The Smiths’ family home is literally a broken one: rubble strewn across the floor, great hunking cracks torn into the walls. Laura Ann Price’s design for this Athol Fugard drama lets light seep through the walls into the communal living space, but it’s stale and oppressive, burnt orange. No ray of hope for Johnnie (Emilio Ianucci) who lives in the wreckage of other people’s lives. His family situation is reflected in the chairs thrown asunder: two missing from the table, one barely serving its purpose any more. Johnnie’s a sole carer who’s been stripped of his mission, leaving him vulnerably open to the bullying tactics of estranged sister Hester (Jo Mousley) who’s intent on compensation.
Fugard’s play is undeniably bleak, imbued with a sense of hopelessness whilst its characters put that inevitable ending off for as long as possible. John R Wilkinson’s production feels like a modern tragedy in the vein of Tennessee Williams, futile and gripping.
Hester is a brute, and Mousley captures her frustration perfectly. Mousley swans around as Hester unpacks jars of jam, a paltry possession she’s had to pack hurriedly whilst escaping rented rooms. Rearranging her brother’s hovel however, she stands tall and condescending, revelling in her power as big fish in a small pond. Her hunger for power, coupled with Johnnie’s cowed nature after abandoning any sense of upward mobility, makes the air stifling.
That the two are diametrically opposed is set off well by Wilkinson’s direction. Sure, this is a two-hander, but by people who don’t want to share the space: when Hester speaks, Wilkinson has her dominate the room. Ianucci is curled tightly in the corner, so still that when Johnnie next speaks it’s enough to make you jump. Johnnie’s need to go undetected carries through to his quiet reordering of a broken space. When Hester hurls items around the room, Johnnie resets lamps and rights chairs with a hangdog expression. There’s no desire to change the status quo, making the play’s conclusion only the more inevitable.
The presence of their late father looms over the performance, a safety blanket that Johnnie in particular clings to. Ianucci adopts a wistful expression when leaning on a forgotten pair of the father’s crutches: it’s the first time we see his face relax. The embarrassing degree of loyalty Johnnie shows to his father extends to recycling shirts, anecdotes, a blind refusal to see their parents’ marriage through Hester’s eyes. He idealises being an amputee rather than himself for the sheer privilege of having lived, Ianucci’s murmured anecdotes enough to leave you bereft.
A play like this calls for anger, but it’s a tender (if performative) gesture from Hester which hits a chord in the show’s conclusion. The siblings share an inevitable cursed inheritance, they’re fraught with anger for one another. Yet that glimpse of kindness sits for a moment, just long enough to let you imagine the alternate ending. It feels like a crack to let some of the good light in, even if neither sibling wants to see it.
Hello and Goodbye is on at York Theatre Royal until Saturday 30th November. More info and tickets here.