Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Review: My Children! My Africa! at Trafalgar Studios 2



My Children! My Africa!
Trafalgar Studios 2
Reviewed on Monday 10th August 2015
★★★★

Caged up like prizefighters in an underground boxing ring, conflicting ideals batter each other mercilessly in a struggle for dominance in Athol Fugard's My Children! My Africa! at Trafalgar Studios 2. 

Set in 1984 apartheid South Africa; Isabel, a white girl from a private school, and Thami a fiercely intelligent black student at a nearby Bantu school, get involved in a cross-school debate competition, orchestrated by Thami's haplessly idealistic teacher, Mr M. Isabel and Thami discover an intellectual friendship which is threatened when the spectre of unrest and civil disobedience descends on the happy trio. Mr M implores his star pupil to seek change with words and language, but Thami has other ideas. For him, Mr M and his outdated ideas of peaceful dissidence represents the old fashioned cyclical wheel of colonialism and oppression. And it's time to stop the wheel from turning.

Fugard's deeply engaging play may have been published 25 years ago and set 6 years before that, but its themes are ever pertinent. What is the nature of freedom? And how best do we go about achieving it? The conflict between intellectual movements and the aggression of direct action is one that Fugard himself clearly struggled with, noting in the programme that the play reflects his “internal debate”. Here, Anthony Ofoegbu's Confucian inspired teacher, Mr M, is the exponent of drawing the lines of battle on a page, not the street. His is a performance of deep humility and passion; physical, strong and expertly pitched. Ofoegbu convincingly delivers the unimaginable pain of a man trapped between love of his pupils and fear of their evolving ideals. The subtlety of his performance conjures at once both the supportive, genial realist he is to Rose Reynold's Isabel, and the dated authoritarian he is in the eyes of Nathan Ives-Moiba's Thami. Reynolds is a charming presence as she uncovers dormant passions, whilst Ives-Moiba has the precision and physicality of a born leader, stiff and unknowable; an enigma to all but his off-stage 'comrades'.

Fugard's script makes full use of its literary themes, as poetry classes tumble into spontaneous recitals and his monologues ooze with creative imagery. The youthful vivacity with which Reynolds and Ives-Moiba hurtle to lyrically one up the other during their shared study was enthralling, and made the eventual disturbing parallels of Shelley's Ozymandias all the more haunting. 

Nancy Surman's design encapsulates segregation. There are separate entrances for the black and white actors, and the entire playing space is encased in barbed wire. The audience are placed on the other side of a cage, watching the prowling combatants forced upon each other in confinement, complicit but helpless. It's an evocative image, capturing Thami's increasing discomfort in his environment and the inescapable constraints of Bantu education which shackle Mr M. Jack Weir also does some lovely subtle lighting work, heightening tension with simple palette changes and expanding the world of the play; off-stage fires are suggested with vibrant reds that lick at the periphery, and car headlights illuminate a painful goodbye. 

Where things slightly fall apart is in Fugard's unflinching rhetoric. His language is powerful, and was obviously at times necessarily direct. However, seen today, it comes at the expense of believability in his characters. The eloquence of 18 year old Isabel and Thami stretches credibility from their very first classroom debate, and only becomes more distracting as they continue to butt intellectual horns. The verbosity of the characters leads to a slightly laden first act, where the passion is high but the pace occasionally drops. The play ages better as a historical snapshot of Fugard's outrage and ability to dramatically convey ideals, than it does as a satisfyingly convincing character study or narrative. 

However, this is still a brilliant revival of a rarely performed play, and has relevance in themes that can be taken in isolation from the apartheid setting. There is an intensity in the production, accentuated by strong performances and a creative design. The action may be caged, but Fugard's raw, unapologetic writing threatens to break out through sheer willpower alone. It is powerful, precise, and deserves not to be missed.

Reviewed by Will Clarkson

My Children! My Africa! runs at Trafalgar Studios 2 until Saturday 29th August 2015.
Please visit www.atgtickets.com for further information and tickets.

Photo Credit: Boris Mitkov

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