JAMIE Bartlett’s nuanced performance lifts Greg Latter’s play right off the pages, creating a very real and complex character and therefore an emotionally resonating production.
He plays eccentric history teacher Harold Smith who has devoted his life to making the story of the Xhosa come to life for his pupils in Grahamstown. His unconvential teaching methods are not endearing him to the school faculty, though sitting through his lesson as part of the show makes for a much more fascinating experience than any of us ever had at high school.
Unbeknown to Harold, his wife Maggie (Johnston) has been diagnosed with terminal cancer and their two children come to visit from overseas, specifically because of the news.
Both question how their father will manage without their mother, seemingly wrapped up as he is in his own life, but he surprises us and them with his response.
Suspended at work, and faced with the loss of the woman his life revolves around, Harold questions what he has achieved in life – a house he can’t afford, a swimming pool no one uses and children he couldn’t hold on to – but as sad as the unfolding events are, the family members’ responses are never mawkish or overly sentimental.
Perforce Nicholas Pauling and Ashleigh Harvey take secondary roles as the children, though each character does add insight into why they have left the country and some wry comment on what it is like being a South African living in another country – different pastures are not necessarily greener.
As the mom hiding her cancer, Johnston gives a subtly detailed performance – it is all in the small gestures and little moments of interaction between her and Harold, the way she repeats “yes, yes” when he greets her in the same way, the way she bustles in order to try and hide her increasingly weakened state.
Bartlett, though, takes it up a notch. It isn’t so much acting as simply being the character – how he slumps his shoulders when he answers the phone, how he carefully stashes his assegaai in what is clearly his seat. So when his son absent-mindedly plays with said assegaai while watching a cricket match, it becomes so much more than just an affectation, but a concrete way of showing a complex thought.
Harold walks around Grahamstown with the assegaai in his hand the way old school teachers wielded a walking cane and tries so hard to get the kids to understand the changing face of white patriotism – something he is constantly grappling with as he tries to explain how identity, place and history are intertwined.
Who then, are you, if you reject the place you come from, he asks in bewilderment, and it is a question his son cannot answer.