This brilliant play finally arrives in London after triumphant runs elsewhere in the UK and South Africa. It is a deceptively simple affair – telling of the encounter between two damaged souls and the terrible secret that lies behind the pain that has crippled them both. The moment when Solomon reveals his part in the tragedy that has blighted Marion’s life is one of the most moving moments I have seen on stage for a long time.
Marion is a white woman living alone in the Eastern Cape area in a house which is neither in the city nor in a township. The house is pretty basic but there are books, and there are family photos on the wall, and her first words are those in a letter she is writing to her daughter in Australia. A young black man enters the house and at first it is impossible to tell if he is threatening or if he is frightened. Gradually they learn to like each other but for a long time we are left guessing why Solomon is there. When we learn the awful truth that lies at the heart of the story, we are forced to face up to some of the unpalatable facts about the new South Africa but also to glimpse the chances for redemption too.
It must be a daunting prospect for the young Kayalethu Anthony to play alongside the magnificent Janet Suzman, but he more than carries it off. His portrayal of a young man who needs some swagger to protect his pride but who is constantly trying to work out how to read the gruff and changeable Marion is brilliantly judged. The moments of anger when he resorts to speaking his native Xhosa language are very powerful and the moments of humour are equally charged.
It is difficult to find the right words to praise Janet Suzman’s wonderful and moving performance. The grumpy old lady, who tells Solomon that if he has come to kill her he better get it over with, morphs into a woman who combines a wary stance of self-preservation with an almost maternal concern for the young man. I don’t know South Africa but if, despite the tragic core to the story, there are real possibilities for relationships like that between Marion and Solomon, then there has to be optimism for the future.
The play is also a triumph for the writer Lara Foot who is the guiding spirit behind the Baxter Theatre Centre in Cape Town. Her ear for dialogue and her sense of the hidden meanings of language are finely tuned. The debates between the two protagonists about the use of the terms “my boy” and “Miss” and how they reflect racist attitudes – or not – are two of the many illuminating moments in the play.
It’s great to see the Coronet in Notting Hill beginning to reinvent itself as an arts centre offering theatre – and planning to add film in due course. And if they continue to attract plays of this calibre then it will become a new landmark for theatre in London. See this play!