|By CLIVE HIRSCHHORN
With the exception of Athol Fugard, indigenous South African playwrights whose work crosses the ocean are thin on the ground. It is especially good, therefore, to welcome Solomon and Marion, a compelling new two-hander by Lara Foot, the artistic director of the enterprising Baxter Theater in Cape Town, where it first premiered.
It’s jointly presented by The Print Room and the Birmingham Repertory Theater, and its London home is the Coronet in Notting Hill Gate, currently in the process of being refurbished into an exciting new cultural complex.
The play has also been accorded a seal of approval by the prestigious appearance of its star, Dame Janet Suzman, who gives a striking, heartfelt and deeply moving performance as Marion, a divorcee of a certain age living alone in a small, remote cottage somewhere in the Eastern Cape. Her daughter has emigrated to Australia to avoid South Africa’s escalating violence, and Marion, when we first meet her, is at her kitchen table writing a long, rambling letter to her.
Apart from a deteriorating heart condition, Marion remains haunted by the brutal and senseless murder, seven years ago, of her much-loved son Jonathan.
Her solitude is suddenly interrupted by the appearance of a gangly black youth who turns out to be the grandson of a woman who once did Marion’s washing for her. The boy, called Solomon (Khayalethu Anthony), is, initially, awkward and evasive, and Marion does nothing to put him at his ease. It transpires that he has been sent by his grandmother to keep an eye on her. As a token of his good intentions, he offers her some unappetising chicken feet – a delicacy where he comes from.
Being a two-hander, an unlikely relationship inevitably develops between this decidedly odd couple with their initial small talk and diffident period of adjustment leading to real concern and friendship as Solomon takes it on himself to repaint Marion’s cottage.
Fortunately, there is more to the play than just the cosy bonding of an elderly white woman and an easily accommodating black youth. What, you soon begin to wonder, are the real reasons for the boy being there? Is it out of genuine care for Marion and her well-being? Was he really sent by his grandmother? Will it all climax in tears?
In the end Solomon and Marion – polar opposites in every way possible – are metaphors for the complex contradictions to be found in today’s post-apartheid South Africa. It’s touching and sad but not without hope.
Suzman, herself a liberal South African who has done so much to keep the cultural flame burning in the country of her birth, is flawless as a woman reaching the end of her life bereft of everything except dignity and memories. Anthony’s Solomon – in the character’s personal quest for manhood and maturity through honest confrontation and redemption – is pretty good, too.
This is a small play with a big heart, sensitively directed by the author. It deserves to be seen.