Jonathan Pryce (pictured) made his Donmar Warehouse debut last week in Athol Fugard's rarely-seen 1975 drama Dimetos, directed by Douglas Hodge, who recently hung up his wig and stilettos following an Olivier award-winning turn in La Cage aux Folles.
A departure from Fugard's overtly political plays, Dimetos is a moving story about love, guilt, retribution and faith in a modern world of moral decay. Exhausted with life in the city as a highly skilled engineer, Dimetos (Pryce) escapes to a remote coastal village with his niece and housekeeper in search of a simpler existence. Five years on, a stranger from the metropolis arrives to tempt him back with devastating consequences.
Starring alongside Pryce are Anne Reid, Alex Lanipekun and Holliday Grainger, who makes her professional theatre debut. Design is by Bunny Christie with lighting by Ben Ormerod.
Critical reaction was decidedly mixed, though most tended to agree with their forebears who, in the words of soon-to-be-fomer Evening Standard critic Nicholas de Jongh, were caught by “spasms of incomprehension” when the play first premiered over 30 years ago. But despite some reservations regarding the play's heavily allegorical nature, there was high praise for Pryce's “powerhouse performance” in the title role and at least one out-and-out rave, from the Daily Telegraph's Charles Spencer, who declared: “in his long career, Fugard has written nothing finer or more searching”.
Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (three stars) - “A powerhouse performance by Jonathan Pryce just about keeps Athol Fugard’s strange 1975 play afloat … Pryce and his director Douglas Hodge have removed any sense of this being a play about Fugard’s South Africa. Instead, it’s a play about the skill of the artisan, the expressive formulations of hands using materials, clay, rope or pulleys … Pryce moves through the play with a ferocious energy … It’s a wonderful performance in a play that is reluctant to yield its full meaning … A personal play, then, and finally one about the artist’s cannibalisation of his own life and the materials of his profession. And Pryce gives it his very best shot.”
Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (three stars) - “Dimetos … caused spasms of incomprehension, when it premiered in London in 1976. Why, it was asked, had Fugard, whose plays famously dealt with people enduring the inhumanities of apartheid, turned his attentions to an impenetrable, pseudo-Greek tragedy about incestuous desire in some remote, nameless back-water? ... Douglas Hodge’s emotionally fraught revival, in which Jonathan Pryce plays Dimetos with a cryptic, brooding intensity, helps provide partial answers … Fugard’s obscure, symbol-laden final scenes, the atmosphere over-clouded by nightmare, mysterious stench and Dimetos’ wild attempts to use his hands to assert his creative power, serve to emphasise how far Fugard’s play is like its hero ploddingly weighed down with symbols and arch poeticisms at the expense of direct engagement with life.”
Michael Billington in the Guardian (two stars) - “Fugard's weird play takes us deep into the land of allegory … So what on earth is Fugard driving at? … These characters possess neither topographical roots nor social connections and exist only in some symbolist void. Words also gradually lose any concrete application … Douglas Hodge's production strains every nerve to put some human flesh on these dry dramatic bones. Jonathan Pryce's Dimetos is a suitably anguished figure who gazes with voyeuristic longing at his young niece, and seems eaten up with some inner discontent … Holliday Grainger as his hapless niece and Anne Reid as his long-suffering companion quietly impress, even if Alex Lanipekun pushes a bit hard at the role of Danilo, who is meant to embody the limits of progressive rationalism.”
Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph (five stars) - “We think of Athol Fugard as the great playwright of the South African apartheid era … Dimetos
is something different, a deeply personal, poetic and elusive tragedy
that seems to have been dragged, painfully, perhaps even reluctantly,
from the heart and guts of the writer … But great art often
concerns the inner life rather than the external world, and this
haunting, private play has a mixture of raw honesty, beauty and stage
poetry about it which, in Douglas Hodge's outstanding production,
mark it out as a neglected modern classic. On the evidence of last
night's thrillingly rapt and intense performance I'd venture to suggest
that in his long career, Fugard has written nothing finer or more
searching … This is a beautifully acted production of great
intensity and emotional truth … This is a deep, brave and
beautiful play, magnificently performed.”
Susannah Clapp in the Observer - “There's a strange trompe l'oeil effect in Dimetos, where an atmospheric production by Douglas Hodge and two terrific performances generate an intensity way beyond Athol Fugard's action or words … Fugard's 1975 drama is actually a torpid affair. As if in reaction to the politically engaged plays for which he is famous, Dimetos is set in a nowhere world of foggy symbols. It begins with a groan and ends with a bad smell … Nothing, you see, is quite what it seems. That smell is also of guilt - for Pryce's charismatic genius is not as pure as he seems: he's retired from the world but peeps at it as a sexual voyeur; that gee-gee could have galloped straight out of DH Lawrence - or Mills & Boon. The result is a play about renunciation that manages to be both over-explicit and unclear.”
- by Theo Bosanquet & Katie Blemler