Finborough Theatre, London – until 23 March 2019
What little I know about aloe plants comes from a visit to a nursery where I was told that their sap is used as a balm to soothe irritations and cure minor wounds. Their bitter juices keep predators at bay and they have a remarkable ability to thrive in the most hostile of environments.
Athol Fugard’s blistering drama, A Lesson From Aloes, which proved so contentious that it was almost banned in the 1970s, has been revived to coincide with the 25th anniversary year of the first free and democratic elections in South Africa
It opened this week at London’s Finborough Theatre, with actor/director Janet Suzman at the helm, and these spiky little succulents succeed in opening up old wounds despite only having a walk-on part in the production.
Aloes is set at a time of deep political unrest in South Africa when apartheid was at its height and government forces showed no mercy at public protests. This story of apartheid, loyalty, friendship and betrayal, pitches former friends, a white Afrikaner and a black activist, against each other during a tense, farewell dinner in 1963.
But it’s a very uneven and wordy production. Fugard wastes almost the entire first act slowly setting the story up for a far more compelling and pacy second. The audience is given a tutorial in aloe plants which former farmer, Piet Bezuidenhout, keeps as a hobby to deflect from the reality of his miserable situation.
We meet his wife, the mentally unstable Gladys, and we wait for the arrival of Piet’s old friend, Steve, who was interrogated by the security forces and is now being expelled from his homeland. And we listen to a lot of exposition, English poetry from Piet, highly animated conversations and repetitive dialogue.
Piet does his best to placate his disturbed wife but you can’t help feeling he’d prefer to be with his dibber, re-potting and talking to his plants.
The play comes alive with the arrival of Steve. It’s their first encounter after some time and it seems friendly enough. Piet throws his arms around his pal, there are lots of smiles, they hug and drink wine.
But you could cut the atmosphere with a knife. Something’s there, simmering under the surface, and it isn’t long before the tension breaks and accusations and confessions are being hurled across the dining table.
This three-hander features some fine performances. Dawid Minnaar and Janine Ulfane are excellent as the scared, isolated and paranoid couple who are hiding away in their own Xanadu.
But, I have to admit, I became less charitable towards the unhinged Gladys the more the play progressed.
She appears to have had a breakdown following an incident which, while not trivial, was hardly devastating (it could have been a lot worse).
Perhaps she symbolises the wider fear felt among Afrikaans in troubled 1960s South Africa but it’s clear by her language that she’s a racist at heart. Do we excuse her behaviour towards both her husband and guest just because she is ill?
David Rubin is terrific as the volatile, fiery, conflicted Steve who is reluctant to believe the worst of his long-time friend.
A slow burner, A Lesson in Aloes shines a light on the human victims of a once wretched regime that pitched friends against each other and nurtured fear and mistrust.
Running at the Finborough Theatre until March 23.
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