BWW Reviews: Bartlett Brings DEATH OF A COLONIALIST to Vivid Life at the Baxter
Greg Latter's DEATH OF A COLONIALIST had its first professional season at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg in March 2010. It was received rapturously, and when the Naledi Awards for that season were handed out, DEATH OF A COLONIALIST took home three of the four awards for which it was nominated, losing its "Best New South African Play or Musical" nod to THE GIRL IN THE YELLOW DRESS. Nearly four years later, DEATH OF A COLONIALIST is playing a debut season in Cape Town, at the Baxter Theatre Centre. The atmosphere in the Golden Arrow Studio was palpable on opening night. There was a sense that we were about to see the local premiere of a great new South African play, with a much-lauded central performance from Jamie Bartlett, his fantastic performance in MANDELA: LONG WALK TO FREEDOM fresh in our minds. Two hours later, after the play had ended I felt ambivalent, if not disappointed, about what I had seen on stage.
DEATH OF A COLONIALIST tells the story of Harold Smith (Bartlett), a history teacher at a boys' school in Grahamstown. Like many teachers in drama around whom dramatic narratives are spun, from John Keating in DEAD POET'S SOCIETY to Douglas Hector in THE HISTORY BOYS, Harold is eccentric and is extremely passionate about teaching, but not necessarily what is set out in the curriculum. His particular interest is in the history of the Xhosa people under colonialist rule, a topic through which he interrogates his own identity. When Harold's wife, Maggie (Shirley Johnston), is diagnosed with terminal cancer, their two children, Susan (Ashleigh Harvey) and Jonathan (Nicholas Pauling), return to South Africa from their lives in Canada and Australia respectively. Together, they look closely at their lives, at what has pulled them apart and kept them together.
What works best in the play is the highly emotional journey through which the discovery of Maggie's cancer takes the characters. There is an intensely personal story at play here, often communicated through typically random family conversations, with long and awkward silences and where subtext triumphs as the chief maker of meaning. Were DEATH OF A COLONIALIST purely a family drama, I might have felt less ambivalent about the play.
The problem is that DEATH OF A COLONIALIST also attempts to deal with any number of socio-political and cultural issues, including the relationship between history and identity, the challenge of "whiteness" in contemporary South Africa, the legacy of colonialism and the conflicts faced by South African expatriates. It never really gets to grips with any of them, although it makes the most headway with the debate around the expatriate's dilemmas. The personal story simply overwhelms the political one.
DEATH OF A COLONIALIST left me feeling neither more enlightened about the ideas that it explores, nor spurred on to think about them. It is as if the play was content to say that these issues exist, that simply acknowledging a theme is a deep enough interrogation of it. The catch is this: would we feel satisfied had the characters merely acknowledged the announcement that Maggie was dying of cancer or did our connection to their experiences come through the manner in which they responded to that announcement? It is, of course, the latter, which is why the play works so effectively on a personal level and so much better than it does on a political one.
The driving force behind DEATH OF A COLONIALIST is Bartlett's portrayal of Harold. It is a bold of the and very physical performance, the kind that Zero Mostel delivered in his prime. Harold comes to life with all of the tics and quirks of a regular human being, amplified in a way that underlines the character's difference from his environment and those around him. In Bartlett's hands, there is no doubt that Harold is a man in crisis who is struggling to make sense of his life in a world where the rules have changed.
The other three performances are all intensely naturalistic. Johnston delivers a heart-rending performance as Maggie, more subtle than Bartlett's but just as complex and layered. Harvey and Pauling offer sympathetic portrayals of the two children. While there is nothing to fault in their characterisation, the contrast between the playing styles of these three actors and that of Bartlett's is perhaps too great for the characters to exist together side-by-side believably in the same space. Craig Freimond's direction never gets the actors onto the same stage, although this may reflect Latter's work on the page. The sharp shifts between performance styles - which are further augmented in the intimate performance space - also adversely affect the rhythm of the play. If Bartlett were not at the centre of it all, masterfully pulling everything together, DEATH OF A COLONIALIST might really struggle to find its footing.