What an ambitious subject matter to tackle. Who would have thought that dramatising the famed Alan Paton – noted for hot political literary works such as Cry, The Beloved Country – would come across as such an effortless feat? Yet director Greg Homann’s much-lauded play is a tale which vividly resurrects the impassioned activist’s brand of elegiac lyricism and brings vividly to life his battle against bigotry, cruelty and abuse, with gleams of love, grief and self-destruction.
The chief pleasure of A Voice I Cannot Silence lies in watching Ralph Lawson dominate the stage as Alan Paton with his acerbic wit and vast knowledge of the human condition. The great thespian invests his Paton with a wonderful mixture of tart-tongued vigour and intense dramatic concentration. It is an accomplished and enigmatic performance in an elegantly mounted production. His great moment comes with a crippling fit of insight while he flounders in self-doubt and bruisingly confronts his inner demons.
Claire Mortimer’s Anne Hopkins Paton is a lively comic foil to Lawson’s Paton, but she’s served a raw deal in this story. As Anne constantly frets on stage, arranging items with a marked British orderliness, we see a thorough account of the young and daring Anne Hopkins, but very little of the second Mrs Paton. Apart from a few flickers of witty banter, her personality gradually fades into that of a subordinate housewife, exacting very little agency over her own life. And so Anne’s absence from Paton’s Wikipedia page jumps to mind. But the production does allow Mortimer a powerful star turn much later when she declares with defeatist resignation why she’s leaving South Africa after the death of her husband. Here Lawson and Homann venture into dark waters, while extracting the closing speech entirely from her controversial letter.
Menzi Mhkwana’s performance as a series of Paton’s former students is wonderfully punctuated, yet blends into a collective with ease. His slow-burning monologues are hauntingly executed as he shifts between different characters purely by through his intonation, while tangling Paton’s moral conscience and sense of accountability. With his lean, childlike frame, Mhkwana disguises his characters’ isolation and inner rage against the absurd and tragic backdrop of being black in an Apartheid state.
Homann’s direction succeeds in cramming an amazing amount of visual nuance into a modest frame. The chief pleasure lies in Nadya Cohen’s detailed and circular interpretation of Paton’s study. Period furnishings reveal the era and setting, outlined by a gravelled path giving the illusion of a rural pathway. Evan Roberts’ sound direction highlights a captivating yet little known dimension: Paton, the avian fanatic. A stirring selection of bulbul bird and amphibian sounds counters the austere mood of the show. And lighting designer Michael Broderick opts for a more functional approach as the spotlight fixates mostly on Paton’s study. He’s afforded more surrealistic experimentation through the course of the play as he masterfully contributes to the scene mise-en-scéne effects.
The moment a play becomes a piece of theatre, it needs to convince us that it has something to say about our modern world. And this question will probably plague most of the audience: what exactly can they draw from this production? Homann and Lawson make an important statement about post-conflict societies, why the past must be confronted, and how guilt and innocence are never absolute or mutually exclusive. A Voice I Cannot Silence takes its audience back to a dark and devastating period while showing in abstract and cryptic ways that the more we may think they have changed, things are still very much the same.
Benn Van Der Westhuizen
A Voice I Cannot Silence is running at the Fugard Theatre from 7 to 25 June 2016.