Mr M, the idealistically flawed and melodramatic Bantu schoolteacher of Athol Fugard’s My Children! My Africa! a two hour discourse on one of our most deplorable times in history, the apartheid, could very well be the King Lear of the Karoo. This thought comes when the bedraggled and spiritually worn down teacher, afraid of the political path his best pupil Thami Mbikwana will take – which, against their oppression, involves fire and stones, rather than words and pens – is given his own monologue by the South African playwright where he opens his heart and expresses his real motives: “to do whatever his heart prompted without transgressing what was right” and to admit that “with the joy of attainment, he forgets his sorrows”.
He’s King Lear because Mr M (portrayed with duplicitous complexity by Anthony Ofoegbu) is almost self pitying as the illusions upon which he has built the latter years of his life are shaken up and he suffers his protégé’s rejection of him. He’s almost – at the point where he realises he has lost Thami to his comrades who are moving against the South African government’s enforced separation and stratification policy – on his common raging at the storm and about to howl “I am a man more sinned against than sinning” except, on Nancy Surman’s stage, this is not the wilds of pre-Roman Celtic Britain but a penned in, chained up classroom near Cape Town, and here a symbol of one of the apartheid’s most racist laws. Isabel, the privileged white girl, drawn into the two mens’ lives and their settlement via their schools’ collaborative efforts to win an English competition and who can’t quite grasp what it is like to be ‘in a black skin’ in the present epoch, although she is desperate to, can do nothing as she watches her newly found friends fracture their teacher/pupil relationship through ideological differences – differences that will prove tragic for all involved.
It’s interesting, beyond the cheery heartfelt rhetoric and Rose Reynolds’ shiny eyes and innocent unknowing sincerity as Isabel and Nathan Ives-Moiba’s calm, quiet arrogant self assuredness as Thami, to try and understand what Fugard is saying not just about apartheid, but about its greatest, unintentional by product: hope. For Mr M, even if he does not know it, it is a cruel thing to “put hope in a black skin and keep it alive”. It is the vehicle that allows him to see himself as a “traditionalist” a man who, at all costs, refuses to believe in and act upon violent instincts, a man who will and only can travel the whole of Africa through the pages of books rather than on his own two feet, and in director Roger Mortimer and Deborah Edgington’s interpretation – and Anthony Ofoegbu’s – becomes ‘savage’. For Thami, at least initially, hope is action, rather than investment, it is “revolution first, education second”: he does not yet see, although his journey takes him to it, that hope, like light at the end of the tunnel, as the Marxist philosopher and social critic Slavoj Zizek wrote recently, ‘might merely be another freight train.’
For Isabel, hope seems a no brainer. How can it be anything else, she doesn’t need hope herself until she is lost, until Mr M’s physical servility towards her and therefore unconscious propping up of the gross inequality he and Thami endure, here shown by Anthony Ofoegbu in his unconscious deferential bowing and clasping of hands, comes to its abhorrent and tragic end. We see, even as the directors cleverly have the actress insistently occupying Mr M’s place at his desk, even as she commands the space with a confidence that comes through a natural sense of entitlement (whereas the other two race around it or shrink in it) that she is as bound by the primitiveness of white supremacy and the patriarchicial notions that come with it, as they are: this in spite of her opening debate with Thami at the top of the play, which sets out her desire for equal education for women and for South Africa to ‘modernise’.
All three characters are so ideologically opposed it is hard to see how, even if Thami did not join his comrades in their revolution, the three could remain friends for long. Their ideological differences are given shape through nuanced acting styles that hide layers of character. Anthony Ofoegbu’s Mr M is by turns ardent, slippery and even sycophant, and when the mask slips, when his melodrama falls away, we realise we are not dealing with a simple personality of the Dostoevskian kind but someone who is deeply flawed, yet who tries to do good. Thami’s concrete unwavering views, his certainties, make Nathan Ives-Moiba’s portrayal earnest and not given to emotional outbursts. Yet to tip the balance of the scales where stones outweigh words, is Rose Reynolds’ Isabel. She has Mr M’s traditionalism and therefore, his melodrama, but also Thami’s quiet passion and intent, and this is the genius of the production. Therefore the ending embodies a mix of these notions and despite the tragedy that is the freight train, still transcends into the kind of hope that has courage at its core, where dreams and desires are by no means certain of becoming true.