Marion (Gillian Jones) is a woman so crippled by her past that she’s surrendered her future. An ageing white South African in an isolated farmhouse about to be reclaimed by the government, her daughter’s family have moved to Australia, her husband has left, and she spends her days alone in a house that’s falling apart, haunted by the memory of her son’s death.
When Solomon (Pachara Mzembe), a nervous young black man walks through her door uninvited, her response is oddly glib: “I’ve seen you lurking around my house for days. If you’re going to kill me be quick about it.” This is modern South Africa, a country so damaged by its own internal conflicts that an encounter like this is run-of-the-mill. Solomon insists he’s been sent by his grandmother, Marion’s former housekeeper, to look after her.
Solomon keeps visiting and Marion keeps sending him away until he turns up with rollers, brushes and a ladder. He’s going to paint the house, he says. While Solomon’s roller trails its way across Marion’s living room, turning the dark walls bright white, they spar. As their relationship unfolds, the tensions and suspicions they’ve spent their lives avoiding start to fill the house, and as they reveal pieces of themselves the divide between them grows both larger and easier to traverse. When Solomon eventually reveals the real reason he’s made his way into Marion’s life, the piece builds to a moving and disturbing conclusion, with an equally affecting and hopeful coda.
Jones is so completely convincing and heartbreaking as the hardened Marion, a woman hiding under the layers of her own grief that it was only when she cracked a smile during her bows that the spell was broken. Mzembe, in his MTC debut, is remarkable and revelatory as the tightly-wound and anxious Solomon, matching Jones note-for-note from curtain to curtain.
Better known to audiences as an actor, MTC stalwart Pamela Rabe’s direction is near-faultless, reining in a piece that could easily have become bathetic or overinflated. Richard Roberts’ manic set, part-farmhouse, part-helter skelter desert dunes, is marvellous. Rachel Burke’s sensitive, clever and thoughtful lighting is a welcome departure from the uninspired designs of recent MTC shows.
Playwright Lara Foot has masterfully crafted these two broken people, and manages to tackle South Africa’s class and racial tensions without resorting to cliché. She brings humour and depth to material that a lesser writer might have drowned in sentimentality and sermonising. And that’s the thing: Solomon and Marion is incredibly funny. Foot’s script is brilliant, hilarious and moving; this is its first production outside South Africa, but it won’t be its last.
The details: Solomon and Marion plays the Fairfax Theatre at the Arts Centre until July 20. Tickets on the MTC website.