The Road to Mecca, Arcola Theatre, London

Reviewed by Paul Taylor
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The Independent Culture

Linda Bassett gives a magnificently moving performance in this potent revival by Russell Bolam of Athol Fugard's 1984 play. Her character, Miss Helen, is an elderly, eccentric recluse in a dusty and remote village in South Africa's Karoo region. Since becoming a widow she has staved off her inner darkness – and affronted her straight-laced Afrikaaner neighbours – by filling her house with candles and mirrors and her garden with sculptures of wise men, mermaids and animals, fashioned from found materials.

Unlike Fugard's art, which is committed to the struggle against apartheid, Miss Helen's is idiosyncratic and personal. But the dramatist presents her lonely non-conformity as a symbol of the freedom of spirit that makes all true art a political protest against herd prejudices. Set in 1974, the play focuses on a pivotal moment in Miss Helen's life. The local minister and the church council have seized on her physical decline to try to relegate this quiet rebel to an old people's home. Summoned by letter, her young teacher friend Elsa drives 800 miles from Cape Town to be with her. The drama builds to a climactic showdown with the manipulative cleric.

Sian Clifford is a mixture of steeliness and sensitivity as Elsa, a troubled liberal white who, because of her self-doubt and personal problems, needs to cling to the idea of Miss Helen as a role model and so gives vent to tetchy frustration at the prospect of being let down by her wavering heroine. A subtle portrayal by James Laurenson suggests that the reproving minister is motivated not just by genuine concern but an unrequited love for Miss Helen. Your heart goes out to him when he is forced to acknowledge the extent of the gulf between them.

As the two visitors contend for her allegiance, Bassett's lived-in and layered performance reveals the contradictions and complexities of the character – at once a dowdy, vulnerable outcast and a stoically steadfast visionary who glows with shy pride at the memory of finding, in Elsa, a kindred spirit capable of recognising the beauty of her project. It is a long and, at the start, over-leisurely play, but Bolam leaves you persuaded of its slow-burning power and moral stature.

To 10 July (020 7503 1646)