Johnstone's set really places you in the small confines of the shack, allowing the atmosphere to slowly seep into you as Simmons is slowly consumed by the virus. 

Simmons's performance is stunning as she portrays the torment and hopes of Veronica, sharing a heavy sense of dread with the audience. Judge captures the simple but earnest goodness of Alfred with brilliant skill and provides the comedy in what would otherwise be a very grim affair. Sawalha fully embodies the sagacity of an elderly, practical man through his great presence and slow movement, his voice profoundly resonating through the still room. In a time when the South African government has spent millions on the World Cup, it seems an agonizing state of affairs that this money hasn't been spent on Antiretrovirals to help people who are HIV Positive. Fugard shows a real side of South Africa that is easily swept aside in World Cup fervour, a side that deserves much more urgent attention than the game with which we choose to distract ourselves.

 

Arcola Theatre – Studio 2
27 Arcola Street, London, E8 2DJ

7.45pm (no performances on Sundays)
           
£14/£10 concessions
           
020 7503 1646

 www.arcolatheatre.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

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