John Kani’s distinguished career as actor and playwright (in collaboration with Athol Fugard and Winston Ntshona) has exposed the injustice and cruelty of apartheid in such plays as Sizwe Banzi Is Dead and The Island.
As sole writer of Nothing But the Truth, Kani turns to the post-apartheid world, examining South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission from the standpoint of a single family. The result is compassionate, moving, frequently funny and always thought-provoking if lacking some of the impact of his earlier plays.
Nothing But the Truth deals with Sipho Makhaya’s personal journey to truth and reconciliation. A long-serving omni-competent assistant chief librarian in Port Elizabeth, he conceals the depth of his desire to be appointed chief librarian just as he conceals the reason for his split from his brother Temba and his true feelings about the murder of his son by security forces.
The catalyst for his transformation is the arrival of his niece, Mandisa Mackay (not Makhaya), from England with the ashes of her father, his brother, a former activist who became something of a celebrity exile in London.
The very short first act is always interesting and entertaining but relatively anodyne with much play on the different social attitudes of Mandisa and Sipho’s daughter, Thando. The second act, with Sipho’s anger freed by alcohol, develops into a subtle, non-judgemental examination of such issues as tradition, loyalty, civil obedience and, above all, truth and reconciliation.
Janice Honeyman’s unaffected direction allows for the actors to break through the fourth wall occasionally to communicate directly with the audience while maintaining an essential naturalism, aided by Sarah Roberts’ detailed set. The Makhayas’ living room and kitchen places their social position precisely: solid respectability free from poverty but with barely a hint of modern luxury, the middle-class of the underprivileged.
As the two young women, Motshabi Tyelele and Rosie Motene are intelligently contrasted, Tyelele particularly effective in projecting Thando’s mixture of strength and subservience and her growing need for independence. Motene’s attractive performance sometimes veers towards caricature but is especially interesting as an outside view of London’s would-be sophisticates.
As for John Kani, it is as ever a privilege to watch him in action – or in stillness, Kani being an actor who can convey much by very little. He brings out Sipho’s essential dignity and goodness so effortlessly that his vanity, vacillation and inability to understand the modern world all amuse without compromising the truth of the character.
- Ron Simpson (reviewed at Northern Stage, Newcastle-on-Tyne)