Theatre review: Mary and the Conqueror.

Posted: October 13, 2011 in Theatre & Event Reviews and Interviews
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Mary and the Conqueror.

First published in the Sunday Independent in October 2011


Imagine spending the greater part of your life writing and obsessing about a long-dead historical figure and then getting the fantastical opportunity to have a discourse with him. This is the basic premise of Juliet Jenkin’s new play which sees Mary Renault, best known for writing historical novels set in Ancient Greece, meet up with the protagonist of many of her works, Alexander the Great.

In the play both have shed their mortal coils, however Mary, played by Diane Wilson, seems to still be chilling out in Limbo, drinking beer, when she meets the object of her life-long fascination, Alexander, performed by Armand Aucamp. The story is a mixture of Mary Renault’s factual life and Juliet Jenkin’s imagination of the possible conversations to be had between the two at such a meeting.

Thrown in the mix is the same sex relationship between Mary and her lover, played by Adrienne Pearce, being played off against that of Alexander and Hephaestion’s relationship. Although Alexander’s homosexuality has often been insinuated at, it is unconfirmed in ancient texts. The writer is engaging us with the hypothetical possibility of his homosexuality. The play is not intended to be factual but rather imaginary.  Mary lived in Camp’s Bay and her novels during the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s became iconic works, especially for homosexuals, dealing as they did, with love and war, their sexuality, and heroism during key periods in the history of Ancient Greece.

The premise sounds interesting and one can only imagine the questions that will be asked and the tales of high drama, love, lust and betrayal that would fly between the one of the world’s finest warriors and an iconic writer. However, this production ended up leaving me rather disappointed. The dialogue, rather than sparkle and crackle, fizzles out and seems lacking in tension and drama. 

Diane Wilson, last seen in her award-winning act of Careful, delivers her usual studied and consummate performance.  However, her given dialogue does not convince me that her character, Renault, has studied Alexander for decades. The passion and excitement of such an imagined meeting is just not there.

Adrienne Pearce playing the part of Renault’s long-term and doting lover injects some life into the play with an excellent performance.  The relationship between the two women comes across as tender and very real as both actresses delicately dance around and with each other.  Pierce’s character suffers from bouts of severe depression and she delivers a very believable performance of a woman suffering the mental anguish of dragging herself out of the darkness for the sake of her own sanity and the love of her life.

Armand Aucamp’s portrayal of one of the world’s most successful commanders of all time – by the age of thirty Alexander had created of one of the largest empires in ancient history – feels somewhat whimsical and lacking in emotional depth.  He struts about the stage in a very tiny pair of white hot pants, which distracts from the dialogue and action on stage. I am not at all convinced that Aucamp’s Alexander can ride his steed into battle, let alone conquer entire countries. His dialogue is lacking in depth and it does not do a great job of painting a vivid or believable character of such a great man.

Francis Chouler in the role of Hephaistion – Alexander’s lover – delivers moments of very sincere acting. He seems to be fully immersed in his role and he is clearly enjoying all the action on stage. There is also a lovely gentle and very tangible good energy which passes between Chouler and Aucamp, which may be further explored. Unfortunately their European accents were not steady throughout the performance and at times it sounded quite fake and even a bit camp.

Alfred Rietmann’s stage design recreates an otherworldly afterlife, or peculiar place of limbo, were Alexander and Renault have most their discussions. Long blue and white drapes, tall columns, and soft strategic lighting add a slightly surreal and fantastical tone to the performance.

Mary and the Conqueror is a commissioned play for the 7th Artscape Spring Drama Season’s and is directed by Roy Sargeant.  The other plays in this year’s Spring Drama Season are The Beneficiary by Sinethemba Twani (20 October to 5 November);  Hol by Nicola Hanekom (10 November to 2 December);  Seashells by Rafiek Mammon (15 November to 3 December) and a showcase performance of Other People’s Lives by Amy Jephta on 16 and 17 December.

The play runs until 15 October at 20:15, with matinee performances at 14:30 on Saturday 8 and 15 October. Tickets at R60.00 and R80.00 and can be booked at Computicket or Artscape Dial-A-Seat, 021-471-7695.

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