Imagine spending the greater part of your life writing and obsessing about a long-dead historical figure and then getting the fantastical opportunity to have a discourse with him.
This is the basic premise of Juliet Jenkin’s new play which sees Mary Renault, best known for writing historical novels set in Ancient Greece, meet up with the protagonist of many of her works, Alexander the Great.
In the play, both have shed their mortal coils; however, Mary, played by Diane Wilson, seems to still be chilling out in Limbo, drinking beer, when she meets the object of her life-long fascination, Alexander, performed by Armand Aucamp.
The story is a mixture of Mary Renault’s factual life and Juliet Jenkin’s imagination of the possible conversations to be had between the two at such a meeting.
Thrown in the mix is the same-sex relationship between Mary and her lover (Adrienne Pearce), being played off against that of Alexander and Hephaestion’s relationship.
Although Alexander’s homosexuality has often been insinuated, it is unconfirmed in ancient texts. The writer is engaging us with the hypothetical possibility of his homosexuality. The play is not intended to be factual.
Mary lived in Camps Bay and her novels during the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s became iconic works, especially for homosexuals, dealing as they did with love and war, their sexuality and heroism during key periods in the history of Ancient Greece.
The premise sounds interesting and one can only imagine the questions that will be asked and the tales of high drama, love, lust and betrayal that would fly between the one of the world’s finest warriors and an iconic writer. However, this production ended up leaving me rather disappointed. The dialogue, rather than sparkling and cracklling, fizzles out and seems lacking in tension and drama.
Wilson, last seen in her award-winning act of Careful, delivers her usual studied and consummate performance. However, her given dialogue does not convince me that her character, Renault, has studied Alexander for decades. The passion and excitement of such an imagined meeting is just not there.
Pearce, playing the part of Renault’s long-term and doting lover, injects some life into the play with an excellent performance. The relationship between the two women comes across as tender and very real as both actresses delicately dance around and with each other.
Pierce’s character suffers from bouts of severe depression and she delivers a very believable performance of a woman suffering the mental anguish of dragging herself out of the darkness for the sake of her own sanity and the love of her life.
Aucamp’s portrayal of one of the world’s most successful commanders of all time – by the age of 30 Alexander had created one of the largest empires in ancient history – feels somewhat whimsical and lacking in emotional depth. He struts about the stage in a very tiny pair of white hot pants, which distracts from the dialogue and action on stage.
I am not at all convinced that Aucamp’s Alexander can ride his steed into battle, let alone conquer entire countries. His dialogue is lacking in depth and it does not do a great job of painting a vivid or believable character of such a great man.
Francis Chouler in the role of Hephaistion – Alexander’s lover – delivers moments of very sincere acting. He seems to be fully immersed in his role and he is clearly enjoying all the action on stage. There is also a lovely gentle and very tangible good energy which passes between Chouler and Aucamp, which may be further explored.
Unfortunately their European accents were not steady throughout the performance and at times sounded quite fake and even a bit camp.
Alfred Rietmann’s stage design recreates an otherworldly afterlife, or peculiar place of Limbo, where Alexander and Renault have most of their discussions. Long blue and white drapes, tall columns and soft strategic lighting add a slightly surreal and fantastical tone to the performance.
l Mary and the Conqueror is a commissioned play for the 7th Artscape Spring Drama Season.
The other plays in the season are The Beneficiary by Sinethemba Twani (October 20 to November 5 ); Hol by Nicola Hanekom (November 10 to December 2); Seashells by Rafiek Mammon (November 15 to December 3) and a showcase performance of Other People’s Lives by Amy Jephta on December 16 and 17.
Mary and the Conqueror runs until October 15 at 8.15pm, with matinee performances at 2.30pm on Saturday October 8 and 15. Tickets at R60 and R80 can be booked at Computicket or Artscape Dial-A-Seat, 021 471 7695.