Donmar Warehouse, London WC2
  Opened 25 March, 2009

I spent much of the first hour or more of Athol Fugard’s play wondering how, on its first appearance in 1975, it could ever have been thought apolitical. Certainly, its setting is mythical and somewhat abstract. But in the great engineer Dimetos’ retirement to a rural backwater and refusal to be enticed back to work for the city we can see the conflicting imperatives of the one and the many; in his guilty, devious love for his niece, the power of one individual over another; in her discovery of this and response to it, the clash of ideals or principles and reality. All of these, surely, are fundamental political situations. The superposition of abstraction and politics is almost Howard Barkerian.
However, as the evening progressed, it became harder and harder to discern any way in which these symbols might fit together as a coherent metaphor for the struggle of the time for South African freedom, or Fugard’s own relationship to it. There is in Dimetos a kind of characteristically Afrikaner recalcitrance, but about what? And in the final phase after the interval, as he tries to find redemption from the pervasive stench of the body washed up on the shore (which may or may not be his niece’s body mystically returning after her suicide), what does it – indeed, what does any of it – mean? Blowed if I know. Director Douglas Hodge has admitted that one reason he took the play on was to try to figure it out himself; he doesn’t seem to have done so.
What he has done is stage a sensitive production on Bunny Christie’s set of wooden beams, ladders and incomplete walkways. If Holliday Grainger as niece Lydia is on the winsome side and Alex Lanipekun as the city’s emissary Danilo is altogether too shouty for the Donmar’s space, Anne Reid is deceptively commanding as the flinty housekeeper Sophia and Jonathan Pryce quite compelling as Dimetos. Whether keeping himself buttoned tightly up against Danilo’s embassies or disintegrating into a stream of engineering-and-dream-tale gibberish in the final minutes, Pryce is constantly alive and in the moment. It is a particular delight to see his skills on show in such an intimate venue. His performance almost shines through even the opacity of the play itself.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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