“Really great stuff”
In one of Steve Martin’s films- I forget which one- a Hollywood executive says, “It’ll be a cold day in hell when an actor tells me what to do”. I imagine the first rehearsal of this production and everyone involved realising that they are being led by that astonishing actor Janet Suzman. Even just writing this sends a shiver down my spine.
As you would expect Suzman has created a marvelous piece of theatre. She is working with Athol Fugard’s minor masterpiece “A lesson from Aloes”. The piece is set in Port Elizabeth in 1963, although the action is driven by the Johannesburg bus boycott of 1957. That is the framework yet Fugard concentrates, quite brilliantly, on the lives of three of the people sucked into those events.
The story unfolds quietly and meditatively. We are introduced to Piet and Gladys who live in a modest house in the suburbs. The Aloes of the title dominate and are a central feature of their tiny back garden. I knew little of Aloes, apart from the beneficial qualities of Aloe Vera (one of the benefits of being a reviewer for LPT is the stuff you learn). Aloes is a plant forced to be resilient in a bitter, harsh and arid environment. Fugard has chosen the plant with care and it works superbly as a metaphor for what he puts his protagonists through.
The cultured and left leaning Piet, a retired white bus driver, involves himself in the Apartheid movement. His wife Gladys drifts in and out of his life as they wait for good friend Steve, a black South African activist, just released from jail. Fugard, with scalpel like ruthlessness, strips all the characters back to a world where all truth is to be questioned.
Some of the scenes are utterly mesmeric. Janine Ulfane conveys the first breakdown of Gladys with a quiet, poetic and emotional intensity that is completely overwhelming. The first meeting of Piet and Steve is a joyous celebration of masculine bonding. Dawid Minnaar as Piet and David Rubin as Steve capture in nano-seconds the sheer joy and intensity of friendship. Really great stuff.
In a way Fugard’s writing reminds me of Chekhov. He examines the souls of all those involved but in a way that never reaches explicit conclusions. I’m sure that is frustrating for some but I’ve found that is so often what life is like.
Suzman directs with enormous sure footedness. She paces the piece quite perfectly. She knows instinctively when to throw an emotional punch or a shaft of sunlight. In a way it is an autumnal piece that reflects the essential sadness of life. I’m sure she would kill me for saying this, but she is, deservedly, a theatrical giant.
Norman Coates set and costume design is simply blissful. One could be in the presence of his work for hours and never tire.
It’s a great piece of work all round. Fugard is a playwright who is much to be celebrated.
Finborough Theatre, 118 Finborough Road, London SW10 9ED
Book online at www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk
No booking fees on online, personal or postal bookings
Box Office 01223 357851. (Calls are free. There will be a 5% booking fee.) Lines are open Monday– Saturday 10.00am-6.00pm
Wednesday, 27 February – Saturday, 23 March 2019
Tuesday to Saturday Evenings at 7.30pm. Saturday and Sunday matinees at 3.00pm.
Reviewer Richard Braine is actor, director and playwright.
As an Actor he has worked extensively throughout the country including Chichester Festival Theatre, Manchester Royal Exchange, Birmingham Rep, and Stephen Joseph Theatre in Yorkshire. His Television and Film credits include: “Calendar Girls”, “Pride, Prejudice and Zombies”, “Finding Neverland”, “Bridget Jones”, “Suspicions of Mr Whicher”, “Mr Selfridge” and many years ago Gussie Fink-Nottle in “Jeeves and Wooster”. He has also filmed over 150 Commercials all over the world. He has directed the European premiere of Sternheim/Martin “The Underpants” at The Old Red Lion Theatre and written three plays: “Being There with Sellers”, “Bedding Clay Jones” and “Sexing Alan Titchmarsh”.