In the hours after watching Janet Suzman’s revival of Athol Fugard’s 1978 play, A Lesson from Aloes (last staged in London in 1983), I became fixated on looking for parallels between the story of apartheid resisters in the earlier days of South Africa’s racist regime, and our own time and place. Set in 1963, the year after Nelson Mandela was imprisoned, it depicts three middle-aged people – two white, one mixed-race – struggling to survive in a society that is becoming increasingly oppressive. It’s being staged to mark 25 years since the country’s first democratic election, but I couldn’t help searching for some kind of allegory to the political traumas of the UK of 2019.
Eventually, though, I accepted that the story has enough work to do occupying its own troubled and distinct historic, geographic context to tell us anything about our own. But that’s not to say this powerful production didn’t chime with me. This is no historical artefact: its three characters feel real, and the challenges they face are moving and relatable. If there’s a theme that transcends its setting, it’s the personal toll of political events.
It’s set in the backyard of the house of Piet (Dawid Minnaar) and Gladys (Janine Ulfane), a white couple on the wrong side politically of the South African regime. In the first act, the pair are getting ready to host guests for dinner: Steve (David Rubin), an old comrade in the resistance movement, and his wife and four kids. As they fret and quibble, we learn about the personal toll the situation has taken on each of them. Gladys has had her personal diaries seized by the authorities and not returned, causing a decline in her mental health, the awful consequences of which only become clear towards the end of the play. And the fate of Steve, who it emerges has spent the last four years in prison and is now preparing to leave the country with his family, has driven a wedge between Piet and his former allies, who suspect him of being the informant who turned Steve in to the police. In the second half, Steve arrives, alone, hours later than expected, and the truth emerges.
There are strong performances from all three actors, who bring out the sense in which the trust between the three characters endures, while being severely tested. Janet Suzman’s production in the cramped performance space of the Finborough Theatre captures the claustrophobia in the lives of Piet and Gladys, who now have little contact with anyone else, while the optimism carried by Steve, and the freedom he hopes to find when he leaves for England, are made vivid by Rubin’s terrific energy.
While Steve sees nothing for him in South Africa, Piet is determined to stick it out, just like the aloe plants of the title, which have evolved to thrive in the tough conditions of the Eastern Cape, and with which Piet has become obsessed (unfortunately a slightly laboured metaphor).
Piet’s stoicism in staying is an easier decision for him because he is white, and a man. Gladys and Steve have both been subjected to far worse treatment, and a result Steve feels he has no choice but to leave, while Gladys only wants to disengage. But while Piet might have looked intransigent or even deluded to audiences at the time, from the vantage point of 2019, his attitude looks more admirable and prescient: 12 years after the first performance, Mandela was released from prison, and four years after that, he was President.
A Lesson from Aloes is at Finborough Theatre until 23rd March. More info here.