A Lesson From Aloes
Reviewed – 5th March 2019
“There are some careful directorial choices that navigate the claustrophobia of the relationships”
A Lesson from Aloes begins with names: ‘names are not just labels’ says Piet, naming the only thing that survives droughts, his Aloe Vera plants. The play is deceptively simple. Set in 1963, a year after Nelson Mandela’s imprisonment in a sleepy, dry suburb of Port Elizabeth, Piet and his wife, Gladys are throwing Steve a small party to celebrate his being let out of prison. But at the height of apartheid, the friendship between a white Afrikaaner couple and a black man is fraught with difference. What follows is a story that examines what it means to belong somewhere.
Names are important in Athol Fugard’s writing, (see, for example, Sizwe Bansi is Dead) because they can demonstrate the crushing contradictions of both feeling displaced and rooted at the same time. Janet Suzman’s superb production at The Finborough brings out all the difficult and delicate debates of this rarely revived piece. As the play delves into questions relating to the limits of white liberalism and to the boundaries of friendship between different races and genders, the play feels very timely.
This is a story about a marriage and a friendship after a crisis. It is a story in which love and trust bear the burden of lost hope and disgrace. Fugard’s genius lies, however, in the relationships he creates, and Suzman’s direction is particularly sensitive to this. There are some careful directorial choices that navigate the claustrophobia of the relationships as well as the Finborough’s small stage.
Norman Coates’ set design adds to this atmosphere with a dominating sandy beige hue that acts as a stark contrast to the green Aloe plants which Piet treasures as a sign of survival. Coates’ clever staging also evokes the fundamental interplay of the private and public spheres for at its core, this play focuses on the moments when the political becomes deeply personal.
The cast are so in tune with one another that they feel like people with long, shared histories. Janine Ulfane delicately portrays Gladys, a woman broiling with a rage that cannot find an outlet. Opposite her, Dawid Minnaar wonderfully delivers the mild-mannered, kind and proud Piet. David Rubin’s Steve is bold and convincing. Disempowered by their gender and their race, respectively, Ulfane and Rubin give shape to two very different kinds of victims, with different ways of navigating their anger. This contrast brings out a very poignant ending.
This is a fearless and nuanced piece. As a slightly longer show of two hours, it has the time to gradually build relationships and then, to push them to their limits. Though South Africa seems far away, Suzman’s production has brought debates about race, gender and belonging to, what was last night, a remarkably all white audience. It seems like a very good time to explore whiteness, privilege and political engagement with the sharpness and diligence akin to Fugard’s.
Reviewed by Tatjana Damjanovic
Photography by Alixandra Fazzina
A Lesson From Aloes
Finborough Theatre until 23rd March
Last ten shows reviewed at this venue: