Life, etc

Fifty shades of blue: Fugard’s latest is bleak, beautiful and broken

By Lesley Stones 27 August 2012

The Blue Iris is Athol Fugard’s latest work to hit the stage, and it’s both haunting and beautiful. There are moments where the mood is lost, but on the whole, it’s a collection of performances that will leave you deeply moved. A review by LESLEY STONES.

Life for some people can be unremittingly tough, as fate, other people’s actions and their own inadequacies conspire to keep them down.

Certainly that’s true for most people who populate Athol Fugard plays, and his latest, The Blue Iris, is firmly of that ilk.

It’s a dark, brooding play in classic Fugard style, exploring the regrets, disappointments, desperation and isolation of salt-of-the-earth characters living in grinding hardship.

The Blue Iris is set in the playwright’s beloved Karoo, where farmer Robert Hannay (Graham Weir) is salvaging what he can from the charred remains of his farmhouse. His home has been razed during a thunderstorm that claimed the life of his wife Sally (Claire Berlein).

At his side is housekeeper Reita (Lee-Ann van Rooi) who urges him to pack up and walk away from a life that no longer exists. But Robert cannot go, because Sally’s spirit is haunting the blackened ruins, crying his name and unable to leave until unfinished issues are also laid to rest.

Director Janice Honeyman has staged a superb production where everything is tight yet fluid. The dramatic set by Dicky Longhurst is highly effective, capturing the hopeless ruins and cleverly morphing from the outside to the inside of the building. The sound effects of a thunderstorm shake the whole theatre and lighting by Mannie Manim moodily eases us from day to night to storm.

Weir is fascinating as the farmer, with his expressive face doing at least half the acting for him. He’s a troubled soul, tormented by the idea that he let his wife down by failing to recognise her needs.

He’s suitably gaunt and dishevelled as he tells the story that brought them to this sorry point. Robert brought his English wife to the Karoo but neglected to look after her as he was too absorbed in looking after the farm. A six-year drought has sucked him as dry as the land he farms, where symbolically, the only plant still growing is the poisonous blue iris.

Lee-Ann van Rooi is excellent as Reita, giving her a philosophical touch over a practicality that protects her inner wounds.

It’s tricky to make a ghost being played by an actress look fittingly ethereal, and Claire Berlein as the spirit of Sally feels altogether too substantial. There’s nothing ghostlike about her, which detracts a little from the desired mood of the haunting scenes.

As the characters confront each other, we see these are people with no emotional highs to relieve the lows.

While conversation is conducted in the everyday English, there’s a poetic ebb and flow that turns the script into a work of beauty. Yet for all the love that’s lost or unrequited I felt a lack of tenderness, and couldn’t work out if that was absent in the script or in the interplay of the actors themselves.

It’s a beautiful production and a poignant play, but lacks the usual degree of heartbreak that Fugard weaves into his scripts. I enjoyed it immensely, but yearned to walk away with a mood or message that would have kept me raking over its memories for days afterwards too. DM

Photos: Ruphin Coudyzer.

The Blue Iris runs at the Market Theatre until October 7.

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