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NB: as of 23 September 2008, all new artSMart articles are being published on the site news.artsmart.co.za.

THE ROAD TO MECCA (article first published : 2007-05-26)

Helen Martins’s “Owl House” in New Bethesda is now world famous and has sparked much argument, on academic as well as visual arts levels. Unfortunately, I’ve never visited this extraordinary place but those I have spoken to who have been there, speak of it with amazement and a sense of respect. If you’re one of the unlucky ones, like me, you can get a feeling of The Owl House with The Road to Mecca which marks the launch of KickstArt’s 2007 artistic programme.

Greg King has designed a superb and extensive set for the confines of the new Seabrooke’s Theatre at DHS. His recreation of this remarkable cluttered home full of candles and statues which looks onto a back garden inhabited by weird and mystical statues is beautiful. The sound of tinkling chimes greets you as you enter the theatre, setting the atmosphere for a highly impressive presentation of what is arguably Athol Fugard’s finest play.

Wendy Henstock has done a great job of producing the famous sculptural images, particularly as she had to work from photographs to create 3D images. Reflecting the light are the camels, wise men, mermaids and owls made out of cement and bits of glass and any other found object that took Helen’s fancy. They glitter and shimmer, forming a barrier between Helen and her biggest fear – the darkness that threatens to engulf her.

In what is now a time-honoured story, Helen Martins was distrusted by the local Afrikaans church-going community who considered her home and surrounding statues monstrosities. They also think she’s gone a bit mad after her husband’s death. Even the children in the local township areas believe she dabbles in witchcraft. Eventually, the play is about freedom. Helen’s freedom as she decides to remain independent despite the pressure to place her in a retirement home and Elsa’s freedom as she breaks free of her past.

Stephen Stead’s direction is impeccable, using the available acting space to fullest advantage. All three cast members put in their best performances to date.

The text has been meticulously prepared with every nuance and phrase explored, every mood swing respected. Whether barbed, jovial or intense, the dialogue always comes across as natural and honest, perfect for this intimate theatre venue. You really do feel you are a fly on the wall in that house – or, better, one of those sightless wide-eyed owl figures!

Subduing her natural English accent with a credible Afrikaans one, Alison Cassels is an endearing and memorable Helen, as luminous as her shining surroundings. While she may present a confused, shuffling, arthritic, wispy-haired dreamer she still has fire in her aged body. Helen’s “Mecca” has a logic of its own and it is her only reason for living. Alison handled this emotive explanation with heart-rending sincerity in a tour de force performance.

As her concerned young friend, Elsa, Clare Mortimer is an excellent foil for Alison Cassels. The teasing banter between them rattles along at a crackling pace. However, Helen is obviously hiding an underlying secret which Elsa has driven hundreds of miles to discover. The role is perfect for Clare and the play challenges her academic intellect. She is ever-believable - flowing seemingly effortlessly with the currents of the text.

The third role-player adding to the cross-tensions in this tussle of wills is the dominee, Marius Byleveld. He has strong feelings for Miss Helen, despite his congregation’s distrust and disapproval of her. This does not stop him trying to manipulate Helen through kindness with gently couched questions guaranteed to confuse her. While she represents light and is a free spirit, he is hampered by dogma and his need for community approval. Handling the role of this older man with credibility, sympathy and understanding is Thomie Holtzhausen.

The Road to Mecca is the first “outside production” (as opposed to in-house DHS shows) to appear at Seabrooke’s and it has set a very high standard for others to follow. There is a temporary sightline problem as the raking of the seating is not steep enough and this production has had to be raised on a false stage. However this will be sort out whenThe Road to Mecca completes its season and the architect and builders are able to rectify the problem.

Don’t be put off by the fact that it’s two and a half hours long. After extremely busy week, I spent all day in the recording studio. As I headed for the theatre, I questioned my judgement – perhaps it would have been better to go on another day. I needn’t have worried. The quality of the production held a tired brain-weary me riveted from beginning to end. Don’t miss this one or you’ll lose out on a very fine piece of dramatic theatre, beautifully presented, tightly directed and excellently performed

The Road to Mecca runs from May 25 to June 17 at 19h30 with performances from Tuesday to Saturday (Sundays at 15h00). There will be Wednesday matinees on May 30 as well as June 6 and 13. Tickets R80 (no discounts) booked through Computicket or at the theatre on the day of the performance. Pensioners and students in possession of valid ID can enjoy a reduced rate of R60 if purchasing tickets an hour before each performance from the box office and paying in cash. (NB: No credit card bookings on discounted seats) Seating is unreserved. There is a special scholars’ rate of R45 per pupil if part of an official school booking which can be made through Margie Coppen on 083 251 9412. – Caroline Smart




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