LOSING a child to violence is not reserved for a certain class, race or high-risk group. It did not discriminate in smiting the parents of Amy Biehl and Brett Goldin just as harshly as it did the parents of Anene Booysen and Hector Pieterson.
In South Africa, the murder of young people is often used to score cheap political points, with lip service paid to the human factor.
This is where a medium such as theatre can really bore down deep and excavate the nuggets of truth buried behind the screaming headlines and hidden agendas.
This subject matter was recently explored in Sindiwe Magona’s play, Mother to Mother, in which Thembi Mtshali-Jones portrayed the mother of Biehl’s murderer. Now, writer-director Lara Foot is contributing her own take on the theme.
Foot is no stranger to zeroing in on a microcosm to illuminate a broader reality.
She often does so with equal parts brutal sledgehammer and metaphorical allegory — such as in Tshepang and Karoo Moose, powerful indictments on the cycle of abuse and dysfunction bred by poverty.
Yet her work tends to be laced with hope, and here, too, SOLOMON & MARION, her latest play, stands tall as a meditative, graceful and delicate specimen in her broader canon, even though at its core lies the tragedy of losing a child in his prime.
This time, Foot does not need to use a loaf of bread or a football to depict the inconceivable horrors that emanate from a scarred psyche, for the terror of isolation is a different beast altogether. Its tyranny is metaphysical rather than physical; its violence is quiet and insidious. This unbearable sense of loneliness — Foot calls it "aloneness" in the programme notes — finds form in the character of Marion Banning, an ageing divorcee whose daughter lives in Australia and whose son was killed seven years previously. Weary and despondent, she has abandoned her will to live and has closed herself off to others. She is, in part, the architect of her own misery.
And who better to breathe life into such a complex character than our very own Janet Suzman, back on Johannesburg stages for the first time in more than 35 years.
It has been worth the wait, for Suzman, arguably our most illustrious acting export, knows how to inhabit a character robustly yet with nuance. Throughout, her Marion never becomes a one-dimensional misery-guts but reveals glimpses of her dormant fighting spirit, thereby allowing us to empathise with her.
Suzman acts with such understated style and generosity that she never overshadows her co-star, the magnetic Khayalethu Anthony, who holds his own in venerable company. He plays Solomon Xaba, a young man from Marion’s past who shows up on her doorstep one day and, quite maddeningly, refuses to go away.
Running the gamut of humour and pathos, suspicion and fear, Aromat and chicken feet, a beautifully affecting tale of reconciliation unfurls as the two vandalised souls tentatively reach out to each other.
It is no accident that Marion is reading JM Coetzee’s novel, Slow Man, whose protagonist has to adapt to being an amputee. Marion, too, has to learn to — and want to — live with the symbolic dismemberment that is her grief.
Solomon & Marion had its genesis in 2007 as Reach, with a different cast. Foot wrote it after the murder of up-and-coming actor Goldin, who Suzman had been directing in a production of Hamlet at the time. Foot created the role with Suzman in mind and has been reworking and tweaking it since.
It was good as Reach; as Solomon & Marion, it is gently towering, with a lingering dramatic effect. One does, however, wonder whether the play merited the Fleur du Cap award last year for best new South African play, as it has been percolating in various guises for at least six years.
After its present season at the Auto & General Theatre on the Square ends on June 30, the play moves to Cape Town’s Baxter Theatre from July 10 to 20, followed by a stint on the Edinburgh Fringe in August.
It will be interesting to see how international audiences respond to this intimate, life-affirming story that is recognisably South African but also stateless.
It is said that all theatre is political, and to divorce the human element from the broader sociopolitical context would be naive. So in that sense, perhaps, this is a political play, but you’ll be so moved you won’t notice.