For most of us in the western world Big Brother is a term coined by George Orwell in his novel 1984 and was appropriated for a popular reality television programme. The voluntary contestants are happy to be shown in all kinds of situations and broadcast to viewers anywhere in exchange for the fame (or infamy) of becoming some kind of celebrities. However in pre-Apartheid South Africa the Immorality Act governed the relationships between whites and non-whites. Sexual intercourse between whites and other races was viewed as immoral or indecent and partners could be jailed for up to seven years. They were informed against by neighbours, spied on, and photographed by the police, even in conditions of absolute privacy.
Troubled by the true story of Frieda Joubert (Jasmine Hyde) and Errol Philander (David Judge) Athol Fugard wrote the somewhat disingenuously titled short play in 1964. Not so much statements after an arrest, but also intimate confessions shared between lovers, the story begins with the naked bodies of the protagonists entwined on a dimly lit stage. They bare their souls to each other, as well as their unclad torsos to the audience; this is intimate exposure, which fails to shock a modern day audience. After a short time their nudity appears to be completely normal and we see nothing wrong with a black man and a white woman sharing a physically and emotionally close relationship.
There are intimations (not least from the title) that this will not end well. A malicious neighbour does not need to twitch from behind her net curtains, but views them from the bottom of her garden, and reports them to the police. Exposure, in all senses of the word, occurs when they are photographed, desperately trying to cover their bodies in what Fugard describes as the central image in their story – six terrible photographs of Joubert and Philander scrambling around in the twenty seconds of Hell which start with them together and end with them irrevocably apart.
Under the dim stage lighting it is not immediately apparent that Errol is black. The lady sitting next to me in the audience was born in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and immediately recognised his Cape Coloured accent, which is different from Frieda’s white Afrikaner dialect. Chatting to David (who hails from Manchester) after the show he explained how hard they had worked at perfecting their pronunciation and pointed out that the only South African actor in the cast is Jack Klaff (Du Preez). Although he appears as a menacing, gutturally voiced police officer, he is ironically an anti-Apartheid, pro-human rights campaigner. All three actors need to be congratulated for their boldness in foregrounding prejudice, and for their honesty in tackling its presentation on stage. David and Jasmine too, convincingly portray the mixed race couple. They are not merely two South Africans struggling against the full weight of the law, but they demonstrate their dilemmas and differences.
Racial segregation may be a historical fact for South Africa, but other countries continue to define their citizens in terms of their ethnic groups, including Sudan where Meriam Ibrahim is in prison, possibly awaiting a death sentence, for pursuing her Christian beliefs and for marrying a man who is not a Muslim. The Jermyn Street Theatre’s programme also informs us that South Africa has now introduced corrective rape as a punishment for lesbians, and other African states are introducing their own versions of the Immorality Act, although now the crime is homosexuality.
If you need to be reminded of relationship prohibitions as they were in South Africa this play will do the trick, and will also draw your awareness to similar fears operating in other nations. You don’t have to be born with skin of a different colour, you just need tobe different.
I will let Fugard have the final say: prejudice and fear, all conspiring together finally to undermine the ability to love directly and forthrightly.
- By Athol Fugard
- Directed by Cordelia Monsey
- Cast includes: Jasmine Hyde, David Judge and Jack Klaff
- Jermyn Street Theatre, London
- Until 12th July 2014
- Running time: 75 minutes
- Review by Sandra Lawson
- 13 June 2014