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MY CHILDREN! MY AFRICA! – Trafalgar Studios 2, London.

My Children My AfricaAfter a successful run at the Tristan Bates theatre in May, Athol Fugard’s My Children! My Africa! returns to London, this time in Trafalgar Studios 2. Fugard’s play, set during South Africa’s apartheid, is performed inside a cage of barbed wire. This ugly, unwelcoming set is an unsubtle metaphor for the 1985 South African government’s unsubtle attempts to ensure white supremacy. The set is appropriately unsettling, and the barbed wire surrounding the actors nicely reflects the conceptual barbed wire lacing the lives of Fugard’s three characters. Mr M the inspiring and long-suffering teacher, Thami his star-student and Isabel an opinionated student from the privileged white school, are all, in their own ways, trying to change things. But each finds the forces of oppression blocking their efforts at every turn.

The play opens with Mr M (Anthony Ofoegbu) giving a definition of ‘debate’: ‘The orderly and regulated discussion of an issue with opposing viewpoints receiving equal time and consideration’. What follows is an exploration of how best to fight oppression. Mr M believes the only sure way to succeed is to change people’s minds with well-chosen words. Thami (Nathan Ives-Moiba) disagrees with Mr M’s ‘traditional’ method. For him, words are just not powerful enough. It is sad to see Thami’s love of learning replaced by hatred for what his Bantu school represents. However, Thami’s anger is completely understandable. Ives-Moiba does well to keep Thami’s rage and respect for his teacher in equilibrium. Mr M himself is an incredibly rich character. His enthusiasm and passion for teaching and intellectual rebellion is admirable, and nicely portrayed by Ofoegbu. At the same time, Mr M doesn’t hide his faults, his contradictory ideas, or his emotional struggles. All this makes Mr M easy to sympathise with.

Rose Reynolds as Isabel gives a perfect performance. Her emotional reactions are natural and perfectly pitched. Given how dynamic and bold the character is, it would be very easy for Isabel to become a caricature. And with the main theme of the play Mr M and Thami’s conflicting ideas, there is also a danger of Isabel becoming merely a springboard for Mr M and Thami’s dispute. But, partly down to clever writing, and partly down to Reynolds’ skill, Isabel is the lifeblood of the play.

The drama escalates in act two, and unfortunately the naturalistic performances and brilliant pacing of the first act aren’t carried over. As a result the drama seems little over-played at times, and some of the impact of Fugard’s insightful dialogue is lost. Directors Roger Mortimer and Deborah Edgington have also chosen to heighten the emotion of certain scenes with a musical soundtrack. For the most part, this feels unnecessary and distracting.

Fugard’s writing is full of beautiful metaphors and imagery and some very memorable soliloquies. Often, Fugard juxtaposes passionate expositions of the harshness of apartheid with jokes. The tragedy and wit are so close to each other, you’d think the clash couldn’t possibly work – but it does. Fugard also never explicitly advocates either Thami’s or Mr M’s method of fighting oppression. In accordance with Mr M’s definition of a debate, the flaws and merits of both methods are laid out for the audience to scrutinise.

With racism still a problem, not just in South Africa but all over the world, the question My Children! Mr Africa! poses is still a relevant one. And with interesting characters, an eloquent script and compelling performances My Children! My Africa! is a moving and powerful play.

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Reviewed 10/08/15

By Andrea White
@AndieSuzanne

4th – 29th August 2015
Trafalgar Studios 2, London, SW1A 2DY. 

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