Two naked lovers on stage involved in the meanderings of post-coital conversation is riqué even as dusk falls on the 2010s. How risqué it was in 1972, when Statements After An Arrest Under the Immorality Act was first staged at The Space in Cape Town, most of us can only guess. What is certain is the two naked bodies on stage being of different races – she white, he coloured – must have been scandalous. Not to mention flirting with the law.
The Immorality Act condemning extramarital sex between ‘Europeans’ and ‘natives’ had been in place since 1927. The Nats didn’t create the Act, they simply updated it in 1950 to ensure no white person was allowed to have sex with any ‘non-white’, and so ensured Asians and coloureds were included on the list. Of course the Nats in their race-obsession had drawn up the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act in 1949, so there was no way white and black South Africans of any hue could legally have sex with each other, not even if they got married first. The Apartheid engineers didn’t even recognise mixed race marriages in other countries.
So simply the staging of Athol Fugard’s Statements was highly contentious, before a word between the actors was uttered. That, almost by itself, makes it an important work and part of the South African theatre canon. It is also not simply a play about forbidden love across the colour barrier of our past. Fugard, although post Fallism we now roll our eyes when another one of his works is staged, is not revered for no good reason. Even in 1972 Statements was not that black-and-white. The coloured headmaster Errol Philander (played in current production by Marlo Minnaar) having an affair with white librarian Frieda Joubert (Liezel de Kock), is actually having an affair. He has a wife and child at home in the coloured Graaff-Reinet township. Thus the post-coital conversation of the first half or more of the play is not the easy-going to-and-fro of comfortable lovers.
Beyond the paranoia of being bust by security cops is the guilt of betrayal, and in this case it also plays itself out through the extremely heightened Apartheid race politics. Philander is not just a coloured man whose future is squashed beneath the government boot; as a married man, it is also held in the palm of his white lover, the tenderness of which he is uncertain even though in this instance her collusion provides a certain protection.
There are many layers, many undercurrents at play as they lie on the floor of her library office overlooked, in this production, by a host of (now antique) cameras teetering their lenses down at them from extended wooden tripods. Yet under Greg Karvellas’s direction there is little sense of this tension. It is in the words, of course, but neither in the tone nor the bodies. Which is unnerving, particularly given de Kock’s proven ability to put her entire body into her roles, and gives this production a leaden feel that even the flashlight strobes and surreality of the latter half of the play struggles to shake. The flat pitch, the paucity of emotional range, the Kentridgesque design by Wolf Britz, serve to make this production more a museum piece than the living, breathing, dramatic work it deserves to be.
However, it remains well-made theatre and is part of our canon, so despite my misgivings, is certainly worth seeing.
Statements After an Arrest Under the Immorality Act is playing at The Fugard Studio Theatre Until October 26. Directed by Greg Karvellas and starring Liezel de Kock and Marlo Minnaar, with set and lighting design by Wolf Britz, soundscape and sound design by Charl-Johan Lingenfelder and sound design by David Claasen.