The Syringa Tree

Pamela Gien
Cottesloe
(2002)

It is not always easy to be a hard-nosed theatre reviewer. Sometimes, completely unbidden, a lump appears in the throat and a tear in the eye and you have to admit defeat.

It is a mark of Pamela Gien's remarkable talent that she can capture the attention of an audience at the National Theatre with only the assistance of a small but talented backstage team. This is led by director, Larry Moss with expert support from his lighting and sound designers, Jason Kantrowitz and Tony Suraci..

The Syringa Tree has already won several awards in the United States, including an Obie for the best play of last year. It is very rare for a one-woman (or man) show to win such an award or to appear at the National Theatre. Normally such accolades are saved for a genius of the calibre of the Canadian, Robert Lepage.

This play starts by introducing the six-year-old Lizzie on a swing hanging from the eponymous tree. She is the child of liberal parents, a Jewish Atheist and The Roman Danger no less, in the Apartheid South Africa of thirty years ago.

Over the next hundred minutes, the energetic Miss Gien, using a mixture of voice and accent change, facial expression and waving arms creates a world both heavily symbolic and often allegorical. She effortlessly changes between numerous characters without leaving a doubt as to whom she is portraying. We see not only her loving, liberal family but also Afrikaaner fundamentalists and numerous black servants. Many of the last category live illegally and are constantly running from the authorities in this scary country.

While the child's life is often happy, tragedy and prejudice are never far away. Her devoted nanny harbours an illegal daughter and this is a constant source of worry even to a six-year-old. There are many exciting pictures drawn verbally by Gien. Perhaps the most moving are a trip to her grandfather's seemingly idyllic farm and a late night journey to a township hospital. These left both the actress and her audience breathless.

Gradually, the play develops and shows, often obliquely, how society in South Africa first becomes more violent leading to innocent death then approaches the long-awaited freedom.

Lizzie has already had to choose between a silent, ineffectual struggle in the "Beloved Country" and exile in the "Land of the Free". Having chosen the latter, she is well placed to observe the revolution from a distance and eventually to return to make a symbolic peace with her country, its peoples and ultimately, herself.

This is a wonderful play showing warm human beings and dissecting a heartless society. It is very well written and acted with just enough bite to complement its gentle humour.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher