Media

‘Hello and Goodbye’ and questions of relevance

By Andy Rice 24 July 2010

You can tell a lot about a play from the conversation in the bar afterwards. With Athol Fugard’s “Hello and Goodbye”, the bar-talk had two themes - it’s a wonderful vehicle for the actors, but the play itself is stuck in an era that faded long ago.

The drama was first performed more than four decades ago as a powerful piece of social commentary. Its themes of family discord, buried resentments, poverty and hopeless dreams still form the essence of domestic life for many people today. Yet the tales its characters tell from its setting in 1963 have lost their relevance. That leaves some recognisable emotions hanging in a period piece to which today’s younger audiences will not relate.

“Hello and Goodbye” is set in a grimy house in Port Elizabeth, where Johnnie Smit (Michael Maxwell) is teetering on the edge of a nervous breakdown. He speaks to himself in ranting, disjointed sentences. Taps incessantly to calm himself, recites the route he often walks to bring some sense of order to his disordered brain. He paces about the kitchen debating whether he’s going mad, looking a wreck both mentally and physically in dishevelled trousers and stained vest.

Maxwell plays him brilliantly, giving the character an untamed erratic edge that could flip into anger or apathy at the slightest push.

That push comes from his sister, Hester (Dorothy Ann Gould) who deserted the hated house years ago and ekes out a living as a prostitute in Johannesburg. She’s coarse and common, sharp and resentful, and still gives her little brother a hard time as they rake over old memories. Hester fled after her mother died and her domineering father was crippled in a railway accident. Now she’s back, desperate for a share of the money her father was awarded in compensation.

As the drama unfolds we see how Johnnie sacrificed his own dreams to look after his crippled father, leaving him with an empty and now useless life.

Gould is also outstanding, switching from hate to hurt and from anger to total vulnerability as siblings haul out boxes full of tatty goods and lingering memories in search of the money.

The husband-and-wife team of Maxwell and Gould spark off each other superbly. The wordy and intense production is flawlessly executed and unfolds on a stage set that’s entirely reminiscent of the times.

Yet it’s a play you experience, rather than enjoy, and I left feeling I had watched a sad snapshot of history.

By Lesley Stones

Read more of Lesley’s writing at her great website.

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