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Review of SOUTH AFRICAN SEASON at Jermyn Street Theatre

South African Season Jermyn Street TheatreTwenty years may be an eternity in politics, but it is also a pretty long time in the lives of small independent playhouses. All right, so perhaps the start-up of  the Jermyn Street basement theatre did not command quite the world headlines of post-apartheid government in South Africa. But – the two entities do turn twenty this year, so here’s a good cue for staging plays by some of that nation’s best authors.

Deliberately or otherwise, repression is the common theme of the season assembled by Jermyn Street’s artistic director Anthony Biggs. In other words, the three pieces amount to some celebration of South Africa’s new deal only if you dwell on the fact that the social, sexual, moral and physical obscenities which they portray took place in the past.

For example, the Immorality Act 1927 betrays its age and current irrelevance in its name. Or does it?  As the author of one of the plays (Statements After and Arrest under the Immorality Act), Athol Fugard has remarked in his published Notebooks, sex between the country’s racists remained a matter of keen and sinister interest to the makers and enforcers of the law until much later in the century.

His now forty-something-year-old play tells harrowingly of the legally inadmissible passion between a black man and a white woman, in the library where she works.

In the late Reza de Wet’s Fever, we are taken back still further, to the late nineteenth century and the remote Karoo farm where the hyper-English young woman Emma has come to work as a teacher. Here the repression appears to be of a kind more self-imposed and guilt-policed; and yet we are in the epoch of the Boer War, with all the keeping-down and forbidding impulses which sustained it. And of course a young Austrian neurologist called Freud is shortly to publish his revolutionary book on the interpretation of dreams.

Emma – full of well-mannered terror in Sian Clifford’s performance – is corresponding (what a vanished word that is) with her sister Katy back in England. And what a dramatic form the letter can still be as its recipient reads it out for the first time, with us as discreet co-recipients. After Emma has died, Katy comes across her private journals which deepen still further the nature of the woman’s traumatic sexual half-memories and imaginings. Wonderful balance and control by Peta Cornish as Katy as struggles to withstand the waves of fresh intelligence breaking over her. It is as if she has been pressed into service as a spy on her own flesh and blood and yet cannot turn down the task.

This deep entanglement between big public politics and small private lives drives the pathos of District 6: Our Buckingham Place. To anyone knowing anything at all about the bulldozing of one of Cape Town’s most vibrant quarters, the subtitle is an ironic glossing of the main one. In form, this piece is a one-man show, co-authored and performed by Basil Appollis. In content it teems and sprawls its way through the life of the district, the smells from the windows, the music in the doorways, the countless vital subplots of the hour and the day, the whole spirit of the place hanging among the down-at-heel shops and houses.

There is a touching continuity here as Appollis was the actor portraying Rive in Cape Town at the time that important and massively banned writer and academic was murdered at home. There’s only one way to describe this reading of Rive’s life and work in all its poetic anger, and that is to say that Appollis brings him back to life. It almost makes you reflect that in the repression business, not even death is as thorough as he cares to think.

This is a timely and thoughtful season. Chilling to think that while South Africa has binned its Immorality Acts, other countries of the continent have gone in the opposite direction, their governments approving the use of penalties even more severe than those of de Klerk’s predecessors. To misquote H.E. Bates, it’s foreign countries as the past. Perhaps that’s the most urgent message of the mail coming from Jermyn Street’s postage stamp of a stage.

Review by Alan Franks


A five week season featuring some of South Africa’s most acclaimed playwrights and best-loved performers.
The season includes major work by Athol Fugard and Reza de Wet, with performances by actors including Janet Suzman, Jack Klaff, Doreen Mantle and Basil Appollis.

To complement the season there will be a series of special workshops and events including a full production of a newly commissioned play by Jack Klaff, and readings directed by BBC Theatre Fellow at the Bush @ Lyric, Roy Alexander Weise. There will also be a discussion chaired by Dr Cindy Lawford & featuring Audrey Brown, the presenter of Network Africa on the BBC’s World Service.

These plays are being performed “in repertory” until 12th July so visit the Jermyn Street website for details and to book tickets.

Saturday 14th June 2014


  • Alan Franks

    Alan Franks is one of the senior reviewers for LondonTheatre1.com, contributing regularly with reviews for London and regional shows, as well as reporting on press launches. Alan Franks was a Times feature writer for more than thirty years, specialising in the arts and interviewing many leading actors, writers and directors, including Arthur Miller, Peter Hall, Woody Allen, Judi Dench and Stephen Sondheim. He is the author of several plays, including The Mother Tongue starring Prunella Scales, and his latest novel, The Notes of Dr. Newgate, is published by Muswell Press. http://www.alanfranks.com

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