By Pia Zain & Simon Hegarty
Pia: Athol Fugard is one of the great playwrights of our time. He has sketched the South African story – from apartheid to freedom – unlike any other. His writing talks about our interconnections as human beings, and it demands to be listened to, felt, experienced. A Fugard play can be life changing. As a half-South African, I feel a certain emotional pull towards his work, and was very much looking forward to the production of The Road to Mecca, directed by Rey Buono, staged in conjunction with Astro-Shaw and Actors Studio.
This was a student production, utilising professional theatre practitioners as actors, stage and lighting designers, and director. It is a great work for students to study because it is essentially the journey of the mind and the world of an artist. Based on a real person, this is the story of Miss Helen Martins (played by the incomparable Jo Kukathas), a free spirit, an artist borne of her life and her earth and her soul – naïve artist, yes, but true, and like most real artists, unable to be anything but. This play brings you on a rollercoaster through the soul of creation, and the end should leave one feeling exalted, as if the light has burnt through to the essence of what is real.
Simon: I don’t expect to associate trauma with watching a play. Trauma abounds in this wonderfully written, sensitive depiction of an elderly Afrikaans woman’s struggle to find her voice within her pious community. Her interaction between what is expected of her by others, and her own insecurities and frailties, was completely missed by this appalling production of The Road to Mecca. This was not the kind of trauma that I was expecting to experience. This production had one redeeming grace – and that was Jo Kukathas’ performance in the role of Miss Helen. Even this, however, left me embarrassed in part to see her having to drag this production through a gruelling three hours to its culmination.
Pia: I agree. Jo pushed herself and rose to the occasion. She was loveable, honest, and heart rending as Miss Helen. She worked so hard. She was so real. I wished she had co-actors that could match her because it would have brought out an exquisite performance, but she had little or no support from either Jerrica Lai (as Elsa, her spiritual daughter) or Thor Kah Hoong (as Marius, the pastor, who loves her and yet cannot understand her). I actually like the acting I have seen from both of them in past productions, but here, they were, well… Did Rey Buono not give them any direction?
I was surprised and disappointed that a director with over sixty productions under his belt could have accepted such dire performances, and could have made such bad production choices.
In the relationship between Miss Helen and Elsa, there needs to be synergy, compassion and an unspoken connection. But Jerrica’s Elsa was totally one-dimensional. She had no connection to Miss Helen, she had no understanding of the stories she was telling. I couldn’t give a flying fuck about the woman she picked up on her long drive, or the man she loved who was married, or the baby she aborted. I had to physically restrain myself from going down onto the stage and telling her to STOP moving around when Miss Helen was speaking to her – to pay attention! And Jerrica can be a good actor, but this role, the subtexts, the fabric of this woman’s life – she did not do it justice. And that was a great shame because Elsa brings us into the story, and she is a counterpoint to Miss Helen – at once modern, and yet in need of another woman’s example of what it is to be truly free in the soul. This is essentially what Miss Helen gives and teaches Elsa, and yet we have none of this. The writing, and Jo’s acting, begged us to enter into this world, but the supporting performances were so deeply annoying that it was impossible.
And what of Thor? His role as Marius was the voice of the community in which Miss Helen finds herself. He has loved her for 20 years, and yet the repression of the Afrikaaner culture has made it impossible for him to express this longing. He does not understand her need to create art – and he is frightened of her exuberant creatures, her own road to Mecca. Thor as Marius was about as deadly as a bad nasi lemak after an all night party. He just had no sympathy, no truth to him, and no realism. There was nothing there, and as he dominates most of the second act, this was a troubling performance.
The lack of direction was not just visible in the performances of Jerrica and Thor, but was also evident in the directing choice of the monochrome lighting, reminiscent of the haze that we are currently experiencing, that accompanied four-fifths of this three hour production. This did nothing to….
Pia: … alleviate our terminal sense of boredom?
Simon: Yes! Thank you.
There were no attempts whatsoever to showcase the bright, glittering artistic talents of this truly amazing woman. The lighting seemed lazy, and in this newly designed theatre space, with new lighting rigs in place, I would have expected a little more.
Pia: I agree. I don’t understand why Mac Chan, whose lighting design is often masterful and full of character and texture, could light these three actors in totally flat, hazy orange monochrome. It did so much to deaden the acting and the words, and I feel for the students running the lighting rig who had nothing to do for over two and a half hours.
The play itself depends on the exposure of Miss Helen’s world at the end – when all the candles are lit, and the house reveals itself. However, this should not have been read as an excuse to do nothing for the first two and a half hours. The actors were literally one-dimensional cut outs and our eyes could not find any colour or redemption in what we were seeing.
Simon: The set lent itself to be used in so many ways that were totally under-utilised. It was only during the last half hour of this monochrome performance that we could even appreciate the subtle nuances of the set design in the way that it should have been: an accompanying part of Miss Helen’s world.
Pia: The set design by Raja Maliq was based on the real life Miss Helen’s home, and it was touching to see the statues and glittering glass and bursting suns. As we walked into the theatre, we actually walked through a beer bottle structure that had been built over the entrance. So much thought and love had been put into constructing this set, but the pay-off at the end was not worth the two and half hours we had to endure to get there.
Simon: There was not much to love about this production, which is ironic when this play is all about love.
Looking for the love in this play leads me finally to add that I hope that Jerrica has taken this opportunity to learn from the incredible performance of Jo Kukathas.
Pia: Here is an actor who leads us into her world and holds us there, loves us, cares for us, and brings us with her. She deserved a standing ovation. She did the writing justice, and made us think and feel. The set design made us experience a small part of Miss Helen’s magical world. Thank you to Jo and Raja Maliq for giving us a glimpse into how it all could have been.
Pia Zain is one of the founders of Dramalab. Simon Hegarty is her business partner.
First Published: 17.08.2005 on Kakiseni