To use some rather clichéd footballing parlance, Athol Fugard’s play The Road to Mecca is a game of two halves. The first is a pedestrian affair, in which Miss Helen (Linda Bassett) and Elsa Barlow (Sian Clifford) are introduced as two very different characters, bizarrely dependent on one another. Elsa has driven 800 miles from Cape Town, Miss Helen is the ‘Karoo nutcase’ - there is friendship, but also spikiness.
Conducting this rather understated duel on a sparse yet functional set, Miss Helen and Elsa begin a subtle narrative that will come hurtling to the fore in the second half. There is talk of Miss Helen’s recent letter in which she threatens “to do away with herself”, there is talk too of Marius Byleveld (James Laurenson) and his wish to get Miss Helen’s signature, that will see her moved into The Sunshine Home for the Aged. Talk of lights, candles, darkness and of course Miss Helen’s Mecca, filled with her beloved sculptures. Just before the interval Marius enters with a basket of potatoes, a gift for Miss Helen. Elsa sees straight through him, black out. Half time.
The second act is a dazzling battle between age, youth, God and art. The superbly goofy, avuncular charm of Marius is pitched against the brilliant diamond-sharp intellect of Elsa. Both claiming to have Miss Helen's interests at heart, it's credit to Fugard’s and in particular director Russell Bolam that one begins to wonder if both of them have sinister designs on her estate.
Throughout this heavyweight bout Miss Helen has been motionless, inert, her hand hovering over the dotted line of consent. Finally she delivers her rebuttal, more powerful than the sharp-witted arguments of Elsa or the stuffy Christian rhetoric of Marius.
It's an argument for her art and the vitality it gives her. It's an argument for her garden Mecca replete with donkeys and wise men that she has painstakingly created over the last fifteen years. Giving a truly astonishing performance, Linda Bassett concludes “I can’t reduce my world to a few ornaments in a small room in an old people’s home”. Marius is banished, realising that his faith cannot co-exist with Miss Helen’s Mecca and although she knows her life is coming to an end, one senses that dying in her home with her Mecca in view is a happy ending of sorts.