“You are more radiant than all your little candles”
Set in 1970s South Africa, The Road To Mecca
is part of an Athol Fugard mini-season at the Arcola Theatre, the UK premiere of Coming Home taking place in the smaller Studio 2 there. Miss Helen lives alone in an isolated village in the Karoo desert of South Africa. She has discovered herself as an artist since the death of her husband and her house and garden is now filled with works of arts and statues and glitter and candles as she tries to keep the darkness at bay.
Her pursuit of her craft has left her isolated from the community and the local church, thus her circle of friends has resultantly dwindled and we meet two of the most significant during the play as they try and persuade her that they know what is best for them. Marius is the local pastor who believes that she’d be better off in an old people’s home. And there’s Elsa, a young teacher but an old friend, who now lives in Cape Town who has made the 12 hour drive to see her friend because she is seriously concerned for her welfare.
It is not particularly fast-paced and it is extremely wordy but my, what words. Fugol’s text is richly textured, layered with flashes of emotional power and a searing honesty. The set is fairly minimal, practically in the round, but the splendour and beauty of Helen’s art is evoked by a twinkle of a fairy light but primarily through the lyrical text and our own mind's eye.
Bassett is sensational as Helen, starting off as the brittle, arthritic woman afraid to tell the truth for fear of what might happen to her and her precious art and her journey throughout the play, as she is challenged by her friends is a thing of beauty. It’s perhaps a tired metaphor but this really is like the emergence of a butterfly from its chrysalis, the scene in which she unfurls her wings and finally convinces Marius of the true value of her work was breathtaking.
Sian Clifford is also excellent as Elsa and it is the relationship between these women that forms the beating heart of the play. Elsa’s affection for Helen is so profound that despite her own personal pain she has travelled so far for just a night in response to a call for help, but even the strength of her love can sometimes blind her to the reality of the situation and the need for her to just listen. Laurenson’s Marius also comes from a place of love and genuine concern, no matter how misplaced, but his role is a little over-shadowed by the wonderful relationship between the two women.
The Road To Mecca is a stately play, but one which is well worth a visit. It is thought-provoking, possessed of an almost elegiac beauty and a testament to the power of human relationships. It received a standing ovation, a first for me at the Arcola, so go and book a ticket now.
Running time: 2 hours 35 minutes (with interval)
Programme cost: £1
Booking until 10th July
Labels: Athol Fugard, James Laurenson, Linda Bassett, Sian Clifford