Finborough Theatre, London – until 23 March 2019
Peter and Gladys pass their days tending potted plants and journaling. Life is quiet as they reflect on their lengthy pasts, stretching out behind them like toxic shadows. Neither are happy in their shabby, all-white suburb tense with apartheid-era legislation, but a visitor that evening may just be the thing they need.
The ageing married couple inhabit a tiny, kitchen-sink world fraught with disappointment and resentment, though it takes some time for it to bubble to the surface. The slow start and the heightened performances initially come across as forced and uncomfortable but once the pair start to clash, their chemistry sparks with compelling unpredictability. The first half passes quickly once it picks up pace, and the second is similarly engaging.
Celebrated director Janet Suzman uses the small space well, especially with the further constraints provided by the set, the facade of the house. Much of the story takes place in the garden, a sandy, claustrophobic place with no escape from the sun. Barbed wire on the tall fence indicates a threatening world beyond, and also acts as a device to keep these characters contained. It’s a small touch that speaks volumes from set designer Norman Coates.
Both the overt racism and microaggressions, though very much of 1960s South Africa, are not unrecognisable in today’s climate – it’s unsettling but necessary to see state-mandated racism pointed out so obviously. The white couple aren’t particularly likeable and don’t foster a great deal of sympathy, but a brief and charged appearance by their old friend Steve provides a much-needed black perspective. Fugard lets us down by focusing less on him, however.
There are some clunky moments in this production but once it finds its momentum, it keeps moving towards an ending that significantly fractures what remains of Gladys and Peter’s lives. Though utter ruination isn’t achieved, the cold devastation and existential despair that remains is sobering.