THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
The Orange Tree, a stone’s throw from Richmond station, is a gem of theatrical innovation and is now home to the innovative JMK Award for emerging directors. Each year the prize gives one winner a unique chance to direct a full-scale production of their choice. It has provided a great springboard to others, and here Diane Page makes her mark with this taut and powerful production of Fugard’s one act (75 minute) play which revisits the horrors of apartheid era South Africa in 1972 and the law which prohibited sexual relations between the races. It may now be a historical footnote but, with great writing, it packs a real emotional punch today.
Designer Niall McKeever locates the action in a pit at the centre of this theatre-in-the round. A useful metaphor for a pair of lovers whose trysts might be suddenly interrupted at any moment by the need to duck and hide and whose love story can never exist in the light. Inevitably of course they are betrayed to the police by a vindictive, prying, neighbour – these laws being a nosey-parkers' charter.
Page, aided by Rajiv Pattani’s great lighting design, draws on the sensuality which is the core of the piece. We first meet the lovers in the afterglow of their encounter and the chemistry between Shaq Taylor as Errol and Scarlett Brookes’s Freida is palpable. Both bring a visceral energy and immediacy to their characters. Paige’s movement direction at times attains the level of dance, as the lovers' holds and caresses tell the story. Esther Kehinde Ajayi’s compositions and sound design also punctuate the piece, expertly racking up the tension.
We learn the backstory. Errol is a thoughtful schoolteacher with his own family back in a township and Freida, who is older and more mature, works in a library, which becomes the location for their after-hours trysts. Their discussions inevitably touch on privilege and class and poverty which provides useful context but what is great here is how the normal jealousies, the stresses on time, the inability to face up to any future, which typify every adulterous affair are all here too, only made significantly worse by the horror of it all being illegal. The Pass Laws physically separate them and makes any possible future impossible.
Fugard doesn’t make heavy weather of the actual arrest although Richard Sutton is suitably chilling as the Detective Sergeant. His cold mask of professionalism can’t hide his almost physical disgust at the pair and his rage and racial resentment is the heart of the matter.
The police statements, with their cold, precise language, contrast so starkly with the basic facts here, which is that this is about two people daring to love each other. Fugard ends it by letting the couple explain in their own way why they both personally needed this act of defiance. It’s a sobering tale beautifully told.