Elysium Theatre Company have once again shown what high calibre work they can produce. Great story telling from South African playwright Athol Fugard with sound direction from Jake Murray and powerful performances from both male leads ensure that this is a great piece of theatre . A journey through trauma to possible redemption, Playland explores what happens to the human psyche when men with a strong moral code find themselves doing unspeakable things and then have to find a way to live with the consequences.
Set in Playland, a travelling fairground, the action takes place on New Year’s Eve 1989 when war veteran Gideon La Roux meets the fairground watchman Martinus Zulu. Behind the gaudy splendour of the lights and wurlitzer music is the deeply reflective Martinus alone in his monastic space. This bleak setting eventually serves as a kind of confessional for both men. The absolute power of this performance is not just that it is about the unravelling of a man with PTSD, but that it is a man who fought in a war of Apartheid where soldiers were forced to take a vow of silence and where truth was white washed or blacked out. Somehow Gideon is pulled towards another man who is guarding his own secret pain and who has also broken the sixth commandment.
This is a perfectly balanced double act from two actors who were both also excellent in a previous Elysium production Jesus Hopped the A Train. Danny Solomon is veteran Gideon, a man whose initial bonhomie hides deep psychological wounds that slowly start to surface as the clock ticks down to a new year. Solomon is all nervous energy and keen, darting eyes while he attempts to engage the recalcitrant security guard. He is engaging and charming as he tells stories of his pigeons and his childhood but effortlessly shifts into menace and madness as he attempts to gaslight his reluctant companion into violence. He increasingly reminds me of early Jack Nicholson in the ways he can play with energy, tempo and mood.
Faz Singhateh counters Solomon with a wonderfully controlled and restrained performance. Stiff with righteous indignation, every sinew is coiled as his Martinus watches and waits like a wary, wounded animal. The growing tension between both men slowly builds, becoming palpable as their stories are told and they find common ground in their actions but struggle with their opposing perceptions of redemption and forgiveness.
The writing is evocative and brutal in its description of the horrors of the Border War, but is also tender as it reveals the youthful innocence of childhood. Simple but effective staging with rich lighting and a fabulous fairground soundscape add additional pleasure to this production. Everything is thoughtfully and sensitively done, ensuring that 30 years on this tale of redemption and forgiveness still feels timely and relevant.
Tree certainly helped to get the party vibe going at the launch night of MIF19. Walking into Upper Campfield Market Hall the club night was in full swing. The huge stepped circular stage and runway platform were filled with dancers and audience members. There was a real energy and dynamism in the space that was coming from the audience as well as the performers. So far so good as this production has had it’s fair share of bad press this week with very measured and detailed statements from writers Tori Allen-Martin and Sarah Henley who worked on the project until last year claiming to have been unceremoniously kicked off. Co-creator and Director Kwame Kwei-Armah seemed to want to take the project in another direction and these women are now uncredited for their contribution.
So what does Tree actually have to say in its tale of personal loss and the bloody history of South Africa? Influenced by the loss of his father in the same year as the death of Nelson Mandela, his filming of Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom and making his album Mi Mandela Idris Elba was inspired to create a piece of musical theatre. The subsequent end result, working closely with Director Kwame Kwei-Armah blends drama, music and dance as a young mixed race Londoner travels to South Africa to place his mother’s ashes by his father’s grave. Tree is an attempt to confront the ghosts of a fractured family history while also seeking to reconcile with the turbulent history of this complex country.
Through conversations with the living and dreamlike sequences watching history play out below him Kaleo delves into the tragic origins of his parents love affair and the bitter outcome of that love during Apartheid. Theatre blends with riotous dance that spills of the stage as audience participation is encouraged during riot scenes and celebratory dance scenes. There is a lot to like in this piece which has a strong cast including Sinéad Cusack, Alfred Enoch and Patrice Naiambana and it is beautifully staged. The tech team of Jon Clark, Paul Arditti and Duncan McLean have done a wonderful job of lighting, sound and projection which make for something quite special.
The story told is not new or unique but it is clearly personal to many who lived through or are still living in the shadows of South Africa’s past and forging a new and fairer society. Sadly that is where I have issues with Tree as in the enthusiasm to embrace so much the central characters are never fully fleshed out. These creations deserve more respect and fleshing out to fully understand the complexities of living through Apartheid. This still feels like a young sapling rather than a mighty oak. Hopefully it will grow and develop the strong roots that this ambitious project was clearly striving for.