Athol Fugard is little known in Australia: we should be grateful to QTC for introducing his 1984 Road to Mecca to Brisbane with a top-rate production.
Centred on the true story of the charming and somewhat eccentric Miss Helen (Julia Blake), whose reclusive but satisfying existence as a folk artist is challenged by failing health and by those who care for her, it sets up a fascinating triangle of emotions and conflicts. While pastor and long-time admirer Marius Byleveld (Phillip Hinton) tries with good intent to manipulate Helen into signing herself into a nursing home, young and liberated friend Elsa (Caroline Kennison) counsels a path of independence.
The interrelationships between the characters as they struggle to impose their individual wills, while revealing more and more of their own turmoil and problems, are touchingly handled by the cast of three, under the imaginative directorial hand of Carol Burns.
The script is spare and to the point, the verbal joustings between the characters realistic. It perhaps flags a little in the latter part of the first act, which is particularly intense as it is carried entirely by two characters, but Act II maintains a strong focus.
An appropriately cluttered set features Miss Helen’s lifetime of sentimental bric-a-brac lots of glassware and other ornaments, candles and mirrors jostling for space on and around her aging and down-at-heel furniture, while her garden (in front of the stage) is crowded with her strange concrete castings of animals. The set is beautifully revealed when Miss Helen opens the play by opening her curtains (the stage curtain) to let in the light.
Julia Blake sensitively captures a lively and radical woman not ready to face the consequences of her aging, while Caroline Kennison is convincing as the intense young teacher from Capetown who has made a 10-hour dash by car in alarm that her childhood mentor is on the verge of suicide. For me the best performance is from Philip Hinton as the well-meaning fundamentalist Dutch Reformed pastor hiding his own hurts. His voice, mannerisms and body language perfectly capture the type of person his character is, entirely the unthinking prisoner of his background and environment, absolutely certain of his views, puzzled at Helen’s obstinancy, scandalised by Elsa’s attitude and foul mouth, and not even aware that one of his motives is a desire that Helen leave her money to his church rather than to her friend.
Accents are always a perilous thing in theatre. Some form of South African accent is now reasonably well-known to Australians, thanks to cricket commentator Tony Grieg, and issues of regional variation or Afrikaner/Anglo distinctions are probably of little interest to a local audience. In any event, voice consultant Melissa Agnew seems to have worked her charges well. Hinton’s Afrikaner accent sounds perfect, as does Kennison’s with its big city influences, although Blake seems rather more Anglo than Afrikaner.
It is fin-de-siecle South Africa but there is little to indicate the social and political revolution just around the corner. Fugard has one of his characters voice this, comparing their situation to Chekhov characters worrying about the cherry orchard while czarist Russia disintegrates.
Yet there is a lingering recollection of the young black mother carrying her baby on her back and patiently enduring an 80-mile walk after the white boss threw her off the farm when her husband died. Her problems are a world away from Miss Helen’s and her friends.
The production’s program notes are excellent, with a lot of helpful and digestible background about the playwright and the South African context.