Tim Hochstrasser reviews Athol Fugard’s A Lesson From Aloes now playing at the Finborough Theatre, London.
A Lesson from Aloes
5 March 2019
Athol Fugard has been at work in the theatre for over fifty years and there are plenty of plays in his back-catalogue that are ripe for revival and re-evaluation. This spring brings two such plays to London: Blood Knot from the start of his career, and this play from the late 1970s, in his middle period as an author, but just before his international breakthrough. A Lesson from Aloes is not an overtly confrontational play, but it is symptomatic of the times in which it was written that it was very nearly banned by the South African authorities, then operating at the very height of apartheid repression. This is the first London production for 35 years.
It is a three-hander divided into two acts. We find ourselves in a bleak, shabby and bland house in a Pot Elizabeth suburb occupied by a middle-aged couple of some apparent eccentricity. It is 1963 and Piet Bezuidenhout (Dawid Minaar) and his wife Gladys (Janine Ulfane) have both come to the end of their tethers for different reasons. Piet, who grew up as a traditional Afrikaner farmer, was driven off the land through years of continuous drought and has ended up as a bus driver, dabbling mildly in liberal politics and the fringes of resistance to the regime. He takes symbolic solace in his collection of aloes (succulents) that seem to represent his ornery resistance to hard times and determination not to leave his roots. His wife Gladys, has an altogether more precarious hold on everyday life, having just returned from a stay in a mental asylum, and is still displaying signs of nervous anxiety and incipient panic.
Much of the first act is expository, and perhaps it is too leisurely at times in giving us the back-story, organised as it is around preparations for the arrival of a mixed-race family, headed by Steve (David Rubin), who has recently emerged from a spell in jail, after an informer revealed to the police the workings of the pressure group both Piet and Steve adhere to. The second act is built around Steve’s arrival alone and discussion, first indirect, then open, of whether Piet was the informer in question. Another major theme, all the more relevant in 1978, is whether opponents of the regime should stay and fight; or leave, as Steve is doing, having obtained a visa for England.
While this is self-evidently a political play, what impresses about it and fully justifies its revival under Janet Suzman’s sensitive direction, is the oblique and dramatically rewarding approach it takes to its subject. What is seeks to demonstrate, is not the evil of apartheid, which even then needed no further direct iteration, but rather the insidious results of an oppressive regime on its subjects. The neurotic retreat of Gladys into madness is the most direct reaction to the fear the regime induces, and Steve’s flight into what is essentially exile, is another; and while Piet remains standing and defiant, he survives only in an impotent, gestural way and with only his aloes for company.
What saves the play from the total bleakness and despair it hints at is the vivacity and humour of much of the writing, especially in the second half, when Fugard moves up a few gears. And of course, you have to add in the quality of the acting in this revival where each of the three players delivers a searingly rich characterisation each of which is at points almost too big and intense for the tiny space of the Finborough. Minaar captures both Piet’s rugged individualism and his inarticulate compassion both for his wife’s sufferings and the injustice that surrounds him. There is also a lot of ambiguity present so that you can plausibly believe he might be an informer too. Ulfane conveys brittle instability brilliantly, and the two scenes in which she essentially has a breakdown on stage culminating in a drooling loss of control are very painful to watch, as they are meant to be. But this is no caricature of a performance – there is plenty of light and shade and wistful retreat into memories too, that reminds you of one of Tennessee Williams’ female characters. Rubin has perhaps the most tricky role of all to deliver: he has to introduce himself with brio in the second act and then develop complexities swiftly. This is a mercurial incarnation, full of charm but also shades of suspicion and suffering that are gradually unfurled. All three actors perform miracles in generating a lot of movement with hardly any room for manoeuvre (your reviewer did his best in the front row to keep his knees out of the way!)
As so often at the Finborough the very constraints of the space have stimulated the creative team to great achievements. Norman Coates has created a superbly evocative set (all the more difficult when it is drabness you need to evoke). Courtyard and interior are suggested with great economy and vividness of means, and a special place of honour is rightly reserved for the aloes themselves. Sound designer Rachael Murray evokes a delicate sound palate giving us the domestic world of this washed up couple and plausible street noises, and Mannie Manim’s lighting design gives not just a sense of the passage of time from afternoon to late evening but also what hot sun and lingering twilight feels like in South African terms.
All in all, this is a moving and thoughtful exploration of political oppression and its human consequences even for those at the margin of conflict, and of the way that fear can corrupt goodness despite the best of intentions. There are few new writers on political themes that can approach Fugard’s sense of the nuances of shadows, and for that reason alone we still have much to gain from renewing our familiarity with his earlier works.