Dimetos – April 2009

3/10

By Athol Fugard

Directed by Douglas Hodge

Venue: Donmar Warehouse

Date: Thursday 16th April 2009

This was disappointing. The performances were fine, but neither Steve nor I could find much of interest in the play itself. I dozed a bit in the first half, it was so soporific, but Steve confirmed that I hadn’t missed much. Even though we were well round the side, we don’t think that affected our enjoyment that much, although we would prefer to be more central in future.

The story is absurdly simple. Dimetos is an older man, an engineer, who has left “the city” to live in a remote village. He does very little these days, although the opening of the play is a scene which shows him, with the help of his niece, rescuing a horse which fell into a well. Dimetos’ knowledge of pulleys and the like allows him to construct the necessary equipment to winch the horse out, while his niece Lydia, stripped to her skimpies, is lowered down to put the ropes round the horse, played by Alex Lanipekun. It’s an effective scene, though too long, and after that it’s all downhill.

Dimetos has a housekeeper, Sophia, and the quartet of characters is completed by Danilo, a visitor from the city, who tries to persuade Dimetos to return to help out with all the engineering challenges the city dwellers are facing with an ever-growing population. Dimetos gets him to stay by agreeing to consider his proposal, but then arranges for him to be alone with Lydia a lot, and the inevitable happens. He falls for her (she’s an attractive young lady), and that leads to a clumsy attempt to have sex which she repulses. After Sophia has been unsympathetic, and Dimetos reveals his own passionate feelings towards her, Lydia chooses to hang herself rather than go on living.

Finally Dimetos is tracked down to his even remoter hideaway by Danilo, and after their confrontation, Dimetos suffers a mental breakdown, which resolves itself into a story about a man dreaming he’s a horse who gets trapped down a hole, etc. In the process the few props get thrown around the set, leaving quite a mess for the stage crew to clean up, but without actually creating anything interesting to watch. The final image is of Dimetos holding out his hands, waiting to receive whatever the universe, or the gods, give him.

This is an attempt to do an updated Greek tragedy, but it doesn’t work on so many levels. The language was uninspiring (soporific, as I mentioned earlier), the characters didn’t involve me at all, there were no interesting discussions of any of the issues raised in the play – incestuous feelings, the overcrowding and excessive use of resources in modern societies, etc – the plot was predictable and dull, and only the performances made it remotely watchable. The relationships between the characters came across clearly, and I got the impression that the actors knew what the piece was about, but sadly the production didn’t include us in that awareness. Not one I’d rush to see again, although I wouldn’t completely rule out another viewing of a different production.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Sizwe Banzi Is Dead – March 2007

7/10

Devised by: Athol Fugard, John Kani, Winston Ntshona

Directed by: Aubrey Sekhabi

Venue: Lyttelton Theatre

Date: Thursday 22nd March 2007

This was a great performance of a really good play. I hadn’t heard of it before, and didn’t know what to expect – perhaps something a bit serious and weighty. Not a bit of it. The proceedings start with John Kani coming on stage with a newspaper. He’s wearing a white coat over his clothes, and he takes the chair to the front of the stage, sits on it, and starts to read the paper, chatting to the audience all the while. The house lights are up, so there’s no hiding place. The rest of the stage is almost bare – there’s just a table, a board on an easel at the back with Styles Photographic Studio across it, covered with lots of photos and indications of his work – “Weddings”, “Passports”, etc. To the left is an old-fashioned camera on a tripod, and to the right a smaller table with a telephone and some bits and bobs. Nothing else, although even these items are removed when not needed, leaving a very bare acting space.

John Kani chats to us in the persona of Styles for quite some time – almost 45 minutes, I think. The production only lasts 90 minutes, so I did wonder when we would be seeing Winston Ntshona. But the chat was so entertaining. He laughed a lot, this character, telling us what was in the paper, then telling us about his time at the factory (very funny, especially when he was translating for the “baas”), and then telling us about the magic of his studio, where people come to live out their dreams. He even gets a couple of audience members up from the front row to show them his pictures. Today, Sophie Okonedo was one of those selected, and she looked so shy getting up onto the stage. Styles chatted with them, as he chatted with all of us, including us all as part of his community.

Of course, there were more moving parts of his dialogue, along with massive amounts of humour, but most of the difficult stuff was in the second half, after the man who had been Sizwe Banzi arrived to have his picture taken. The mood shifted gradually, without ever becoming bleak or terribly dark, yet we were shown the lengths many black people had to go to in order to survive under apartheid. Sizwe Banzi, played by Winston Ntshona, was a simple man from the country, come to town to make some money for his family. By the time he arrives at Styles’ studio, he’s lost his name, and we get to see the process by which this happens. He’s not allowed to stay in town, and his passport has been stamped as such by white officials. He’ll be in real trouble if he doesn’t get back to his family by yesterday. Out on the town with a helpful chap, Buntu, they come across a dead black guy, who happens to have the right kind of stamps in his passport. With much reluctance, Sizwe agrees to take on the dead man’s identity. The next day he goes to the studio to have his picture taken, so he can send it to his wife, and let her know that her “husband” is dead, but that he, Robert, will be sending her money and hopefully a permit so that she and the family can join him in town.

His story is very moving, and still there’s plenty of humour on show. Even the ridiculous lengths to which Sizwe would have to go to get permission to move back to the town is turned to laughter. Buntu spells out in great detail how Sizwe would have to get this letter, then that letter, then this stamp and that stamp, etc., and after a great long speech, sums it up with one word – “Simple!”

The performances were just superb throughout. These two actors helped to devise this piece, and originally played it thirty-five years ago, as much younger men. Not only is it still fresh today (they had reworked it quite a bit in the first half to make it more topical), but their skills have presumably only improved over the years. We’re unlikely to see this play done better. (I enjoyed it so much we bought the play text afterwards, hence my knowledge of the reworking).

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me