Educated Rita's older sister learns to speak for herself
Wednesday 25 March 1998
The unseen Ronnie has been living in London for three years with Beatie Bryant, whom he has taught to read the Guardian and pumped full of progress ideas she has not truly assimilated. Samantha Spiro splendidly projects the naive missionary ardour with which Beatie returns for a visit to her rural, working-class, family home in Norfolk. Tending to stand on chairs when she does so, she spouts Ronnie's thoughts at her relations, and it is possible that there is two knowingly subversive a note in Ms Spiros' gesticulating delivery of these pronouncements. The audience should begin to deduce that Ronnie is a bit of a pain (though not for the same reasons that Beatie's folks do): Beatie herself should be the largely unconscious agent of this.
Bovine, submissive, rejecting all attempts at high culture as "squit", the family are spectacularly in fertile ground for Ronnie's proxy seeds of wisdom. But Retallack, who is a master at coaxing superb ensemble playing from a company, does not fall
into the trap of presenting them from Beatie's point of view or from imaging that that point of view is inflexible. The actors here are excellent: You really feel that these people have a lifetime of shared memories, subterranean veins of humour and
affection running through the block of their stupidity. Their existence may be mind-numbing, incurious and repetitive but we see that there are saving graces.
Sally Mates is superb as the mother: the sad, doomed attempts to establish some intimacy with her runaway daughter and then the ugly triumphalism - the product of years of being cooped up and condescending to - when Ronnie writes to break off with Beatie. Ms Mates induces audience empathy with this woman, even as you deplore her tactics.
A play about the awakening of an independent female spirit, Roots has echoes of Ibsen's A Doll's House, in the defiant solo dance at the end of Act One, and pre-echoes of Educating Rita, in the resilient humour and inquisitiveness of its heroine.
Retallack stages the moment at the end when the beleaguered Beatie suddenly stops parroting Ronnie and finds her own voice ("I'm beginning... I'm beginning!) in a manner that is wonderfully true to its mix of realism and romanticism. A screen drops
between Beatie and her family at the aborted tea party, leaving her alone in a vast black and white projection of lonely Norfolk landscape, stretches flat and bare under a lowering sky. A new, difficult start and an image that is rightly both embarrassing and uplifting, gauche and glorious.
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