Hello and Goodbye

Athol Fugard
Elysium Theatre Company
Northern School of Art, Hartlepool

Hello and Goodbye
Hello and Goodbye Credit: Rusby Media

One assumed white people in Apartheid South Africa enjoyed a lifestyle of unearned privilege equivalent to David Cameron. Yet Athol Fugard’s Hello and Goodbye concerns white siblings born into, and apparently determined to wallow in, grinding poverty and squalor.

In 1960s Port Elizabeth, South Africa, Johnnie (Danny Solomon) has used his father's invalidity as a excuse for inertia—turning down the chance of advancement through education and staying in the decrepit hovel they shared. The death of his father pushes Johnnie deeper into depression which is exacerbated by the unexpected arrival of his estranged sister Hester (Hannah Ellis Ryan) demanding a share of their late father’s workplace compensation.

Hello and Goodbye is not a naturalistic play. The characters do not so much hold conversations as tell each other their inner thoughts in jagged monologues. Director Jake Murray sets a suitably artificial atmosphere. The set, by Caitlin Mills and Lee Ward, appears realistically dingy and dirty but the torn wallpaper seems to form the shape of South Africa. The production has a static atmosphere as the cast sometimes speak their lines while standing still rather than in the form of an energetic conversation.

The production was filmed live at the Northern School of Art in Hartlepool and it is likely the alienating techniques had greater impact in that live theatre environment than in the recorded version. The strong chemistry Danny Solomon and Hannah Ellis Ryan have shown when working together in the past is here muted as the characters behave as if they were isolated and sometimes ignore the other person. It is a brave approach: a raw, undiluted portrayal of people who are very hard to like.

Danny Solomon plays Johnnie as someone suffering chronic depression with a childish tendency to shy away from responsibility and action. In bare feet, a soiled vest and greasy hair, Solomon looks so weighed down he can hardly summon the energy to move; Johnnie cannot even bother emptying the slops bucket. At times, you want to shake Johnnie as he finds excuses for taking no action. His idea of redemption is to feign a physical disability.

Hannah Ellis Ryan gives a lacerating portrayal of self-hatred. Hester is so determined to alienate people, she boasts about, rather than admits to, turning prostitute. Yet Ellis Ryan makes clear this self-destructive behaviour is rooted in a deep hurt from the past. When Hester demands ‘compensation’ instead of money, it feels as if she is seeking recompense or comfort for a wound she suffered in the past—possibly her mother’s early death—rather than remuneration.

Hello and Goodbye is a hard play to enjoy. Athol Fugard’s symbolism—Johnnie literally leaning on his father’s crutches—is a bit obvious and the characters are far from sympathetic. Yet the sheer quality of the acting makes Elysium Theatre Company’s production essential viewing.

Reviewer: David Cunningham