Theatre review: Statements

Posted: February 6, 2012 in Theatre & Event Reviews and Interviews

Theatre review: Statements after an Arrest under the Immorality Act

Walking out of the theatre after this performance it felt as if I had been hit in the guts with a cricket bat. Athol Fugard’s Statement, is to the devout theatre lover what biking from Cairo to Cape Town is to the avid cyclist, or summiting the world’s seven highest peaks is to a mountain climber.  It sounds extreme, but it is an extreme piece of work.

From the very opening scene where Frieda Joubert, performed by Bo Petersen, turns the simple act of drying her hair in the sun into a languid, poetic lament, the audience clung to her lips like bees to a flower.  What follows is a magnetic performance by a luminous cast.  Script, performances, direction; this is as good as South African theatre gets; certainly for me.

Fugard himself directed and acted in the play in the early seventies. The basic premise of the play, as advertised, is the story of a white woman and a coloured man caught out in the midst of a passionate and enduring love affair during our apartheid years. The doomed couple, who met for their trysts in the library where she worked, were spied upon by a neighbour and eventually arrested and charged under the inhuman Immorality Act. I would venture a guess that I was not the only person in the audience feeling a bit concerned that the words and situation of the tormented lovers would be somewhat dated and lost in our frenetic scurry for equality, and our hurry to bolt the doors on apartheid – for good. My concern was fuelled by the greater public’s outraged outcry over the recent political poster showing a white man and a black woman in a nude embrace – similar to the poster advertising this play.

My fears were unfounded. Typically, Fugard has it all in hand. It is certainly not a straightforward black and white story resurrected from the brittle pages of history.  The intelligent and captivating dialogue between Frieda Joubert and her coloured lover Errol Philander, played by Malefane Mosuhli, soon reveal the couple’s deep seated fears and hopes which include dealing with issues of fidelity, mortality, suppression, and of course the consequences of the Immorality Act.

Petersen’s character is a few years older than her lover, yet she has led a conservative and protected existence. She is trying to come to terms with her almost teenager-like powerful emotions on the one hand, and on the other – her aging body.  Here it is appropriate to mention that both Mosuhli and Petersen are stark naked for the duration of the entire play.  During a scene Bo Petersen’s character stands to the front of the stage under the spotlight, starkers, and explores her feet, her tummy, and laments her slightly sagging breasts. It is such an honest and tender exploration by an actor of her character’s fears, her mortality and her vulnerability. It felt as if the entire audience were collectively holding its breath for the duration of her moving monologue. Not only are the words and the plight of the couple profoundly moving, once you add to it full unashamed, and relentless, nudity –you are in for an extreme theatre experience.

Fugard’s use of nudity emphasises the vulnerability of the characters. There is nowhere to hide. Every bit of their anatomy is etched out by the spotlight. At first the couple is happily naked in a celebration of each others bodies.  Later on their nakedness is used against them during the interrogation to strip away any morsel of dignity. Even later still both Philander and Joubert come clean, naked, to themselves about what they really fear.  In this play clothes, in absentia, may well represent denial, the masks of society, and the barriers between people that keep them from making honest connections. So you see it really is not only black and white at all.  Another big shocker it Mosuhli’s performance as the younger man in love with Joubert.  Mosuhli, just fresh out of the Universtity of Cape Town’s Drama Department, delivers an honest and powerfully moving performance. When we first meet him he seems like the randy opportunist and we nod in recognition of this character. Then it becomes clear he has a loving family and kids waiting at home, and we are outraged. He, we decide, is not as sincere as Joubert about their illicit relationship.  She wants to elope with him and he just wants a roll in the hay. We judge him harshly.  Then Mosuhli delivers his character’s final blowing monologue which cuts to the very core of what it means to love and live, and we are floored.

Jeroen Kranenburg plays a relatively small but important supporting role as Detective-SGT J. du Preez. And he delivers a smart and funny performance as the typically nosy, conservative neighbour, who spies on the couple. Kranenburg is always a delight to watch as he totally immerses himself in his characters. His outstanding lead role in the Aristophanes’ The Birds, which showed recently at the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, is still fresh in my mind.

Athol Fugard himself said this production of director Kim Kerfoot’s Statements is one of the best of his work that he has ever seen.  “The sensitivity and delicacy,” says Fugard, “with which he has directed this blighted love story takes it out of the museum of Apartheid Artifacts and makes it as timely and relevant in today’s world as it was when Yvonne Bryceland, Percy Sieff and I opened the courageous Pace Theatre with it nearly forty years ago.”

Athol Fugard’s Statements After an Arrest under the Immorality Act runs at the Fugard Studio until 11 February. Tickets cost from R100 to R140 and are available through Computicket and the Fugard Theatre box office on 021 461 4554.

For reasons of nudity and subject matter this production is not suitable for persons younger than 16.

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