An unsilencable voice: a fine tribute to a great South African

Enormity: Ralph Lawson plays Alan Paton. Photograph courtesy State Theatre, Pretoria.

Enormity: Ralph Lawson plays Alan Paton. Photograph courtesy State Theatre, Pretoria.

He sits in a beautiful space, filled with books and he contemplates the relentless enormity of loss. This simple gesture is the delicate pivot to A Voice I cannot Silence, a new South African play which gives flesh and poetry to a reflection on the life of Alan Paton (1903-1988), arguably, one of this country’s most important novelists and educators – and the writer of Cry the Beloved Country (1948).

It’s a three hander, cast with great effect around Paton’s words, paying tribute to his second marriage with a woman called Anne Hopkins – played magnificently by Clare Mortimer – who first came into his life as a secretary. Hinged on his political opinions and gestures, his life, his foibles and vulnerabilities, the play is nothing short of a masterpiece: honed with a great level of respect and dignity, the work, in the hands of lesser performers might have been text heavy, but with Lawson in the central role opposite Mortimer, with Menzi Mkhwane reflecting on the children that passed through Paton’s hands,  text is nimbly cast between performers in a way that evokes the quick give and take of shuttlecocks in badminton.

Indeed, the Englishness of Hopkins is splayed wonderfully across the work, offering an understanding of three very diverse cultures and political positions in a country rooted in racist values and suffocating its own potential with legislation. And indeed, this is a very dignified and respectful play, but the poetry of the language, the construction of the work, the presence of birds, bullfrogs and crickets and the thoughtful weaving together of diverse ideas yields a piece which is delicate and crisp, whilst it remains formal. Never boring, deeply incisive, this is a really special play.

And while Paton is given empathetic three dimensionality as a principal, a politically conscious individual and a crotchety yet lovable ageing icon, the unfathomable void that great loss brings is filtered through this work with a deft hand and an impeccable sense of delivery. If you have known loss in any capacity, these words will talk directly to your pain.

Similar in structure to Athol Fugard’s The Shadow of the Hummingbird, performed in Johannesburg last August, this work offers an even greater sense of reflection. Never stooping to hero-worship or hollow self-deprecation, the piece is a portrait of a great man, which is deeply touching in so many ways, from his sense of self to the heartbreaking tales of the youngsters Paton worked with as a reformatory warden who transmogrified into a principal, touching and enriching their brokenness.

The only issue with the set was the occasional glaring of the desk lamp into the face of the audience, which is distracting. Having said that, the production works beautifully in the generous space of the State Theatre’s Momentum theatre – that small space without wheelchair access at the end of a long corridor and a narrow flight of stairs – but the bigger context of the theatre complex is far from welcoming to the general public: there’s a crass and disturbing haphazardness in the environment which feels disrespectful. Know, however, that A Voice I Cannot Silence is so wisely made, performed with such an intense and rich understanding of the value Paton brought to the South African narrative, that if you’re travelling from Johannesburg to see the work, it will not be a 50km driven in vain.

Hopefully this play will have considerable legs nationally, in the not too distant future. It’s an important and beautiful reflection of one of South Africa’s heroes.

  • A Voice I Cannot Silence is written by Greg Homann and Ralph Lawson. It is directed by Greg Homann and features design by Nadya Cohen (set), Michael Broderick (lighting) and Evan Roberts (soundscape). It is performed by Ralph Lawson, Menzi Mkhwane and Clare Mortimer at the Momentum Theatre, State Theatre complex in Pretoria, until October 24. Visit statetheatre.co.za
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