FringeReview UK 2021
Directed by Diane Page, Set Design by Niall McKeever, Lighting by Rajiv Pattani with Sound Design and Composer Esther Kehinde Ajayi, Voice and Dialect Coach Joel Trill, Intimacy Director Yarit Dor. Casting Consultant Sophie Parrott CDG, Casting Coordinator Sarah Murray.
Production Assistant Stuart Burgess, Deputy Technical Manager Lisa Hood, Technical assistant Amy Mellor, CSM Jenny Skrivens, Costumer Supervisor Natalia Alvarez, DSM Charli Unwin, ASM Rosie Tredray, Production LX Chris McDonnell, Scenic Artist Anita Gander.
Cover image Helen Maybanks, assisted by Chantel King. Programme Design and Editor Ben Clare.
Till October 2nd. Live-streamed on September 23rd and 24th.
Great plays often startle with new relevance on revival. Plays veined with it continue to gleam unnerving facets. When Athol Fugard’s 1972 Statements After an Arrest under the Immortality Act was mounted apartheid had 22 years to run, and it’s set slightly earlier in 1966.
Two-and-a-half years after mounting Fugard’s 1961 Blood Knot the Orange Tree – with JMK-Award-winner Diane Page directing – returns to a world transformed, in part by our awareness split more open than it was. In that earlier play, the claustrophobic room of brothers is a desolate constraint. Here a circular pit is burrow and chasm. A couple who can’t stop digging.
The premiere of Statements was revolutionary in many ways. A black man and white woman dare to love at her library workplace; exposing their physical and emotional nakedness they find beautiful contours and bones that jut. Then there’s floodlit terror. Their exposure is othered.
The Immortality Act of the title was an oft-revised nastiness code, whose final 1957 iteration stipulated both parties could serve seven years for sexual relations. The original staging with full nudity was an act of exemplary defiance by those engaged in the wider struggle: the full beauty and terror of this would be hard to repeat, and who’d want to? That there’s a terrible relevance nearly 50 years on is an indictment. Revivals usually continue nudity. In 2021, there’s more to explore, with different intimacies, especially at this remove in time and culture.
Directed by Page, it’s a staging of suede-like softness and shadow, glinting with mineral light over that circular pit the lovers leap in and out of, circle slowly, confront each other across its chasm. No it’s not a pit they’ve dug for themselves, you think, till you wonder.
The strength of Statements is that a third character, the police enforcer, is minimally engaged. Some productions prefer a disembodied recorded voice but, ungenerous as his part is, the avatar of apartheid needs to descend.
Statements also leaves the serrated edges of politics alone enough for us to explore other tensions, other truths about this mutually passionate relationship. And it’s the focus of this production, without the distractions of nudity, simulation, or fully brutalised terror. Page lets words beat with unanswered questions though moves swiftly enough in the work’s 78-minute plunge to the abyss.
For Scarlett Brookes’ Frieda Joubert it’s an overwhelming sexual awakening, ferocious, all-consuming. Both characters say at opposite ends of their painfully-drawn conversation: ‘I love you’ but Frieda says it almost immediately. Shaq Taylor’s Errol Philander undergoes a shedding of more than skin and abjuring before he can find the echo. But then he has much to explain, expiate, express, finally when confronted with Frieda’s incomprehension over why he won’t take water with him.
That pit as just described is startlingly simple, designed by Niall McKeever, whose set for This Beautiful Future at Jermyn Street – still running – shows his power with condensed symbolism. It’s beautifully sculpted too in those mostly shadowy glints in Rajiv Pattani’s lighting which takes on a terrible agency. That goes too for the subtle sound design and composition of Esther Kehinde Ajayi: spectral, punchy, evocative and elegiac. A potential difficulty is a density of accent required: voice and dialect coach Joel Trill’s results can’t be faulted, even if you (very) occasionally need a script to hand straight after. Rapidity and accent can trip an audience.
The refusal to nudity – Taylor goes bare chested, that’s it – is bound up with intimacy director Yarit Dor’s way with turning love-making into a slow ballet, and despite tearing passion, something delicate, exploratory, as if it’s not so much the sex but the feel behind it that’s being shared: a gradual opening to trust. A baring of souls. That’s what we’re meant to look at now, and that – after the explosive origins of Fugard’s play – is where Fugard’s words take us anyway.
There’s revelations early on. Errol’s a head teacher of a small school, takes books – one of Julian Huxley’s on Evolution explores timelessness in the flash of time Errol has. Errol orates to wondrous arcs this power, the Jurassic or Paleocene age, thump of dinosaur or blank news of stars. Frieda’s not impressed at this veering-off from her declaration, Errol’s impersonal pressures. And no wonder. Fugard’s not given him ‘Philander’ as a surname for nothing: Frieda knows he’s married.
The other faultline lies in that broken soliloquy over guilt at taking water when no-one Errol lives near has any. He claims not pride but shame underlies his refusal.
These internal explosions are the most revealing. They tell us how love damages yet is so compulsive this couple keep trysting, a huit clos where pleasure tortures. There can only be one outcome.
That’s iterated in horrible detail with Richard Sutton’s Detective Sergeant J. du Preez arriving with flashbulbs exposing the lovers like a huge punch out of 1984; monstering them as fugitive, differently shamed. There’s warnings that hold off, tension’s ratcheted for minutes. It’s the details of each meeting by a neighbour, read out by Sutton’s chip of adamant, that evoke an all-encompassing surveillance society worthy of 1984 or the then-communist bloc. New parallels will hang in the air.
One further humiliation too is the fictions – acted with appallingly eager veracity by the couple– to fend off the inevitable: Frieda leads, Errol enacts. There’s far more stripped than skin; you wince at each hooked squirm. These rags morph and break into stark truth; we’re left with a coda that twists.
Brookes perfectly evokes Frieda’s appealing all-for-love heedlessness; with a faint nimbus of panic, well-evoked in the way she moves towards and from Errol – and later very differently. Evoking wet hair as she does on stage, talking of shampoo and leaves, you see her rooted in the organic but also liberated world. Older by six years, she’s experienced so much less; you feel for her coming up against Errol’s intellectually-elsewhere, already-married, far more compromised leave to move, let alone love. Taylor glistening with a power Errol feels unchanneled roves with restless, sometimes monumental hesitancy, and with Brookes in a liqueous dance of love.
Taylor has the spell-binding for Errol’s powerful solos, almost love-songs to dinosaurs, repeating three times his favourite line from Hutton’s 1788 Theory of the Earth: ‘….we find no vestige of a beginning, – no prospect of an end.’ An apartheid-shrinking hymn to science, knowledge, rational love both alienating and liberating.
An important, scorching revival, Statements explores the limits of love in a forcing-house of oppression and racism. But it begs more than questions of why Frieda and Errol love as they do. What would remain outside such a place: the call of the other, sexuality, opportunity? Much like anywhere else then.