Athol Fugard is renowned for provocative work highlighting our apartheid era and the road to democracy. Yet with Hello and Goodbye, one of his earlier plays set during the 60’s, politics takes a back seat as he focuses on the misfortunes of a dysfunctional, impoverished family.
Siblings Hester and Johnnie meet after years of estrangement when she learns of her father’s debilitating illness. Through the course of the evening they recollect a turbulent childhood, and Hester’s ulterior motive is soon uncovered.
Along with the remarkable efforts of the design and lighting team, Chris Weare swathes the play in the slovenly realism of a poverty-stricken white family at the height of apartheid, and carefully paces the inner intensity of a play that could easily lapse into coarse melodrama. The impressive timing of the lighting heightens the haunting close-ups, while basic furnishings aid the production’s stunning visual power.
But it’s the central roles that transfix our attention. With a scrawny frame accentuated by fidgety nuances, Stephen Jubber vibrantly animates the tension between Johnnie’s meek, self-effacing nature and his violently bigoted sanctimony. While Jubber’s Afrikaaner accent might slide at times, his wretched state elicits sympathy and his acerbic humour often relieves the strained atmosphere. Cast against type, Jubber captures Johnnie’s man-child naivety so magnificently that it may just shape an entirely new career path for him, breaking him free from the tyranny of his matinée idol leading roles.
Marlisa Doubell brings both a toughness and vulnerability to the role of Hester – the weary prostitute chasing a tantalising glimpse of a better life. As she struggles between self-disgust and flickers of wrenching hope, Doubell shifts hypnotically between a taut defiance and a tremulousness with a restraint which keeps the audience guessing. She looks both young and worn-out as she surveys a future cracked by her past.
What is truly poignant about Fugard’s portrayal of a prostitute is that it ditches both of the clichés: the superfluous ‘heart of gold’ angle and the terminally repentant ‘heroine-with-a-past’ stratagem. Fugard’s Hester instead manages to combine a caustic, world-weary cynicism highlighted by a hard-bitten urban vernacular.
Fugard enjoys providing deliberate contrasts – Hester’s ‘depravity’ is set off against her idealized innocence, Johnnie’s mentor-like impression of his father pales against his sister’s despotic version, and there is a deliberate tension between Hester’s disgraceful past and Johnnie’s tentative take on the future. And Weare’s excellent production makes the ending hauntingly ambiguous, though as Hester abruptly leaves off and casts an incredible cinematic final glance, the overarching feeling is one of an almost mystical hope. This production of Hello and Goodbye flaunts with raw vigour and gives a period glimpse into humanity that few other productions can match.
Benn van der Westhuizen
Hello and Goodbye is currently running at Alexander Bar & Theatre from 13 to 25 October 2014.