Nearly fifty years after it was written, Athol Fugard’s poetic condemnation of South Africa’s Immorality Act, which prohibited interracial sexual relations until its repeal in 1985, still carries potency. Fugard’s is a story of discrimination, of erasure, and of yearning to be seen and heard. The play serves as a sombre memorial to the all-too-recent horrors of apartheid South Africa but, in a contemporary context, it is also in direct conversation with today’s worldwide problems of racism.
Statements… centres around Errol (Shaq Taylor), a black man, and Frieda (Scarlett Brookes), a white woman. Errol is a serious soul who hungers for a better life – financially, intellectually, romantically. Frieda lives a seemingly comfortable existence but is plagued by insecurities. In the face of rampant injustice, the pair commit the ultimate act of defiance: daring to love. The romantic seed is planted when Errol visits the library at which Frieda works, seeking books for his studies. They continue to meet illicitly there, having rendezvous in the dark, but their love is complicated by the harshly conflicting ways each experiences the world around them.
The stage is sparse, featuring only bare, black space with a kind of sinkhole in the centre (slickly designed by Niall McKeever). This sinkhole serves as a metaphor; it is quite literally forcing distance between the lovers. They attempt to communicate in spite of it, but it doesn’t get across. Sucked into the void. Rajiv Pattani’s precise and deliberate lighting design does well to highlight this. Sometimes, Errol and Frieda meet in the middle, uniting in physically intimate moments – but it never lasts long.
Both actors individually deliver strong and thoughtful performances. Taylor skilfully treads the line between Errol’s strength and vulnerability, conveying the inner conflict that bubbles underneath the surface. Brookes beautifully conjures Frieda’s desperation and blindsided willingness to stand by her man. JMK Award winner Diane Page’s precise direction lends these performances clarity. Something, however, doesn’t hit home for me in the portrayal of their affair. Here are two people risking their freedom and livelihoods to be with each other, but in the rare moments of physical closeness that are peppered between the conflict, the chemistry doesn’t reach sizzling point. Instances of tenderness aren’t given enough space to be fluid, to be soft – to breathe. In a play punctuated by discordance, this feels needed.
Fugard’s text is dense and demanding. There are, simply put, a lot of words. The characters routinely launch into sprawling, thematic monologues and, with not much action to focus on, it can feel like an inundation. Let your attention slip for a second, and you may find yourself losing grip on the character arcs – but this challenge of verbosity goes hand in hand with the subject matter we are being presented with – you can’t just look away.
When the pair do eventually get caught (not a spoiler, the clue is definitely in the title), a low, pulsing, threatening hum (sound design by Esther Kehinde Ajayi) energises the space. This, combined with the cold, brash interrogation of Detective Sergeant J. Du Preez (played intimidatingly by Richard Sutton), lends the production a new tension and anger. Errol and Frieda’s respective police statements highlight the harsh and unfair reality of the apartheid regime, as well as universal themes of privilege, poverty, and class. Eventually it all builds to a bitter, unhopeful end. No sugar-coating here.
Page’s production is sensitive and cerebral, if (appropriately) taxing. For all of the play’s ongoing global resonance, though – ‘a play about then, that is speaking to now’, as articulated by Page herself – I leave feeling a lack of present-tense urgency. I find myself wondering whether that’s because Fugard’s script, though inarguably a classic, now feels a tad antiquated in its style. Nevertheless, I reflect on Errol’s quoting of James Hutton’s Theory of the Earth: ‘no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end’. Will this world ever close the book on injustice? The message of the play is bleak, but it acknowledges the wounds of the past with honesty and vigour.
Statements after an arrest under the immorality act is on at the Orange Tree Theatre till 2nd October. More info here.