One of his earliest plays, Hello and Goodbye (1965) relates as much to Athol Fugard’s early life and experience as it does to the brutal political realities of poverty and apartheid in South Africa. And yet, as Paul Robinson’s powerful production in the smaller of the Trafalgar Studios reveals, this is essentially a play about a poor, derelict white brother and his older sister, Johnny and Hester Smit, unscrambling their relationship with a dying, unseen father.

Fugard has said that he started work on the play when Nelson Mandela was jailed in 1963. Mandela was still in prison when it was first performed in this country by Ben Kingsley and Janet Suzman in 1973 at the King’s Head and again by Antony Sher and Estelle Kohler for the RSC in 1988, ten years after the abolition of apartheid in 1978.

Its dramatic urgency remains unimpaired in this intensely acted revival with rising star Rafe Spall and the much more experienced Saskia Reeves. They are well matched, Spall a bitter and resentful guardian of the family legacy, Reeves a worldlier and even more acrimonious remnant of big city life, her hair arranged in the beginning of a beehive style, blowing in from the streets of Johannesburg in search of her share of the money.

The siblings have been apart for fifteen years. Their father (like Fugard’s) lost a leg in an accident on the railways, so there must be some compensation stashed away somewhere. Libby Watson’s design is a tumult of grime, papers, memorabilia and cheap furnishing on a hot summer evening in Port Elizabeth, where a campaign of relentless rummaging is an excuse for the cruel parade of hurtful memories and accusations.

Is Johnny mad? Is Hester a whore? The director has salvaged a religious theme from the grittiness of the exchanges which are rooted, he claims, in “the deep and damaging impression that growing up under the cloudy Calvinist doctrine of the Dutch Reformed Church leaves.”

The characters certainly have a clearly objectified view of themselves as victims of circumstance. Spall’s performance, especially, is fuelled with a self-lacerating rage of someone who knows exactly where he’s going, and it’s not a good place.

The smell of their mother’s dress, the sight of their father’s crutches, the mirage of material improvement, all constitute a texture of despair and reality of detail that is almost overwhelming.

It is as though Fugard has written everything he can remember into this play as an act of familial exorcism. Paradoxically, it is finally less effective, or indeed moving, than either of the two great duologues that followed it, Boesman and Lena or, especially, Sizwe Bansi Is Dead.

-Michael Coveney