When Ismail Mahomed wrote Cheaper than Roses twenty years ago, he had only one person in mind to carry the one-woman performance: the vivacious actress and writer, Lizz Meiring. For a variety of reasons, it has taken Cheaper than Roses several years to come to the stage, but under the direction of well-known actor Zane Meas, Meiring has finally brought Mahomed’s prose to life. And it has certainly been worth the wait.
Cheaper than Roses is the story of Betty Fourie, a coloured woman who managed to get herself reclassified as white during the apartheid years. Years later, in 1996, she returns to her dusty hometown of Bredasdorp to say goodbye to her dying father. Surrounded by her estranged family around his deathbed and at his funeral, Betty is forced to confront the results of the painful choices she made in her youth.
When Meiring first introduces us to Betty, standing alone on a deserted platform at the Bredasdorp train station, we see a woman overwhelmed with anxiety, anger, and bitterness. The train is late and, overwhelmed by her emotions, she explodes into a tirade about the new South Africa. “Nothing has changed!” she spits, stamping her foot in anger.
At this point, it would be reasonable to suspect that Cheaper than Roses is a political play. But the play steers away from overt politics and to focus on more subtle and personal themes. Displacement, and the battle to find a place for oneself, is the main theme driving the narrative forward. Betty laments feeling like an outsider at her father’s funeral. She resents that once she became ‘white’, she was told by her family to never come back. She is bitter when she thinks about what she gave up in return for a supposed ‘better life’. Ismail Mahomed has brought these powerful emotions to the surface, gifting Cheaper than Roses with an awareness that will resonate within many South Africans, young and old.
The tight script cleverly serves to emphasise both the irony and tragedy of Betty’s life. Mahomed’s use of a simple motif to symbolise Betty’s struggle with her racial transition is used to great effect, and gives rise to many memorable lines that are sure to stick in the mind after the show is over.
A veteran of one-woman shows, Lizz Meiring as Betty is a delight. Her strong presence and personality are enthralling as she ruthlessly strips her character down to the core. Every aspect of Betty’s life is laid bare on stage, and Meiring holds her audience’s attention for every minute of it. Throughout, her emotionally-charged performance remains grounded, allowing the audience to connect with Betty and place themselves in her world.
Cheaper than Roses delivers some harsh truths. As Betty comes to realise, “Truth is like death – nobody can run away from it.” Not only does she face the consequences of her choices and force herself to accept them but, more importantly, she gains the resolve to live with them. This is a theme that everyone, regardless of their nationality, can identify with. It’s also what makes Cheaper than Roses a must-see at the Baxter Theatre.
Cheaper than Roses runs at the Baxter Golden Arrow Studio 22 April to 3 May 2014.