Just as the death of Communism deprived left wing British dramatists of their major subject -- socialist justice in a right wing democracy – so the end of apartheid in South Africa has surely done for Athol Fugard.
Or has it? Fugard suggests not, in this short, sharp three-hander receiving its UK premiere as part of the Peter Hall Company’s summer residency in Bath. Victory is a bitter postscript to Nelson Mandela’s statement in 1994 that his country was “a rainbow nation at peace with itself.”
Not that the “new” South Africa has, on this evidence, significantly re-charged Fugard’s dramatic batteries; now 75 years old, and a recovering alcoholic, he leads a comfortable, untroubled life in San Diego, California, these days.
“Victory” is the ironic full name of Vicky, black daughter of old white Lionel’s (Richard Johnson) former housemaid, who worked happily for the academic, bookish “white boss” for seventeen years in the “good old days” of apartheid.
Cordelia Monsey’s taut production starts with Vicky (Pippa Bennett-Warner, who gave such a brilliant performance as the main daughter in Caroline or Change at the NT last year) and her hot-headed boyfriend Freddie (Reece Ritchie) breaking into Lionel’s house in a village on the Karoo Desert.
Freddie wants to take Vicky to Cape Town. But first he wants to find Lionel’s money. Then he wants to urinate all over his books. Depressingly, he does so. Vicky, who has been encouraged in her progress at school by Lionel, goes along with this obscene little exercise in “catch up” revenge – until it is too late to stem the flow or deflect the upshot.
Bennett-Warner beautifully expresses Vicky’s cultural dilemma; the offspring of a slave with a fine singing voice and a future she cannot quite appreciate, while Ritchie’s Freddie remains locked in the old antipathies.
The apparently ageless Richard Johnson oversees the catastrophe with benign, big-stage cragginess, but this is essentially a very small play and one better suited, perhaps, to a lunchtime programme in a fringe venue. Or on a double bill. What happened to programming?
Paul Farnsworth’s design roughs up well with collapsing book shelves when the going gets tough, and Jason Taylor’s lighting does a good job of taking us into the heart of the matter after the early night-time skirmishes.
A few ends are left untied. Lionel has been a teacher of white boys but seems to know a bit about Freddie. What, exactly? And the unseen figure of Vicky’s mother hovers tantalisingly behind this sad ritual of domestic and political desecration. Come on, Athol, how about a good ghost role?
- Michael Coveney