The Road to Mecca @ Arcola Theatre, London

cast includes
Linda Bassett, Sian Clifford, James Laurenson

directed by
Russell Bolam
It might sound counterintuitive but Hegel’s history of Africa was precisely not that. The German scholar who shaped so much of Western thinking declared the entire continent “historyless”: a place without knowledge or its possiblity, uncivilised and uncivilisable.

Athol Fugard’s hit 1984 play is on one level a complex elaboration of an African modernism, making claims for art and the artist. However that it does so using solely white characters at the crux of the apartheid regime, has it sailing close to a particularly unfavourable political wind.
The artist in question is Helen Niemands, played with elastic scope by Linda Bassett, the widow of a farmer in rural South Africa who devoted her life to decorating her traditional farmstead cottage in a dazzling array of sharded coloured glass, with strange Blakean sculptures where the vegetables once grew.

Miss Helen’s friendship with the young social worker Elsa Barlow, a vigorous and clever performance by Sian Clifford, makes for a touching portrait of an existential pairing in a barren land. While Helen can only live for making the things she does, Elsa can only live for practical activism in the cause of social justice. Isolated together they confront the pastor, James Laurenson’s capriciously avuncular Marius Byleveld, whose considered conclusion is that Helen, now an old woman, might be better moved into a care home ‘with a few of her ornaments.’

But Helen’s world is one of transformed oppression. From grieving rural widow her life has become one of vast light and sprawling identity through art. “Light just one little candle in here, let in the light from just one little star, and the dancing starts”. She lights a candle lined Eastward which she might follow all the way to Mecca, the candle that her arthritic hands spill onto the curtain endangering her life and calling in to question whether she still might be able to functionally continue in her own Mecca. Echoing the deracination of Conrad’s location there is a darkness in her heart, in which she “cannot light a candle”. The darkness outside is ambiguous: the darkness of political oppression, the darkness of black skin perhaps. Such is Fugard’s artistry that those candles at once a brilliant evocation of resistant artistic identity, become indefinite, fragile, dangerous.

The first woman doctor in South Africa, Petronella Van Heerden, entitled her autobiography Kerrsnuitsels (Candle Snuffings) after the Boer tradition of candle-making at home. A feminist, who had read Mill on women and been in contact with Emeline Pankhurst, she nevertheless remained a Boer nationalist and a long time member of the far right ‘Purified’ National Party. It is likely Fugard drew on her for the play. Elsa coopts Miss Helen in the name of feminism as “history’s first reactionary revolutionary”, and like Van Heerden she too shares a resigned and necessary sympathy for the umwelt in which she was born and raised. Kin to the pastor, with his tales of migration from the city, his protection of a dying culture, his emphasis on tradition. He presents a working picture of Boer mythology. Of the Voortrekkers who left the Cape Colony for the frontiers, of the fading of the Boer republics. In a context of oppression, Fugard almost softly marks their passing

Reversing Hegel, the scholar Paul Gilroy once suggested in interview that now the South Africanisation of the world was underway. The limit case of a unified South Africa was far ahead of the multiculturalisms of the North in its achievement of a just society. But back in 1987 Fugard’s characters remain painfully sealed in their whiteness. And while their awareness of this gives rise to an eloquent anguish – it’s through Elsa in particular we hear white liberal South Africa sounding a helpless scream – this is a play of its time. Now, in London 2k10 we are faced with making globalised definitions of modernity, of choosing who is ahead and who behind. And in that light, those who read this play as a political story of artistic freedom overcoming tradition, are as guilty as Hegel. To see this as a replay of European struggles of artistic modernism in modernity on African soil, is to condemn by omission the Africa this play deliberately leaves unknown.

The idea of backwards Africa, that we still might find onstage represented by the joke Negro modern artist in adaptations of Coward’s Nude Violinist, is hardly a thing of the past. It is a thing of the global now, and Fugard, perhaps dangerously, allows us room to disidentify with our ignorance, and blithely trumpet the cause of limited freedom.

This play is nervy, difficult, effortlessly touching and achingly sad. When the architecture of the prose sags a little, this well-tuned cast pick up the slack. Russell Bolam’s direction fires along the nerve-fibres of the play’s tricksy ambiguities, and with the Arcola’s limitations Ruth Hall’s set design smartly conveys the otherworldliness of Miss Helen’s cathedral of candles. If you see one play this month, make it this one.

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