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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
THE ROAD TO MECCA
at Arcola Theatre

LACK OF URGENCY
By RHODA KOENIG

  Ph: Idil Sukan

Though its main character is a woman and based on a real person, The Road to Mecca (1984) is Athol Fugard's most personal play. In it he examines the nature of art, the character of the artist and the artist's place in society. While he does this in a way that is sensitive and penetrating, he also does so in a way that is very low-key, a quality not helped by Russell Bolam's leisurely production. The problems of an elderly, eccentric villager at odds with her conformist neighbours do not grip us as they should, though the splendid acting of Linda Bassett in the part is a demonstration of intelligent and affecting art.
 
It is 1974 in South Africa, 20 years before the end of apartheid. Though the characters are all white, the rigid and condescending beliefs of the system are characteristic of the way the inhabitants of a village view the world. Helen, an elderly widow, has always been an ordinary housewife, devoted, like her neighbours, to the local church. But, suddenly inspired, she forsakes religion for art, filling her house and garden with bizarre statues. Adults whisper. Children throw stones.
 
The folk-art environment of the real Helen has long been a tourist attraction, but, ill, isolated and despairing, she committed suicide. Fugard's Helen, likewise in distress, faces removal to an old-age home by a minister contemptuous of her pagan art. Helen's one ally, Elsa, who also existed in real life, is a schoolteacher 40 years younger, who is a bit of a firebrand (she believes that the blacks should be given a say in the way they are treated). While she starts out defending her friend's independence, Elsa starts to worry that Helen may indeed have become too frail to manage on her own. Cutting her off from her art, however, seems to promise a slow death.
 
The two-and-three-quarter-hour play spends most of its first hour in small talk, much of which is irrelevant and stilted; the fiery Elsa often sounds like a genteel middle-aged lady. With the arrival of James Laurenson, the smiler with the knife (though the actor is a bit too mild), the play becomes tense with conflicts of intention and understanding, envy and ego masquerading as kindliness. Throughout Bassett is a warm but elusive figure, still puzzled by the way artistic fervour has descended upon her and by the way it has, at the time of the play, disappeared. Her battle with inner demons blends with the domination of the minister and the intense but somewhat misguided support of Elsa (lovely performance by Sian Clifford) in a way that is deeply affecting in this dramatic plea for everyone to be allowed to follow his or her own God. Still, one waits in vain for a stone on the window or anything else that would lift the play from its earnestness to a plane of dramatic urgency.

 


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