At one point in this terrific MTC two-hander a character says, ‘I was involved in The Struggles; I just thought they’d be finite.’ It’s a telling line, and goes to the heart of Lara Foot’s funny and compassionate play. In post-apartheid South Africa the struggle does indeed go on, and both sides of the racial divide may wonder if there can ever be an end.
Marion (Gillian Jones) is a white, middle-class women apparently abandoned by her family in a rural area of South Africa that is significantly neither township nor city. Her daughter has emigrated to Australia, her husband has left for reasons that only gradually become clear, and references to a son are fleeting and obscure. She seems to be waiting for death or at least danger. It comes in the form of Solomon (Pacharo Mzembe), the grandchild of her former maid.
All grown up now, Solomon has been lurking about her property for an unsettling length of time, and when he finally reveals himself it’s hard to know what he wants. The tension is palpable at this early stage, and it feels like the play could go in a number of different directions. Marion seems resigned to fate, but is Solomon an angel of retribution or simply a concerned and helpful neighbour? Is this a home invasion story or something more nuanced?
Thankfully, Foot opts for nuance. As the two characters dance around each other’s past, a picture emerges of disparate individuals coming to terms with the wrongs committed against them, and the wrongs they may be guilty of in turn.
At one point Marion says, ‘If only I’d have reached out more, things might have been different.’ She is referring to the breakdown of her marriage, but the resonance is clear. An initial version of this play was entitled ‘Reach’, emphasising Marion’s voice, weighting the play in her favour. The playwright revised it by giving equal emphasis to Solomon’s story, hence the change in title. I like the original title but I can understand the alteration. This is a two-hander in every sense, a double-edged sword. If we empathise with Marion are we taking her side, and vice-versa?
A mood of even-handedness pervades this play, and in some way impedes its drama. Foot has gone to great lengths to provide a sense of fairness, and it undercuts the savagery and moral ambiguity inherent in the scenario. No real sparks fly, despite the fierce and raw performances. The final scene is also disappointingly nice. Optimism is fine in theory, but here it seems to interfere with the complexity already established.
The production itself is pretty faultless. The director (Pamela Rabe) gets the most from Gillian Jones, an actor who has always struck me as unique on the Australian stage. She has a kind of nonchalant precision, and as a result it feels like the audience is intruding. It’s transfixing to watch, and utterly authentic. Pacharo Mzembe is a lovely foil, heartbreaking in the climatic scene, but funny and winning throughout.
The set by the perennial Richard Roberts is superb: a middle-class house cast adrift on a sea of sand, bringing to mind a junk-yard, a shanty town, a flood-ravaged disaster site. It is functional and suggestive at once and, like the production as a whole, a lesson in economy.