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THE ROAD TO MECCA (article first published : 2007-06-16)

The title of The Road to Mecca has a certain irony some twenty odd years after Athol Fugard wrote it. Mecca is known as a pilgrimage destination for spiritual travellers and now Helen Martin’s “Owl House” has achieved a similar status for art-lovers who travel far into the hinterland to New Bethesda in the Karoo for a spiritually artistic experience.

Helen Martin was an “outsider artist” who spent her life as an outcast due to her obsession with the objects she created while leading a solitary existence. Her work (assisted by Koos Malgas) has now entered the canon of South African art and is the subject of many studies. Her house is a landmark which attracts art lovers from far and wide.

The play, which is based upon real life, describes an afternoon and evening in her house. There are only three characters, Helen, who is in her seventies, her young friend Elsa, who is a school teacher and the dominee, Marius. This three-hander is ideally suited to the small intimate space of the Seabrooke’s Theatre, a new venue at the well-known Durban High School. It is an intimate space where the actors can achieve a closeness with the audience which is necessary for a play of this intensity.

The Owl House is a place of wonder where light and glitter and eccentricity abound and one of the big challenges in producing this play is to capture that atmosphere. Greg King, who is a highly creative set designer, has excelled himself in this production. The famous cement sculptural images of owls, mermaids, camels and wise men are realistically reproduced and the glittery walls of broken glass and mosaic, which so absorbed Helen, sparkle and shine. When, towards the end of the play, the many candles are lit we are truly drawn into the magic of Helen Martin’s world which she was so afraid of losing through her encroaching sense of darkness.

The play takes place in the 1970s and the backdrop of the South African political events of the time is always subtly present but never in the forefont. The three protagonists’ lives echo the restrictions and divisions of the outside world. Elsa, a young school teacher friend, comes to visit the older Helen after receiving a letter from her where she expresses her wish to commit suicide due to a bout of depression and darkness.

The play opens with the two women discussing their lives and troubles and Elsa vents her frustrations at having to face a disciplinary hearing for imparting her liberal views to her pupils. She then becomes enraged at the thought of Patience, a black woman she had picked up along the road who was walking 80 miles with a baby on her back. She then goes on to confess her love affair with a married man which resulted in an abortion. Life, Love, Birth, Death, Separation are introduced through her words.

Helen allows her to talk and then discusses her own lack of love for her late husband and her overwhelming passion for creating the cement and mosaic creatures which people her house. These fantastic creatures all face east to Mecca. This desire for the exoticism of the east is in itself is an act of rebellion against the stark Dutch Reformed Christianity practiced by the local community who shun her - and, particularly, the dominee, Marius - who is trying to have her put into an old age home due to her recent household accidents and encroaching arthritis.

The second act brings a tight tension into the play when Marius arrives to secure her signature for admission to the home. The play gathers momentum and through the ensuing conversations we are led to understand that Marius has long been secretly in love with Helen. However, his world view certainly does not coincide with Helen’s and again Fugard brings those bigger emotions into play. Different kinds of love are suggested. But Trust is also a big theme. Marius, Helen and Elsa all are tangled in different webs where trust has let them down and where they have had to relearn how to trust each other.

The play ends in a pledge of trust between the two women. We are not shown Helen’s eventual death where she committed suicide by drinking caustic soda.

Although the three protagonists are white we are constantly reminded of the oppressions of the apartheid years by the discussions of the “absent” black people like the woman on the road called Patience and Helen’s maid Katrina upon whom she relies strongly but who is clearly replaceable.

However, despite all these threads the big theme of the play is about Helen’s fear of darkness and the need to always have light in her life to allay this fear. She made her house a trap for light by covering her walls with broken mirrors and coloured glass which made the light dance and flicker. She filled her space with candles and peopled it with creatures which lived only in her imagination and disappeared into the darkness of her depression when creativity stopped.

This is the eternal battle of the artist and Fugard’s play also tells about an intolerant society which shuns and fears difference. It is a play which can be fearful and tragic and also celebrates individuality, creativity and the endurance of art.

The themes and the script are full of darkness and light making it a difficult to play to stage in that the visual and conceptual constantly intersect. This production got it right. The wonderful, glittering set certainly created the magical, surreal atmosphere which was picked up by strong character portrayals from Alison Cassels as Helen, Clare Mortimer as Elsa and Thomie Holtzhausen as Marius. Direction by Steven Stead made creative use of the spaces on the stage and the intimacy of the theatre. A riveting performance.

The Road to Mecca which launches Kickstart 2007 programme, has two final shows at Seabrooke’s Theatre at DHS on June 16 at 19h30 and June 17 at 15h00. – Carol Brown




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