Peter Hall Company
Bath Theatre Royal
Athol Fugard insists that at the heart of every play he has written - this latest included - is not "poliltical statement" but "personal experience". Victory was prompted by a violent burglary at Fugard's South African home by the daughter of a former employee. The play tells the story of a black South African woman called Victoria (Pippa Bennett-Warner), who was born at a time of great expectation and hope: Mandela's release and the dawn of a new South Africa.
When we meet Victoria, the death of her mother, her father's subsequent alcoholism and the poverty with which she is surrounded have conspired to send that great optimism spiralling out of her grasp. She has dreams, she claims; she dreams simply of having a good time. In the absence of anything better, she has latched onto an angry young man, Freddie (Reece Ritchie), who shares her sense of hopelessness and persuades her to follow him down a path that can only lead to trouble. The two ransack the study of the homeowner, Lionel (Richard Johnson), who, we come to learn, formerly employed Victoria's mother as housemaid.
Fugard's story then is a tight and fascinating look at captive and captor and at what it takes to turn "a good girl" to a life of criminality. But it is also a study of the economic inequalities which persist in South Africa. It is born as much out of his conviction that South Africa is suffering from a preoccupation with "blaming the past while taking no responsibility for the present", as he told The Times earlier this month; that, "South Africans want to cling to the moment when the miraculous happened, and not deal with the squalor and betrayal of the present". This sense of despair Fugard uses to humanise and connect all three characters; all three share a chronic and enduring lack of understanding which perpetuates the divide between them. Freddie urinates on the books Lionel treasures; Lionel tries and fails to grasp what has become of Victoria since the death of her mother. This is as much a 'political statement' about the dichotomy between the privileged and the deprived South African today as it is about Lionel's inability to empathise with Vicky's plight.
Cordelia Monsey directs with an uncluttered simplicity; a competent cast and Fugard's thought-provoking text needing little adornment. Bennett-Warner gives a moving and endearing performance as Victoria. She shines like a votive candle when she tries to make Lionel see how it is to be young and black in rural South Africa and she is haunting in the final scene, as she sits singing her prayer of repentance bathed in a spotlight on a darkened stage. We sense she sheds tears for her people as much as for herself. Bennett-Warner's despair is palpable, leaving you with the bitter taste of pessimism; Fugard's despair that the South African 'victory' of 1994 has not delivered all it promised.
Ritchie's Freddie has all the edgy self-interest of disaffected youth. Life owes him a favour and Ritchie makes this evident with every line and every look. If cornered, one senses he will lash out in self-defence, but otherwise, he presents no real danger, and this is the only disappointment: I wanted a greater sense of threat from him, like a trip-wire ready to be detonated in an instant by a wrong word, an unguarded look, a hint of condescension.
With a weighty and authoritative performance, Johnson is a grounded, wise and weary Lionel. His apathy abates as he strives to urge Vicky to share with him what has brought her to this burglary. His growing realisation that his lack of concern has helped perpetuate the inequality that he thought had died with apartheid weighs heavily on him.
Fugard may not have intended to make a political statement with this piece but his plea for change cannot be mistaken: "My subject has always been the desperate individual, and, tragically, there are more than enough of them in the new South Africa."
"Victory" runs at the Theatre Royal until August 25th
Reviewer: Allison Vale