THE ROAD TO MECCA. Written by Athol Fugard. Directed by Greg Karvellas. With Sandra Prinsloo, Marius Weyers and Emily Child. Fugard Theatre.

Pictures: Daniel Rutland Manners

MEGAN FURNISS reviews

'The Road to Mecca'

I can’t imagine there are many South African theatre goers who will go into The Road to Mecca totally fresh and innocent; without any pre-history of seeing the play before, or the movie, or reading up on the Owl House, or knowing something of Helen Martins. The award-winning play about the extraordinary Ms Martins of Nieu Bethesda and her interaction with two characters, a pastor who wants to move her to a home, and young woman who encourages her art, has been staged worldwide and also made into a film. I saw the first production of The Road to Mecca at the Market Theatre, with Yvonne Bryceland, Elize Cawood and Louis van Niekerk in 1984. I must have been back home in Jo’burg during ‘varsity vac, because I was studying at UCT at the time. It blew my mind and changed my view of theatre, and texts, and performance forever.

Entering the Fugard theatre and seeing Saul Radomsky’s set was like seeing something intimately familiar. The references to Helen’s sculptures that create the false proscenium, with the tiny, coloured, candled, crowded house below, are direct translations of the Owl House and Helen’s Mecca. I immediately felt – I know this world.

Charl-Johan Lingenfelder’s evocative music announced the start of the play, and we were in Miss Helen’s house and already knee deep into the strange and prickly relationship between Miss Helen and Elsa.

'The Road to Mecca'

Masterclass in acting

From the very first words spoken I realised that this production was going to be a complete masterclass in acting. Sandra Prinsloo is a revelation as Miss Helen. I had tried to imagine her against my image of Yvonne Bryceland as the original (also unfair because I don’t have an image of the real Helen Martins in my mind’s eye) but couldn’t. That is until she walked on stage and was exactly, magnificently, entirely Miss Helen. I do not have enough words, or the right words to explain the extraordinariness of her embodiment of this strange and complicated woman.

Emily Child is absolutely perfect as the brittle, breakable, brusque Elsa. There is something so connected about her presence. We know her person, her pain, her pushing back. And she evolves, circles back, and is a masterclass of her own in terms of giving and taking focus. Amazing.

And then in the second act there is the exquisite gem of Marius Weyers’ interpretation of Reverend Marius Byleveld. I remember the character as being a rigid, uptight and conservative man, struggling with the contradiction of the uncontainable Helen and the constraints of the church, but Marius Weyers brings a warmth and genuineness to this man from the very first moment. His performance is so perfectly underplayed to create a deep and emotional portrait of this man, that I was surprised at how much I was moved by, and for him. Beautiful.

Mannie Manim’s lighting is incredible. It is truly magical in a Helen Martins way.

'The Road to Mecca'

Purpose, place and love

I think we have lost tenacity and stamina as audience goers. The Road to Mecca is a classic text, written by a master, meant to simmer and develop and expose, and then boil, come to a climax, and hold its breath before the final exhale. Because we have grown so accustomed to the quick fix version of theatre, the first act of this play is a challenge. There are exquisite moments and longer, pure storytelling, reveals, creation of character and relationship, but it is hard going, and while the performers are doing every single thing right, the first half feels long, and a little off balance. My date was convinced that this was because it is still so early in the run, and in a week’s time it will have found its internal rhythm. I think he is right.

But the second act is sublime. It is everything that it needs to be; beautiful, painful, magnificent, achingly sad and a glittering reflection back to us of aging, loss, purpose, place and love.

What: The Road to Mecca

Where and when: The Fugard Theatre from 27 March to 21 April

Book: Computicket and 0861 915 8000

WS