Jonathan Pryce, Holliday Grainger, Alex Lanipekun, Ann Reid
As South Africa’s foremost playwright, Athol Fugard built up an international reputation from the late 1950s for his powerful anti-apartheid dramas.
Dimetos, however, first staged in 1975 in between his masterpieces The Island and Sizwe Banzi Is Dead, is a much more personal work which does not have the same overt political message.
Indeed, this mysteriously allegorical play could take place anywhere and anytime. The eponymous protagonist is a brilliant engineer who, for some unexplained reason, has retreated from the city to the remote countryside where he lives in semi-retirement with his young niece Lydia and loyal housekeeper Sophia.
But the apparently tranquil routine of the household is broken with the arrival of Danilo, a municipal representative who tries to persuade Dimetos to return to the city where he is much needed. The mutual attraction between Danilo and Lydia acts as a catalyst to stir up repressed domestic tensions, with Dimetos harbouring incestuous feeling towards his niece while unaware of Sophia’s unrequited love for himself. The sudden outburst of sexuality leads to tragic consequences which change all their lives.
As the title suggests, the play is influenced by Greek tragedy and myth, with Fugard striving not totally successfully to ultimately bring about cathartic release from subconscious fears and desires. The first half is more naturalistic but after the interval the poetic symbolism takes over in this psychological puzzler.
The dramatic opening scene is highly charged with eroticism with the semi-naked Lydia descending from the flies to rescue a horse trapped in a well, as the unseen Dimetos above gives her instructions on how to tie the rope. But this life-saving triumph is shockingly countered later by the suicidal use of rope. Afterwards the stench of a dead sea mammal represents the ongoing guilt felt towards the victim. However, although intriguing, Fugard’s mythic musings remain somewhat obscure.
Douglas Hodge’s production gives some physical reality to the dreamlike drama. Bunny Christie’s impressive set features a two-level wooden framework with pools of water later encroaching on to the stage as the solidity of land is replaced by the fluidity of the coastline. And there is atmospheric support from lighting designer Ben Ormerod and sound designer Carolyn Downing.
The main reason why the play grips us so tightly even when its meaning is elusive is the compelling performance of Jonathan Pryce in the title role: part Prometheus, part Lear, he shows superbly how strong undercurrents of feeling destroy a practical genius, so that by the end his scientific know-how is reduced to the desperate ravings of a man trying to halt time. Holliday Grainger is persuasively girlish as Lydia, suggesting a touching vulnerability in her burgeoning sexuality, while Anne Reid makes a sympathetically long-suffering Sophia and Alex Lanipekun an impassioned Danilo.
It may be that the seemingly private world of Dimetos is a veiled warning of the dangers of distancing oneself from society and neglecting one’s civic responsibilities in which case this rarely performed piece may not be so far in spirit from the highly committed anti-apartheid plays for which Fugard is justly famed.