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A Lesson From Aloes at the Finborough Theatre | Review

Dawid Minnar Janine Ulfane - Photograher credit Alixandra Fazzina.
Dawid Minnar Janine Ulfane – Photograher credit Alixandra Fazzina.

“Survival of the fittest” is a phrase that originated from Darwinian evolutionary theory as a way of describing the mechanism of natural selection. Which means that even in the most inhospitable of placers, life will find a way – even if at times, you may look and think what’s the point? For example, in South Africa, the aloe plant is considered one of the country’s most powerful, beautiful and celebratory symbols. It survives out in the wild when everything else is dried. At the end of everything, the aloe is still there. And it is this survival that is at the heart of Athol Fugard’s A Lesson From Aloes which has returned to the UK and is currently in residence at the Finborough Theatre.

Set in South Africa in 1963, where apartheid is at its height and the citizens are living in a paranoid police state. The play revolves around a middle-aged left-leaning couple – Afrikaner Piet Bezuidenhout (Dawid Minnaar) and his wife Gladys (Janine Ulfane). Piet has amassed a collection of locally grown Aloe plants but is frustrated as he has found one he can’t identify. Gladys who has been away, is recently returned to the home and indulges Pet’s obsession to name the plant but is herself on a knife edge emotionally. The two of them are waiting for Piet’s friend, and fellow campaigner, Steve (David Rubin) and his family to arrive for dinner. The couple do not have many friends or visitors since Steve, a coloured man, was sent to prison for his political activism by the white authorities. When Steve arrives, he and Piet seem to slip easily back into their friendship, but underneath, suspicion, resentment and failure lurk ready to spring to the surface at any time.

This is the first London production of A Lesson From Aloes in 35 years and it is quite an intense piece of writing. South African born playwright Athol Fugard is well known for his writing of political plays opposing apartheid and A Lesson From Aloes dates back to 1978. Unfortunately for me, the story didn’t really work. The first act felt that it took a long time to go virtually nowhere. By the end of it, I didn’t feel I knew Piet or Gladys that well as characters. I had some knowledge of their personalities and the things they had been through but not enough to take forward to the introduction of Steve in the second act. Indeed by the end, as the lights went down I found I had more questions than answers. Interestingly enough, by the end, I thought the strongest character was Gladys which was not the way it seemed at the beginning and, in fact, the character I least understood was Steve. Whilst I could get his need to protect his family, I was surprised at how quickly he seemed to have capitulated to the regime.

That isn’t to say anything negative on the acting. Minnaar, Ulfane and Rubin, inhabited their characters really well and made them very believable. This was particularly true in the second act where there were really intense and highly charged interactions between the three. The cast were helped by Norman Coates’ excellent and very authentic looking set which fitted a lot into a relatively small space and didn’t skimp on the minor details – I was highly impressed that the outside tap worked for example. Costumes were also really good and looked very era-appropriate. Again, I will single Gladys out here as her dress was to me, perfect for the character of a middle-aged white woman who dreams of an England she has seen in a picture.

Janet Suzman’s direction was spot on. At times – and again, I come back to the second act – using just a sideways look to convey a wealth of emotion. Finally the lighting by Mannie Manim and sound by Rachael Murray, really added to the set to create a very authentic feeling backyard and bedroom for the characters to dance around each other.

I love plays that make me think or can provide discussion points in the bar afterwards. What I’m not so keen on are plays where at the end I don’t feel I was intellectually strong enough and missed the point of the play. Unfortunately, A Lesson From Aloes did leave me feeling like that. Having carried out some research today, I seem to be in a bit of a minority, but at the end of the day, a review has to be subjective. Overall, an interesting play that is well presented and acted and really came into its own for me during the second act but, ultimately, left me feeling I had missed something.

3 Star Review

Review by Terry Eastham

In the small backyard of a house in a shabby Port Elizabeth suburb, pots of aloe – the desert plant that can thrive in the most barren soil – bear silent witness to a world where trust has been betrayed and destroyed.
South Africa in the 1960s. Apartheid is at its height. Mandela’s ANC has just been banned as a terrorist organisation.
Informers are everywhere.
Left-leaning Afrikaner Piet and his wife, Gladys, hold a party for their mixed-race friend Steve who has just been released from prison.
But when mistrust creeps into your own backyard, the closest of ties are undone. Who has betrayed this group of friends? And why is one of them on a one way ticket out of the country?

by Athol Fugard.
Directed by Janet Suzman. Designed by Norman Coates. Lighting by Mannie Manim. Sound by Rachael Murray.
Cast: Dawid Minnaar. David Rubin. Janine Ulfane.
Presented by A Million Freds in association with Neil McPherson for the Finborough Theatre.

Finborough Theatre
118 Finborough Road, London SW10 9ED
Wednesday, 27 February – Saturday, 23 March 2019


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