Helen Martins was an enigma. Plenty has been written on her since her death in 1976: Athol Fugard’s The Road to Mecca, based on her friendship with Elsa Barlow toward the end of her life, is undoubtedly the most well-known. An outsider artist in a tiny, dusty Karoo town, she attracted the attention – and derision – of the village gossips and the inevitable dominee, despite having grown up amongst them.
When Fugard wrote the play in 1984, he was living in Nieu Bethesda, just around the corner from what is now known as ‘The Owl House’ – Martin’s house and garden that had been her canvas. She filled the garden with cement creatures: owls, camels, wise men, religious icons of every persuasion, all with eyes made of bottles and colour splashed everywhere. Inside the house, she crushed glass – much to the damage of her eyes and hands – and plastered the walls with it, turning the small dwelling into a glittering palace when the sun shone through the windows or when she lit her multitude of candles at night.
Martins’ fear of darkness and her seeking of the light is one of the major themes of the play, along with love, loss and heartbreak that goes with it.
The cast reads like the guest list of an intimate dinner party gathering of South Africa’s acting elite. Sandra Prinsloo plays Martins, bringing to her character a naiveté of life with a passion for the one thing that filled her with joy: her art. Prinsloo is perfectly dusty: an adjective well-suited to the story of Martins in her dust-covered Karoo village.
The play focuses on Martins’ friendship with a young, headstrong teacher from Cape Town, Elsa Barlow, played impassionedly by Emily Child. There are seams of similarity that flow between the two: their passions (Martins’ art, Barlow’s teaching and anti-Apartheid sentiment), their loves and their losses.
Marius Weyers is brilliant as Reverend Marius, head of the church council and, despite an outward aura of judgmental bullying, Martins’ friend and not-so-secret admirer. His inward struggle between the strict decrees of his religion and his recognition of the beauty of her art – and the beauty it shines on her – is palpable.
The Oscar goes to Saul Radomsky for set design. The stage has been converted into Martin’s house – the walls glittering, candles flickering – all watched over by a menagerie of Martins’ concrete creatures. It’s outstanding and provides the ideal backdrop for these three master actors to play out a story that still resonates 30-odd years after Fugard wrote it.
The Road to Mecca is on at The Fugard Theatre until 5 May 2018.