It did warn of nudity. But the fact that the two main characters began naked and were clearly going to remain naked took a little getting used to, and I don’t think I was alone in spending valuable minutes of the play in examining my own reaction to this.
But of course the surprise, and with it the self-consciousness of one’s own surprise, soon wears off. The nakedness is pertinent – the two are lovers – but it is also a reflection of the vulnerability to which all lovers volunteer themselves. Normally this vulnerability is a part of the shared intimacy of a private relationship, but in this case the couple in question are risking far more: public exposure and shaming and condemnation. And all because of their differing skin colour.
The fact that he is married is an issue only between the two lovers. The State is concerned only with the fact that he is Black, and she is White. And that, according to the State, is Immoral.
Personally I found it annoying that the man is married. I wanted the laws of apartheid to be the only obstacle to their relationship, but maybe Fugard considered that would have been too easy.
Malefane Mosuhli shines in the role of Errol Philander. Tiny in frame, he appears larger on stage, with a quiet and utterly assured character that exudes energy and passion for knowledge. He is the intellectual of the two – the principal of the location school, eager to share his awe for the vast age of the Earth, a revelation that makes Life itself so indescribably precious and our own individual issues so petty.
Bo Peterson took slightly longer to warm into her role of the white librarian, Frieda Joubert, taking refuge in old school RSC diction occasionally, but with moments of spellbinding raw emotion. Physically, she shimmered between a glowing, happy young woman in the throes of first love and a woman creeping inexorably towards middle-age, wracked with worry and guilt.
A third part is played with effortless ease by Jeroen Kranenburg. He is the policeman narrating the situation in which he discovers the two lovers and the circumstances leading up to that moment. As such, it’s a fairly formulaic caricature of a somewhat lewd detective puffed up by his own authority, but Kranenburg gets it spot on. Despite being the baddie of the plot, his is the most humorous character of the three – even down to the detail of his hair.
The simple set is faultless. A raised stage with piles and piles of books lining the back and one corner. In the middle lies the blanket on which they lie, surrounded by their hastily abandoned clothes. Three of the five high, vaulted windows of this former church are left uncovered, a reminder of the proximity of the outside world.
This was the play chosen to open the defiantly non-racial Space Theatre in 1972. The bravery of its staging then, under the apartheid years, is thankfully now lost yet its message – still loudly resonant to many members of the audience who grew up during that extraordinary time – is still achingly relevant.
Athol Fugard’s Statements After an Arrest Under the Immorality Act runs at the Fugard Theatre 24 January to 18 February 2012. Click here for details.