There is an old Hollywood comedy set in a studio called Miracle Pictures. Its slogan: "If it's a good picture, it's a Miracle".
A similar disparity between intention and effect is on view in Reza De Wet's drama. It begins with a tatterdemalion troupe of actors entering the church where they will perform Everyman. These travelling players are so threadbare that they need to sell tickets to buy food or a rail ticket to their next stop. But the circus has arrived before them, and the Depression-hit town is not likely to forsake its spangles and thrills for a medieval ticking-off. The company must convince its prospective audience that a good play is a morality play, but their uphill task is made steeper by moral struggles of their own. Then they are visited by the deserted wife of one of the actors, who joins the show to play the part of Death, for which she is particularly suited: "I have my coffin in the attic – I believe in being prepared."
In her native South Africa, De Wet has received much praise and many awards for her plays, several of which also deal with strolling players or fractious families. But Linnie Reedman's production accentuates the stilted and repetitious nature of this one, as the elderly impresario and leading lady and the young actors quarrel, take sides, storm out, apologise, plead, relent, and start all over again. Rhetoric substitutes for action or revelation, and is too feeble to take their place, what with the leader's empty bombast and everyone's numerous cliches: "A veritable feast!"; "So this is how you repay me!"; "You make me sick." (This may, however, be the fault of the translation, from Afrikaans.)
A more serious problem, however, is the fuzziness of the characters and setting. Though the time is specific – 1936 – we are given no sense of period or place. De Wet has said that the play does not need "to be understood only in the context of the Afrikaaner experience", but a universal meaning must begin with a particular reality. The pompous theatre manager, deluded diva, eager young actor are stereotypes, and our attention slides off their blank surfaces. The strongest presence is actually that of another playwright – Durrenmatt – for the abandoned, death-bringing wife and the evil bargain she proposes for the actors' survival is all too reminiscent of The Visit. Comparisons, to say the least, do not work in De Wet's favour.
Susannah York, as the star clinging to her ancient triumphs, is a painful, touching combination of desperation and arrogance, but Tim Woodward's director is all tedious bombast.
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