Like a wine of choice vintage, this superlative piece of theatre from Lara Foot has proven to be even more rewarding since its first staging in 2016. Its richly layered content, the blend of emotional intensity with near-clinical chronicling of mental illness – and, above all, three sterling portrayals from the actors under Foot’s astute direction – are unchanged.
What is added is the absorption of personae common to the three-strong cast, who have “grown” further into their respective roles to the point where individual identity is effaced by that of the character played by each. The stage at Theatre on the Bay lends itself ideally to a three-hander such as this: the audience is drawn without contrivance into all the painful intimacy of a marriage besieged by illness, while the absence of an interval for this 90-minute-long drama ensures the experience is uninterrupted.
Patrick Curtis’ cleverly devised set is transplanted with unforced ease to this stage, its neutral tones and functional austerity promoting concentration on the acting. Lighting design by Mannie Manim works the same magic here that it did some months ago at the Baxter Theatre Centre.
What makes this production extraordinary is the illusion of real, personally lived life wrought by the leads. The marital history of Paul (Buckland) and Sara (Steyn) follows a predictable pattern: they meet in the early 1960s, fall in love, marry, have children, grow old… then one of them dies. What makes their story remarkable is the enduring commitment that survives the nightmare of Sara’s bipolar condition with its attendant crises and destructive behaviour – a commitment that not even suicide or dementia can annihilate.
Sara’s recurrent dreams of salvation through winged flight, inspired by a novel encountered in her youth, add an element of poetry to the action as it is traced retrospectively from the bleak present (1995) to the first, heady flirtation between the two when they were students in 1961. Professor James (Shabangu) acts as a sort of chorus throughout, offering a professional perspective on Sara’s illness. He is peripherally involved in the successive dramas of his friends’ marriage – and qualified to understand her addiction to an array of drugs, given his own growing dependence on the contents of a hip-flask at unlikely times of the day. Like Buckland and Steyn, Shabangu is entirely convincing.
Heart-breaking realism, raw sexuality and immense generosity of spirit combine to make this a masterpiece of South African theatre that is both harrowing and enriching.
DIRECTOR/WRITER: Lara Foot CAST: Jennifer Steyn, Andrew Buckland, Mncedisi Shabangu VENUE: Theatre on the Bay, until February 10 RATING: ★★★★★