Saturday, 4 September 2021

Theatre review:
Statements After an Arrest Under the Immorality Act

The JMK Award returns to its new home at the Orange Tree Theatre, a home which feels fitting as it has staged Athol Fugard plays before, and this year's winner Diane Page has chosen to direct Fugard's 1972 play Statements After an Arrest Under the Immorality Act, about the aspects of the Apartheid laws that banned interracial relationships. Errol (Shaq Taylor) is black or "Coloured," the headmaster of a school, with a religious background but an enquiring mind about evolutionary theories that leads him to seek out a book recommended by his university course, but unavailable in any library he'd be allowed to join. Frieda (Scarlett Brookes) is white or "European," six years older than him, single, and the librarian who allows him to study the texts he wants even though he's not allowed to actually borrow them. We meet them a year after they first met, in the darkened back room of the library, where they've been conducting their illegal affair.

Their post-coital chat goes from the romantic to the fractious as they prepare to return to the reality of their lives and the impossibility of their relationship ever being more than it is; we find out comparatively late that Errol is already married and has a child, but obviously the biggest obstacle is the restrictions put on their skin colour.

They're waiting for it to get dark outside so Errol can get away without being spotted, but as the play's title gives away they're caught by Detective Sergeant du Preez (Richard Sutton), after the intervention of a particularly determined nosy neighbour. Their capture is what they feared most, but when questioned they remain unrepentant. Even though the performances boast some very powerful moments the production as a whole struggled to hold my attention. In part I think it's the play itself - despite a subject matter you would expect to make for one of the most emotional of Fugard's plays, it actually turns out to be a particularly ponderous one, made up of many long, philosophising speeches.

It makes the play relentlessly bleak, and on one hand I can see the logic of this: Even if they never got caught, the fear of it alone, and the impossibility of the relationship ever amounting to anything, means that this pair of lovers can never be happy together. But on the other hand unless they had a very specific kind of outdated worldview (in which case they'd never have chosen to see a play like this in the first place) a 2021 audience will have gone into the story thinking there's nothing wrong with a black man and white woman as a couple. So it becomes about emotionally connecting with the characters themselves, and though I felt like we got to know them as individuals, what we never see is why we should care about them as a couple.

For me on top of what the script provides, the biggest obstacle to this is the design. The Orange Tree loves to stick a hole in the middle of its in-the-round stage, and here designer Niall McKeever provides a dark round pit that initially cocoons the lovers, but once they get out of it provides a gulf between them, and at the end, with the help of lighting designer Rajiv Pattani, is a vortex sucking Errol in. It looks great and lends a really ominous atmosphere but it's one of those cases where the visual symbolism works but the practicalities don't: The actors are rarely actually in the pit, restricting them to a small space around it. It doesn't help the two leads establish intimacy between their characters, and it makes the show's blocking awkward and monotonous. Most of Fugard's work deals with the very specific time and circumstances of Apartheid, but the end of one regime in one country hasn't meant the end of all racial tensions so a lot of it is can still really pack a punch. But for me this play didn't achieve the same levels of universality or empathy as something like "Master Harold"... and the Boys.

Statements After an Arrest Under the Immorality Act by Athol Fugard is booking until the 2nd of October at the Orange Tree Theatre.

Running time: 1 hour 20 minutes straight through.

Photo credit: Helen Maybanks.

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