Nothing But the Truth
UK Arts International, in association with the Hampstead Theatre
Northern Stage, Newcastle, and touring
Going to the theatre and doing a bit of audience watching while there can be little depressing sometimes. My most recent visit to a Newcastle theatre was to see the touring production of Hay Fever which played to a pretty full house at the Theatre Royal, and while it is good to see so many people turning out to see what is a classic of its genre, it does make tonight's experience of watching Nothing But the Truth in an audience of perhaps about seventy people in Northern Stage's large auditorium, Stage 1, rather frustrating. Here is a modern play from South Africa, written by and starring a man (John Kani) who by any standards is a towering theatrical figure, which deals with important issues in a deeply moving and sympathetic way, and the house felt empty (although the audience's enthusiasm at the end did, to an extent, make up for it).
Our reviewer V Mitchell had a similar experience there earlier this week when she saw Chris O'Connell's Hang Lenny Pope in the smaller Stage 2 with an even smaller audience. Another superb play and another tiny audience. As I say: depressing.
Nothing But the Truth works on so many levels. In the first act we are presented with something that looks as though it will be a domestic drama, an old man coming to terms with the death of his brother who was in exile in England and being faced with his niece who has left her African heritage so far behind that even her surname has been anglicised, from Makhaya to Mackay. But this appearance is deceptive, for scattered throughout are little seeds of ideas which grow through the second act until the simple domestic drama encompasses truth, reconciliation and forgiveness on both the national level (with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission), and on a familial and then a personal, interior level. And running alongside are considerations of memory and identity, of love and ambition, of the relationship between black and white both in South Africa and England, of personal freedom and responsibility, of family relationships - and family secrets, of the place of the hero and of the little man who, although not high profile, was nonetheless there, part of the supporting crowd, when the great events of South African liberation happened. All of this within the confines of a short - little more than an hour and a half, plus interval - three-hander.
There is nothing forced in the emergence of these themes: they arise quite naturally from the well-drawn characters and the situation. And although the play makes its political (and personal) pleas, it does so without preaching.
It goes without saying that it is one of those plays which continues to work on you long after you have left the theatre.
In such a play so much, of course, depends on the actors. To bring out the complexities and gradually reveal the interleaved layers whilst keeping the domestic feel requires great skill and sensitivity on their part and the cast does not disappoint. This is a true ensemble piece.
Kani plays Sipho Makhaya with great subtlety, portraying the power of the little man who looks as though he will crack wide open as his world and his cherished ambition, to be the Chief Librarian, seem to crumble around him, but he finds the inner strength to emerge from his testing with his dignity and sense of humour intact.
As his daughter Thando, Motshabi Tyelele has that same natural dignity and inner strength to face up to the shocking revelations with which she is confronted, as well as dealing with the new (to her) ideas which her "sister" brings with her from England. This was an assured and impressive performance.
I confess that, at the interval, I was inclined to dismiss Rosie Motene's Mandisa Mackay as verging on caricature but as Ms Motene revealed the full depth of the character in the second half, I realised that what she had been portraying was a young woman trying to hang on to her confidence in a situation in which was totally foreign (in every sense) to her, with, perhaps, a little of the arrogance of the English abroad.
The people of Newcastle still have until Saturday 5th May to enjoy this gem of a play. I hope they will take the opportunity!
Touring to the West Yorkshire Playhouse (9th - 12th May), The Lowry in Salford (15th - 19th May). Birmingham Rep (23rd - 26th May), Leicester's Peepul centre (29th May - 2nd June), Nottingham Playhouse (6th - 9th June) and the Arts Theatre, Cambridge (12th - 16th June).
Reviewer: Peter Lathan