by Athol Fugard.

Arcola Theatre 27 Arcola Street E8 2DJ To 10 July 2010.
Mon-Sat 8pm Mat 26 June, 3 July 3pm.
Runs: 2hr 35min One. interval.

TICKETS: 020 7503 1646.
Review: Carole Woddis 22 June.

Drama for the downtrodden.
What a difference a play makes. After seeing Athol Fugard’s recently completed Coming Home, there’s no doubt the earlier 1985 Road to Mecca is superior by far.

A beautifully achieved, passionate, luminous, piece, it confirms Fugard as a writer of rare substance for women: he has written so many good parts for them over the years. Like the Russian writer Gorky, too, Fugard has consciously sought out the downtrodden and rescued their birthrights and their souls. The transformations, at their best, are utterly beguiling.

With both Veronica Yonkers in Coming Home and Miss Helen in The Road to Mecca, the women are regarded as outsiders. Both are in danger of being shunned by their societies, in The Road to Mecca even more so. The community that, through the mouth of pastor Marius Byleveld, has turned against Helen, is the very same in which she was brought up and has lived all her life amongst.

Once again, the Karoo desert – vast, hostile – is an essential character. Even if Russell Bolam’s production, in the Arcola’s acoustically difficult chamber, can’t capture its magnitude or desolation, it hovers, out there, challenging but also as a place of liberation in a story of intense intimacies.

Bolam is fortunate in that at its heart and core as Miss Helen he has one of our major actors, Linda Bassett. Bassett’s gift is her directness and the purity of her acting. Hands gnarled, eyes sometimes shaded, she embodies a woman whose life has been both stunted and illuminated as she confronts Sian Clifford’s visiting Cape Towner English teacher with a mixture of deference and maternal wellbeing.

Elsa, it turns out, has been the one good thing in Helen’s life. She recognised and `liked’ at first glance the `monstrous’ animal statues Helen has carved, all pointing east towards Mecca and a graphic rebuttal to the strict, God-fearing values of her Dutch Reform Church community.

Fugard’s love of metaphor has lately become his Achilles heel but here a candle becomes a stunningly beautiful symbol of personal freedom, identity, ageing and the unquenchable spirit of each individual, even in despair.

Miss Helen: Linda Bassett.
Elsa Barlow: Sian Clifford.
Marius Byleveld: James Laurenson.

Director: Russell Bolam.
Designer: Ruth Hall.
Lighting: David Holmes.
Sound: Tom Gibbons.
Composer: Gary Yershon.
Movement director: Laila Diallo.
Voice coach: Richard Ryder.
Assistant designer: Jean Chan.

Co-producers for The Road to Mecca with the Arcola: Jacob Wagen and Hannah Ireland for Green for Go.

2010-06-26 01:05:33

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