Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Road to Mecca at the Arcola

This engaging revival of Athol Fugard’s play, though at times ponderous, has many things to commend it, not least a memorable central performance from Linda Bassett.

Barefoot, with her fingers twisted inwards, Bassett plays Miss Helen, an elderly widow, who in the years following the death of her husband, has turned her small, tin-roofed house in Nieu-Bethesda, South Africa, into a work of art, full of glitter and colour. Her drive to create, to give shape to the pictures in her mind, has not been limited to the inside of the house - her garden is also overflowing with statues of wise men and owls, all aligned towards the east. (The play was based on the life of Helen Martins whose wonderful 'Owl House' still stands).

The villagers and the local church council are uneasy about Miss Helen’s work; to them it is bodering on idolatory. She has planted her peacocks and camels on good farming land, making her a subject of suspicion. Her art may have freed her spiritually and brought light into a life of darkness, but it has also isolated her.

Her few remaining friends include Marius, the local pastor, an unseen local girl, and Elsa, a determined young teacher who has just driven the twelve hours from Cape Town because she’s concerned about Miss Helen’s well-being.

The frienship between these two women gives the play its heart. Separated by almost forty years in age, a deep and mutual affection glows from the both. Fearing the return of the darkness, Miss Helen calls out to Elsa for help, a raw plea that Elsa cannot ignore. Miss Helen's is becoming increasingly poor-sighted and arthritic. Her habit of lighting candles to flood her home with light has already resulted in one small fire and Marius is concerned she can know longer care for herself. He suggests she may be better off in an old peoples' home and has even brought her the necessary paperwork to sign.

Russell Bolam's production is slow-paced and rather meandering. It runs to over two and half hours and it feels it, but it places its trust in Fugard’s play and in the elegance of the text. Though the production contains its fair share of lulls and slumps, it grows richer the longer it sits in the memory - new pictures tease their way to the surface. The play contains a number of moments of emotional power. The most charged of these is the scene in which Miss Helen finds her voice and is finally able to make Marius understand that her work, her Mecca, is more than just a few 'ornaments', it is her life, her salvation and without it she is nothing, dust.

Bassett’s performance is wonderful. Sometimes she appears cowed and timid, a fragile, slightly dotty creature in need of aid and guidance, but she grows visibly into a woman infused with pride and passion, who has finally found her purpose in life and who knows exactly who she is.

Sian Clifford provides fine support as Elsa, whose deep affection for Miss Helen can at times make her overly strident. She is spiky yet tired, frustrated by the things in her world she cannot change, sapped by a recent love affair with a married man. The play is set in 1970s South Africa and Elsa is the Cape Town white liberal who prides herself on being forward looking in her thinking. She seems to enjoy getting her wrists slapped by the authorities for setting provocative assignments. She is haunted by the young woman sh gave a lift to on her drive down to see Miss Helen, a young woman with a baby on her back and an 80 mile walk ahead of her.

Fugard allows each of his characters their strengths and failings. Elsa cannot resist speaking for Miss Helen even while urging her to find her own voice and strength, her love is sometimes expressed as frustration and anger; sometimes she is so busy revelling in her own guilt she fails to listen. Marius, the pastor and the voice of the community, played by James Laurenson, is also far from one-note; he genuinely cares about Miss Helen, maybe even loves her, and is just as convinced he is acting in her best wishes.

Ruth Hall's set, is by necessity, simple and limited. It gives a sense of Miss Helen's home but makes little attempt to replicate her idiosyncratic creations. The glitter of candlelight is enough to convey the beauty of the world she has made for herself - the audience are left to paint their own pictures. This is echoed in the way the play depicts South Africa. Just as Miss Helen's art remains in shadow, the play too shines its light only on a trio of white characters. The other South Africa, the one outside Miss Helen's door, the one that evokes such frustration in Elsa, remains in shadow.

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