‘Death of a Colonialist’ is neither cloying nor maudlin

By Lesley Stones 18 September 2011

It isn’t often that everything about a play is uniformly superb. A great script can be badly acted, or a mediocre plot compounded by patchy performances. But when a fabulous script is brilliantly acted in a convincing setting, it’s easy to plaster on the superlatives and become a raving evangelist. LESLEY STONES has not doubt “Death of a Colonialist” justifies all the praise you could heap upon it.

It’s the story of Harold Smith, an anachronism in modern society as the burly, brusque, but brilliant history teacher who has held dominion in his classroom for 35 years. Harold (Jamie Bartlett) doesn’t realise his world is about to collapse as his headmaster wants to replace him with a less fierce, more malleable colleague. But a more devastating threat is lurking, because his wife, Maggy (Shirley Johnston) is dying of cancer, and hasn’t the courage to tell Harold, knowing it will destroy him.

Bartlett is magnificent, whether he’s vigorously re-enacting history for his pupils or standing silently in his house, shoulders hunched and face broken by realising he is so absorbed in history that he has failed to notice the personal tragedy of the present. Bartlett’s masterful, passionate performance holds you so riveted that the interval is an unwelcome interruption.

The stage set is perfect – a long blackboard that wheels forward for the classroom scenes then pushes back to reveal a neat family lounge. A balcony is used effectively during phone calls between Maggy and her children who have both emigrated, to emphasise the distance between them. Johnston and Ashleigh Harvey as her daughter Susan have an excellent rapport, with tense gaps and choking silences in their phone calls conveying as much as the words.

It sits badly with Harold that both Susan and Jonathan (Carl Beukes) have emigrated, since their “defections” challenge his fiercely patriotic outlook and yearning for racial harmony. So when they return to support their dying mother the inevitable clashes flare.

You see Harold grasping to make contact with his family, and not having a clue how to do it. Bartlett turns that struggle for contact into almost physical anguish, particularly his battle to connect with his children, who are almost strangers to him now.

Yet “Death of a Colonialist” goes way beyond the study of one family. There are subtle messages of reconciliation and forgiveness too, as this old crocodile of a teacher urges his students of all colours to unite in their common humanity. “It’s a dangerous thing to hate the place you call home,” he says. “We all have shares in the country.”

The engrossing script by Greg Latter spans an amazing range of emotions with absolute ease. Early humour effortlessly gives way to deep anguish, unspoken feelings bubble almost tangibly, opposing views flame and subside, and grief is expressed so perfectly that it’s neither cloying nor maudlin.

It’s beautifully directed by Craig Freimond, who has Harold pounding the stage to emphasise his dominating character, while his wife and children allow themselves to be overshadowed both verbally and physically, as life in this family has always been. Every word and movement is entirely believable, as if you’ve wandered into a classroom and a living room where this family is confronting its crises.

And you’ll be fascinated how quickly that laugh in your throat gets turned into a lump. DM

“Death of a Colonialist” runs at the Market Theatre until 16 October.


For more, visit Lesley’s excellent website.



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