Pryce adds value to a proﬁtless drama
Donmar Warehouse, London WC2
Jonathan Pryce and theatre debutante Holliday Grainger in Dimetos
You think of the white South African dramatist Athol Fugard and you think of the brave apartheid plays he stitched together with black collaborators John Kani and Winston Ntshona. You think of how, when Kani and Ntshona first performed Sizwe Banzi is Dead in Cape Town, they defied South Africa’s brutal Security Police.
And you think also of The Island, again written by Fugard, Kani and Ntshona, which was inspired by the Robben Island prison that held Nelson Mandela for 17 years, and how Sophocles’s Antigone — the play within that play — was used to hold an elegant mirror up to one of the world’s ugliest regimes.
But although Dimetos, which Fugard wrote on his own in 1975 during the violent period that would climax with the Soweto Massacre a year later, also appears to draw on myth, it is not the injustices of apartheid the playwright is seeking to examine but what he called the “defining condition of man”. No lack of ambition there, then.
Dimetos, played in Douglas Hodge’s unevenly acted production by a dishevelled, bearded and very much in-form Jonathan Pryce, is a brilliant engineer who has abandoned the city which he helped build in order to live in an isolated province with his housekeeper Sophia (Anne Reid) and his niece Lydia (Holliday Grainger).
He is visited by Danilo (Alex Lanipekun), an emissary sent on behalf of the city to persuade the genius problem-solver to return to the crumbling metropolis.
The city is unnamed, Dimetos’s isolated home unspecified. What is certain is that the writer has not located his play in apartheid South Africa but in a quasi-mythic state of suspension, and as a result, only belatedly evokes genuine emotion.
For much of the play Fugard’s themes are ill-defined and the writing overreaches. So too does some of the acting. As the idealistic Danilo, Lanipekun displays an over-pitched earnestness that could not sell a cold beer to a thirsty man, let alone persuade Dimetos to return to the life he so deliberately left behind.
And at the crucial moment when Grainger’s Lydia reels from the double whammy of Danilo’s botched seduction and the realisation that her uncle harbours a love for her that is more than familial, her sobs and suicide at the loss of innocence — though not her virginity — strike a false, overwrought note.
Perhaps it is only fair to say on behalf of the young Grainger’s theatrical debut that others in the audience appeared to find it deeply moving.
But with the final act, which takes place by the sea, the play at last strikes an authentic Beckett-like note of desolation. And it is probably no coincidence that by now we are left with Fugard’s two most interesting characters — the bitter Sophia, whose love for her employer is cruelly unrequited, and Dimetos, for whom life makes no sense without an engineer’s equation to work out the answers.
We are also left with the production’s two finest performances. Driven to insanity by the smell of a walrus’s corpse that is rotting offshore, Reid’s barren Sophia and Pryce’s haunted Dimetos are left tormented by their responsibility for Lydia’s death.
They make a fascinating tragic duo. But even now it takes almost elemental will power on the part of Pryce to find the drama in his character’s loss of logic and reason. The best is saved until last as Pryce pulls from this remote and barren play a portrait of a disintegrating man whose contempt for anyone who wastes their life has turned into a need to atone for the girl’s life wasted because of him. It is a search for the dramatic holy grail that lies within many a fine play — redemption. Demented with guilt, he frenziedly attempts to solve the problem of Lydia’s death by turning back time, pathetically employing bric-a-brac to change the laws of the universe.
Redemption is buried deep here. But against the odds, Pryce finds it.
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