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CRY THE BELOVED COUNTRY (article first published : 2003-10-16)

If he were alive today, Alan Paton would be 100 years old, having been born in Pietermaritzburg on January 11, 1903. Educated at Maritzburg College, he went on to become one of the major figures in South African literary history before his death in 1988. He once taught at a school in Ixopo, the area set for his best-selling novel, Cry, The Beloved Country, which has been studied by thousands of school learners.

Taking Maxwell Anderson and Kurt Weill’s original musical adaptation Lost in the Stars as a strong reference point, Roy Sargeant has adapted the novel honestly and respectfully in a play format. Presented in association with Cape Town’s ArtScape, it opened last night in the Playhouse Drama.

Cleanly and efficiently directed by Heinrich Reisenhofer, the production played the 2003 National Arts Festival in Grahamstown which is where I saw it first. Several months and many performances around South Africa later, the play has consolidated considerably and the performances are now rock solid.

Scenes are beautifully interwoven, sensitive and acute while the characters are finely drawn. It was a nice touch to incorporate a young schoolboy (played by Johan Vermaak) into the scenario. Studying the book, he wanders through the scenes observing the progress of the story.

Playing the part of Reverend Stephen Kumalo is Joko Scott in a towering and highly moving interpretation of the role. His stage presence is riveting and he moves with dignity through the emotional transitions from a confused old man searching for his son in the bustle of Johannesburg, to the hurt and angry father despairing at his son’s actions and the confident leader of his parish back at Ndotsheni.

Providing a good foil for him is David Muller who Durban audiences will remember from the days of The Playhouse Loft Theatre Company. While I would have preferred a slightly slower delivery, as James Jarvis he was very credible as the brusque farmer, a stranger to emotion who tries to carry his murdered son’s dream forward. The final scenes between Kumalo and Jarvis are extremely moving.

This production is an ensemble piece and the rest of the cast are called on to narrate or play a number of roles, all of which they handle impeccably.

Proud and forthright, Thobeka Maqhutyana impressed as Kumalo’s wife; Morena Medi was sincere and believable as their son Absalom and I enjoyed the performance of Nkuli Sibeko as Absalom’s wife. Also responsible for the traditional music and movement, Nhlanhla Mavundla shone in his main roles of Rev Msimangu and a simple labourer.

Matthew, Absalom’s companion in crime, was well played by Chris Gxalaba and Wiseman Sithole was a strong and articulate presence as Matthew’s father.

Roger Dwyer, who worked for the Playhouse Company for many years as an actor and director, is his usual solidly-grounded self as Mr Harrison. Adrienne Pearce gave Margaret Jarvis a fine-tuned sense of age and emotion while Leon Liebenberg was suitably fervent as the murdered Arthur Jarvis. Matthew Wild had some strong moments as the no-nonsense Father Vincent.

Peter Cazalet has designed a striking set with rough brickwork, elements of a broken-down church, simply-hewn wooden furniture, rubble and a discarded bicycle. The steep centre ramp recalls the opening lines of the novel where Paton describes the road that winds to Ixopo. The set allows for many working levels and provides a good focal point for Kobus Rossouw’s evocative lighting design.

While I wasn't altogether happy with the use of video technology, at least it effectively provides the device to let Alan Paton have the last word. I urge you to see this production, it’s a joy to see the beautiful Drama Theatre operating efficiently and the text is memorable in its own right.

Cry the Beloved Country runs in the Playhouse Drama until October 25. Book at Computicket or phone 031 369 9444. – Caroline Smart




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