FringeReview UK 2023
A vital play that needs to seen. See it here and subsequently a well-deserved transfer or revival.
Directed by Anthony Shrubsall, Set & Costume Designer Malena Arcucci, Lighting & Sound Designer Chuma Emembolu, Producer Becca Rowson, Executive Producer Apter Art, Press David Burns
Till April 22nd
South Africa, 1964. A bomb explodes at Johannesburg Rail Station; despite repeat warnings the concourse isn’t cleared and a woman dies. A 14-year-old Peter Hain, future activist and Labour minister, is at the heart of this drama. Gail Louw’s The Only White, directed by Anthony Shrubsall, opens at Chelsea Theatre till April 22nd.
Louw’s acclaimed for her probing plays on politics – The Ice-Cream Boys at Jermyn Street covered recent South African politics; Blonde Poison, Nazi collaboration; A Life Twice Given, the outfalls of cloning. She’s also known for brilliantly off-kilter explorations of the same themes through wholly different premises: Clone consequences in a psychiatrist handling a proto-Trump shooter for instance in Storming; Germanness through a man inhabiting Brahms in Being Brahms; witness against hierarchy in Shackleton’s Carpenter (also Jermyn Street); sexual abuse in The Good Dad.
The Only White like The Ice-Cream Boys is a scrupulous, fascinating and wrenching drama in Louw’s realist mode, examining one white, nominally privileged family’s resistance to Apartheid. Focus remains exclusively on them to highlight yet another side of the way an obscene racism impacts those who refuse to collaborate with their own privilege.
Using source materials with active permission of surviving relatives, Louw’s recreated the sheer oppressiveness of a regime that punishes white liberals, proscribing free speech and even banning them from speaking to anyone else. So liberals resort to at first peaceful then more militant tactics. How far do you go? The ANC, operating en masse from abroad as Wal (Robert Blackwood) points out, are effective. Lone liberals blowing up pylons get nowhere. The authorities blank sabotage from the news. Power-cut: nothing to see here.
So if you plant a very public bomb and it explodes, that’s no power cut. Warn everyone so only the concourse gets hurt. But what if the authorities blank again, this time to ensure someone dies?
It’s a world known with bitter intimacy by the Hain family – the surname isn’t mentioned; despite verbatim and biographical elements, these characters might suggest a universal South African liberal family. Activists Ad (Emma Wilkinson-Knight) her husband Wal, son Peter Paul (Gil Sidaway), their married younger friends Ann (Avena Mansegh-Wallace) and John Harris (Edmund Sage-Green) are one nucleus of an extended family of either exiled or arrested liberals.
John’s the last of his activist ARM group: the buck stops with him. When it comes to getting messages out only Wal’s left, smuggling Al’s ingenious notes in Thermos flask linings, hollowed oranges, cakes, unspeakably stained handkerchiefs that nevertheless are written all over in invisible ink. And there’s what to do with boiled expanded onions. The sheer inventiveness of these homely intellectuals matches anything in the French resistance.
The authorities inadvertently threaten that too. One bitter joke revolves around how Wal like Ad earlier, is now proscribed and can’t even watch his son’s cricket match. But by special dispensation they’re allowed to talk to each other! So who’s left to carry messages?
And when John’s arrested for murder, who really knew his plans, who thought he’d carry out his friends’ wishes, and were they more extreme than he? And when one is called upon as trial witness, what will they say in his defence? How far will the authorities press?
Louw grew up in South Africa. Her masterly play probes the details of state oppression and its influence, how differently liberals react under sanction, blackmail, torture. Early on John has his jaw broken. There’s plots, state counter-plots immediately intercepted but dealt with creatively. Fallout on family and friends is incremental, then overwhelming. But this is a story of “we shall overcome” as is finally sung; their heroism a matter of record. It should leave you in jaw-dropped awe.
That bomb’s front and centre. John’s been arrested. Languishing in Malena Arcucci’s striking set of a central cage whilst the period 1964 living room foregrounds it, the horseshoe stage admits of a strained intimacy: a site of two chairs, an authentic 1960s coffee table and orange rugs, Peter Paul sometimes sprawled across thumbing a book. It’s a singular concise conceit. At an opposite diagonal a small garden with tendrils makes too-brief use of solitary communings with grief, and a letter. Arcucci’s costumes too source period clothing – slacks (orange again, in Wilkinson-Wright’s second-act change) and a splendid early 1960s eggshell suit for Ann.
Chuma Emembolu’s sound is effective from that shattering crump and period music, as well as idiomatic telephone voices (Bu Kunene’s quietly outraged lawyer Ruth Heymann, Blackwood’s sinister police officer Du Toit). Lighting though lacks differentiation and means the generally tenebrous living room hardly shifts when the soft spotlighting falls on the central cage. It needs re-jigging.
Wilkinson-Wright’s Ad is a beautifully-wrought, thinking creation. You sense immediate alarm, suppressed so just we see a moment before the other characters register it. Her modulated English-South-African voicing is shared by Blackwood – there’s a whole spectrum of Anglophone accentuals shading towards Afrikaans guttural; these are the more British sort. He also gets voice and that phlegmatic liberal assurance struck through with the real alarm he’s suppressing. Wilkinson-Wright in particular moves with an agency meaning you don’t take your eyes off her when she suppresses news, delves into an orange to demonstrate subterfuge, or desperate reassurance in a hug.
Blackwood’s affect is mainly vocal. Less mobile, more planted than Wilkinson-Wright, ultimately conveying a man less certain of emotionally the right thing to do than argue it, his moments of release are palpable: a cricket-catch game with Peter Paul and ultimately Ad, suddenly forestalled.
Mansegh-Wallace’s Ann is a study in buttoned-up anxious liberalism. Letters from her incarcerated husband John seem florid, slightly antiquated to us now, but they’re authentic, and however awkward the voicings of a man who recognises early second-wave feminism, but still praises Ann as “the best wife” which she takes with pride. It’s also how Mansegh-Wallace’s Ann seems to have been built up. Her character’s purposefully stiff, costumes designed to literally button her up. An earnestness that can suffuse the production (not play) seems to breathe from her character, even when disguised.
Sage-Green’s compass is limited and he takes one striking moment to elevate John, a beautifully directed moment at the end when a hitherto-unused part of the stage and exit is deployed. It’s a tricky part since John’s roller-coaster emotions are unpredictable and Sage-Green navigates John’s mix of emotions with portraying glum stoicism, rare shafts of joy and slightly melodramatic gestures.
Sidaway’s prematurely adult Peter Paul is a neat if sotto voce study in adolescent dreams (James Bond rescue plans) with sudden ice-cold maturity, volunteering for very real dangers. His – and Blackwood’s – finest moments come with a tender Wal, knowing his son will follow him and grow fast but is still 14.
Shrubsall makes fine use of spatial polarities in this production and the whole theatre’s used: it really expands the play. The production will pick up pace too, shake off its early earnestness, and tonal dialectics that might benefit from preoccupation, occasional subtext. Because Louw’s play and some of Shrubsall’s direction can show this gloriously – and overtly point up moments of joy – the cricket-ball, Sidaway’s whoop of rugby-tackle-lore, and a family life that’s waiting to be inhabited just a touch more in that attractive room, lapped by terror.
You might have caught a Radio 4 Today interview with Peter Hain at 8.45 on the 6th April, now available on BBC Sounds: It underlines why this is a vital drama that needs to seen – and possibly heard on radio too. See it here and subsequently a well-deserved transfer or revival.