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A Lesson from the Aloes

Athol Fugard
A Million Freds
Finborough Theatre, Earl's Court
to

Judging by the examples on Norman Coates’s wonderfully evocative set, an aloe is a kind of skinny cactus that can survive almost anything that the South African veldt with its heat and drought can throw at it.

As Janet Suzman’s revival makes very clear, this is one of a series of symbols used by Athol Fugard to shine a light on the horrors of apartheid, as seen from the perspective of Port Elizabeth on the Eastern Cape.

Although set in 1963, the play looks at the period from a historical viewpoint, first seen at the Market Theatre, Johannesburg 15 years later. It focuses on a trio of politically active individuals who had ineffectually attempted to overthrow the repressive regime through protest rather than violence.

The setting is the home of white couple Piet and Gladys Bezuidenhout, respectively played by Dawid Minaar and the particularly impressive Janine Ulfane, Afrikaners whose isolation has become complete, rarely if ever receiving a visit from strangers, let alone friends. The reason for their isolation only becomes clear gradually as the two hours unfold.

Gladys has suffered some kind of breakdown and only returned from an institution seven months before, still showing signs of panic and mental imbalance. Her devoted husband, a poetry lover given to declaiming extracts from Shakespeare, the Bible and Keats et al, had been a bus driver who bravely broke racial laws to support a Cape coloured boycott.

Thereafter, he rose through the ranks to become a trusted member of a leading protest committee, before it was broken up, with one of the leaders sentenced to six months in prison and then given a banning order for three years.

The first half of the play takes time to ignite, showing the couple making arrangements for a final visit of that leader, David Rubin’s Steve, before he and his large family finally decamp to the United Kingdom and a new, free life far away from the excessive racial prejudice of his home country.

The play explodes into far greater drama with Steve’s arrival. Now, skeletons start flying out of cupboards as discussions rage about an informer who told the police about the movement’s activities, directly leading to the guest’s incarceration and eventual decision to emigrate.

The evening peaks with an accusation of treachery from Gladys, which provokes both men to react, although in one case not in the manner that one might expect.

While this may not be the very best of Athol Fugard’s work, Janet Suzman’s production, the first time that the play has been seen in London in 35 years, sheds a welcome light on an important playwright and, pleasingly, reminds us that whatever problems might have replaced it, the demons of South Africa’s apartheid structure are now very firmly historical.

Philip Fisher