South African Season: Fever/District 6 (Jermyn Street Theatre)
The first double-bill of Jermyn Street's South Africa season is a mixed bag
Anthony Biggs' enterprising South African season casts its net wide across history: from two sisters separated by geography and death at the end of the 19th century, in the wake of the Boer War; to lovers separated in the 1970s by an apartheid immorality act; to the 1989 murder of a Cape Town novelist in the "new democracy" of the country.
The three plays appear on rotating double-bills. I caught the first and the third, Reza de Wet's Fever and Basil Appollis and Sylvia Vollenhoven's District 6, Our Buckingham Palace, performed as a solo by Appollis (the second is Athol Fugard's well-known Statements After an Arrest Under the Immorality Act).
Fever is a study in repressed sexuality derived in part from Christina Rosetti's poem Goblin Market (which is referenced in the play) in which a young English wife and mother, Katy, pores over her correspondence with an unhappy sister, Emma, working as a school governess on a farm in the Karoo.
As played by middle-distance-gazing Peta Cornish as Katy and more stroppily proactive Sian Clifford as Emma, the governess, it looks like a radio play, with a letter-reading inertia only enlivened when Katy is consumed by illness and Emma by sexual fear (of her lecherous employer) mutating into a confused desire.
District 6 is much better, a vivid and authentic tribute to the Cape Coloured novelist Richard Rive, whose best known novel, Buckingham Palace - District 6 was banned in 1989 just a few days after he had been murdered; Appollis was to have played Rive in the adaptation, and now does so in a text that is part narrative, part memoir, part testimony.
The play, and Appollis' beguiling, expressive performance, also tells you much more about South Africa then and today, placing Rive's tragedy in the context of his alliance with other writers and artists, including the great American poet Langston Hughes.
Fever is a semi-animated dream play, while District 6 deals in hard detail and a more piercing sense of memory, even in a sentence about the cigarette smoke in the darkness of a cinema while waiting for the next Zorro movie, or preparations for Christmas, or his first job as a secondary school teacher.