The Road to Mecca
30/08/2007 - 08/09/2007
By Athol Fugard
Directed by Lisa Warrington
“If I made an angel, I’d have it pointing to the East. I’d misdirect all the good Christian souls around here and put them on the road to Mecca.”
The Road To Mecca tells the essentially true story of Miss Helen, an elderly woman who lived in obscurity in the small, conservative community of New Bethesda, close to the harsh landscape of the Great Karoo in South Africa. Here, after the death of her husband, she was inspired to undertake her true life’s work, which was to transform her home and the yard surrounding it into art, using cement, beer bottles, broken mirrors, gaudy paint, old motor-car headlamps, assorted junk and an extraordinary imagination. She sculpted owls, wise men, camels, peacocks, a half-cock half-man, mermaids, creatures of all kinds, and filled her house with light and colour and glitter ground from broken glass. This was her “Mecca”, a place that challenged the narrow views of her neighbours.
Now, Miss Helen must face the possibility that she can no longer preserve her all-important independence of mind and body in the face of outside efforts to ‘take care of her.’ Competed over by two friends from opposing ‘camps’, whose desire to do the best for her leads to strongly conflicting views of what that might be, can there be any resolution to an irresolvable situation? The Road To Mecca is a play of debate and heart and dignity and passion, and of a glorious vision that transcends the ordinariness of our lives.
“Light just one little candle in here, let in the light from just one little star, and the dancing starts.”
Miss Helen - Louise Petherbridge
Elsa Barlow - Terry MacTavish
Pastor Marius Byleveld - John Watson
Set Design - Andy Cook
Lighting Design - Ulli Briese
Stage Manager - Rowena Marie Thevarakam
Lighting/sound operator - Cathy Cresswell-Moorcock
Photography - Reg Graham
Poster - Brian Beresford
Props & costumes - The Company
Front of House - Alison Finigan and Globe Committee
Sensitive and highly intelligent performances
Review by Barbara Frame 14th Sep 2007
In the interval of the opening night of The Road to Mecca, Andy Cook’s set was a major talking point. It depicts a small house, in a village bordering South Africa’s Grand Karoo, extravagantly, eccentrically decorated with sculptures and adornments made from mirrors, glitter, found objects, and assorted junk.
The elderly owner and artist, known as Miss Helen, lives alone, and largely in her own imagination, her strangeness representing a challenge to conventionality which the community is unwilling to accept. As the play progresses she is visited by her only, and mutually antagonistic friends – city-dwelling Elsa, and Marius, the kindly, conservative local pastor.
Both are concerned about the increasingly frail Helen’s future welfare. Elsa encourages her to continue to express her individuality even if that means loneliness and danger, while Marius advocates a return to the safety of the community and the church. As a battle for Helen’s soul develops, Athol Fugard’s play (inspired by a true story) blends personal and political themes of freedom, trust, the place in society of the wilful outsider, and the search for intimacy.
Sensitive and highly intelligent performances from Louise Petherbridge as Helen, Terry McTavish as Elsa, and John Watson as Marius are enhanced by (to my Dunedin ear, anyway) laudably credible South African accents.
Lisa Warrington’s professional direction has ensured a very high-quality production that drew prolonged and deserved applause from the capacity audience. Warmly recommended.
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Engrossing comment on values
Review by Andrew Morrison 11th Sep 2007
Athol Fugard is best known as a South African playwright whose work deals implicitly with the issue of apartheid. This pre-occupation has allowed him to examine the effects of a specific political regime on the lives of individual people, rather than just focus on a social evil in general. His plays gain their peculiar power and intensity from this concern with individual and, above all, human stories.
The Road to Mecca is a unique play in the sense that the politics are peripheral. It was inspired by the life and work of Helen Martins of New Bethseda. After the death of her husband, she transformed her home and surrounding property into a work of art using materials such as cement, beer bottles, broken mirrors and gaudy paint. Darkness is banished from her world, with ‘light and colour’ taking its place. However, her ‘Mecca’ is threatened when the local pastor suggests she move to a rest home, a ‘sensible’ thing for a woman of her age to do. The play follows a trajectory of conflict between Miss Helen’s wavering sense of independence, and the pastor’s attempts to bring her round to his point of view.
With a work as complex, and an interpretation as thought-provoking, as this, it is difficult to know where to begin. Naturalism is a challenging form to master, but this cast had the knack for drawing you into the lives of the characters they were weaving in front of you, and the personal stories soon began to take hold. Lisa Warrington’s well-paced direction allowed the actors the freedom to develop their roles in due course, and although the action seemed slow to begin with, this proved a necessary and effective technique.
The performances were professional and efficient, and it was pleasing to see three local actors of such high calibre on stage together. Louise Petherbridge and Terry MacTavish created a warm dynamic as Miss Helen and her friend Elsa, and the bond between the two women provided the heart at the centre of the play. Fugard is known for his ability to write strong roles for women, and the layered performances of the two leads allowed the subtlety and complexity of their characters to emerge.
As Marius, John Watson provided a restrained performance which captured the essence of a conflicted man, slowly drawing sympathy from the audience despite being initially cast as the ‘villain’ of the piece. The ensemble were extremely watchable, and coupled with sensitive direction, kept us engrossed for nearly two hours as the tapestry of their lives played out in front of us.
Andy Cook’s bright and striking set provided an external representation of Miss Helen’s irrepressible spirit, a constant metaphor for the light and colour at the centre of the play.
While The Road to Mecca is not, in many senses, a political piece, its themes of protest against repression, the value of individual identity, and the importance of connections between people demonstrate its significance both as a testament to a particular socio-political context, and as a comment on values that are essential for civilised societies to prosper.
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