ion Athol Fugard’s best-known play, Sizwe Bansi Is Dead, a photographer captures joy in his sitters and jubilantly snaps his friend who embarks on a scheme circumventing South Africa’s apartheid laws. In Fugard’s Statements After an Arrest Under the Immorality Act, which also premiered in 1972, the flash of a camera carries instead the blunt, condemnatory force of a gavel. The photographs taken of two lovers together will become evidence that could result in their imprisonment due to the country’s ban on interracial sex.
Errol Philander’s relationship with Frieda Joubert is a secret not just because she is white but because, as his name suggests, he is married. The couple meet in darkness at the library where she works and Diane Page’s superbly acted in-the-round production uses a sunken pit designed by Niall McKeever that at first suggests a cocoon from the outside world but becomes, with Rajiv Pattani’s lighting, a vortex.
Both partially undressed, Shaq Taylor emerges with glistening skin as Philander and Scarlett Brookes with damp hair as Joubert. Sensuous dialogue evokes the smell of leaves, rotting figs and shampoo; the feel of coins in your hand; the sounds of snakes and dogs. It all draws us close as the couple’s conversations veer from gently comic to cosmic to tragic, Philander setting “the few miserable square feet of this room” within the context of millions of years of history; the wondrous riches of the universe a backdrop to a regime of segregation that forbids them the basic human right to love each other.
Like Fugard’s two-hander about colourism, Blood Knot – revived at the Orange Tree in 2019 and similarly confined to one room – the play scrutinises notions of seeing and being seen. The abrupt arrival of a policeman (Richard Sutton), formally dictating details of their arrest, gives a jolting assessment of characters we have shared intimate time with who are now defined purely by race, address, occupation. When he reads the statement of the informant it chillingly reveals quite how long she has spied on the couple.
Fugard gives his own clear-eyed view of the couple who, like the doomed lovers in the soul song The Dark End of the Street, know they will eventually be discovered but are continually drawn to each other. This is not an idealised full-bloom romance but one beginning to spiral. Page, directing as the winner of the JMK award, intelligently utilises McKeever’s striking set which becomes like a borehole, with the characters on opposite sides, emphasising the distance between their communities and Philander’s disquiet at taking her water while his district suffers from drought.
While it is played with astute understanding of space and silence, some passages – including the opening speeches and Fugard’s later brilliant observation that “whispering makes you sweat” – could be allowed even more room to breathe, the sparing humour given an extra emphasis.
Ma, a 75 minuti, this is a resonant and revelatory shock of a play in which Esther Kehinde Ajayi’s sound design bolsters the tension. The light of a torch, the suddenly furious dictation of the officer and the sound of a camera shutter all become weapons. As the couple run from the flash of the photographer it is as if they are seeking cover from a volley of gunfire.