Jacob Anderson, Howard Charles, Peter Landi, Syrus Lowe
Painting a Wall was written in 1974 as one young South African writer’s impassioned response to the hopelessness his country’s regime represented for most of its people. This production is its first UK revival since then.
In 1970 Cape Town, four ‘coloured’-classified men are painting a wall, even though the colour they have been given is the wrong one.
It’s a futile task, yet they have to perform it with the same kind of unquestioning obedience that the system demands from them in following countless rules of suppression and separation.
Initially, the banter between them is light-hearted and the political reality creeps into their conversation only surreptitiously, in form of jokes and throwaway remarks. This is the play at its best, portraying the four men with sympathetic realism, and the cast do a great job of bringing them to life.
But as the conversation between them gets more heated and obviously political, the four reveal themselves as personifications of different responses to the oppression. The main opposition is between Samson (Syrus Lowe) and Willy (Howard Charles), the first representing the getting on the best you can approach, the second more uncompromisingly rebellious, but continuously overcome by the impossibility of the idea.
The most poignant character, however, is the unassuming Henry (Peter Landi), the oldest on the team. Made to work despite the recent death of his daughter, he bears his cross quietly and doesn’t participate in the debate of his younger colleagues. But when he finally does break and attempts suicide a fact that goes almost unnoticed by his co-workers this is the defining moment of the play. Among charged debates about what moral choice one should make in the face of political oppression, it is often the sheer despair of those most afflicted by it that goes unnoticed.
David Lan, now artistic director of Young Vic, was only 22 when he wrote the play and while it’s a remarkable achievement, for all its apt symbolism and well-written dialogue, it does in many ways betray a pen that had yet to mature.
The characters are more sketched than fully developed, and psychological motivation for their actions is rarely worked out. Willy constantly switches from irreverent joviality to rebellious bloody-mindedness for no apparent reason. We get a hint of Samson’s deeper frustrations when he spills a bucketful of water over the paint-mixing boy Peter, but again, this isn’t elaborated on.
Likewise, the more theoretical insights into the political situation are often clumsily incorporated. After the action seems to have firmly reached a close, Willy has a long monologue about the disenfranchising effects of language; then Samson tells a story of his sister who, having married a rich man in Swaziland, now treats her servants just as badly as her master used to treat her. They are both interesting points, but feel appended onto rather than included into the story.
As a political testimony Painting a Wall is noteworthy, and as a play it is put together well enough to hold your attention for an hour and a half. However, it must be admitted that it has to be appreciated more for political and historical than for artistic reasons.