Sorrows and Rejoicings
Review by Philip Fisher
South African Athol Fugard is one of the greatest living playwrights. Currently Londoners are lucky enough to be able to see both The Island, his collaboration with John Kani and Winston Ntshona, and this, his most recent play.
Fugard himself directs Sorrows and Rejoicings. It is an allegorical play about both the recent and longer-term history of his native country, written in an allusive and poetic style.
On the surface, the play tells the story of the recently deceased Dawid Olivier, a brilliant poet and lecturer at Witwatersrand University in the 1970s. Because of his communist sympathies and his need to make himself heard, he was subject to a banning order, which eventually drove him to London. The picture of Olivier is built up, in part by his own testimony but far more by the three women in his life. These are his English-speaking wife, Allison, the coloured family servant, Marta, with whom he had an affair, and their daughter, Rebecca.
Dawid is clearly a lively, great man who was worshipped by both his students and the people of the Karoo town where he was brought up. Sadly, this magnetic personality could not survive the transition to London. Where he wanted to become a latter-day Ovid, writing poetry that would change South Africa from his exile, his creativity dried up as he descended into impotence, alcoholism and despair.
All that could save Dawid's soul was a return to his native soil. There, he felt that he would have the opportunity to make peace with Marta and meet Rebecca who had last seen when she was one year-old. However, his shame at his dissolution and inability to change the world meant that he refused to do this until he knew that he was close to death. His belated return also fails to go to plan.
Each of the four characters is massively symbolic and at the same time, a wonderful creation. We might perhaps have seen the like of the Communist Dawid before. Even so, under Fugard's direction, Marius Weyers makes a man who could seem callous entirely sympathetic. Allison (Jennifer Steyn) stands for both the long suffering wife and the liberal end of white South Africa.
In a fantastic performance, Denise Newman as Marta portrays a woman who spends 17 years protecting the memory and home of the man that she loves. She does this despite the fact that there is no real hope that she will ever see him again, and in the teeth of the opposition of her bitter daughter, Rebecca (Amrain Ismail-Essop), who will never forgive the father that she has not really known.
In addition it to the level of family drama, the play also has his many fundamental things to say about South Africa. Fugard is a great lover of symbolism and in this case, the stinkwood dining table which is watered by Marta's tears is key. This beautiful piece of multi-shaded brown wood takes on a massive burden of representing a whole divided country.
Amidst many parables and monologues, we eventually see the emergence of Rebecca as a character in her own right. She represents the mixed-race youth that will be the future of her country and that somehow has to forgive the white father that has left South Africa as it is at the turn of the Millennium. The death of Olivier just before that momentous date also has much symbolic resonance.
This is a great play that demonstrates Fugard's love for both language
and his native country. For those who are interested in either, a trip
to the Tricycle is strongly recommended.