Athol Fugard’s Statements After an Arrest Under the Immorality Act, is a poetic condemnation of South Africa’s Immorality Act, which outlawed interracial intercourse until its repeal in 1985. This revival by Diane Page (Director) , winner of the JMK Award, stands as a reminder of the inhumanity of that prohibition.
Statements After an Arrest Under the Immorality Act is a powerful and intense love story in which the lovers’ deepest longings for personal and emotional freedom are revealed. The play centres around a coloured man, Errol Philander (Shaq Taylor) and a white woman Frieda Joubert (Scarlett Brookes) whose love was ignited when Errol (the local headmaster) came to the library where Frieda works wanting books for his studies. But this is apartheid South Africa and their love could never be declared openly; they met regularly and secretly at night in the library even though they are aware that sex between the races is illegal. They knew, if caught, their liaison would probably end in arrest and imprisonment, but they were drawn together and could not give each other up.
Niall McKeever’s set design, a grey, bare stage with a sink hole in the middle leaves nowhere to hide and is well utilised by Page. The bareness of the stage with just their discarded pairs of shoes and jeans emphasises the hopeless nature of their relationship. In the intimate space of the Orange Tree Theatre, Errol in white underpants, his sweat glistening, Frieda’s wet hair, her grey t-shirt clinging to her body, and their sensuous language as they hug, leaves the audience in no doubt that they are post-coital.
They tumble into the borehole, a safe space for great intimacy and tempered joy, the very place, that in the eyes of the law is a pit of lust and iniquity, The air is tense as they climb out of the hole on to the precarious circular outer space. They circle each other on opposite sides, stark language crashing against illicit sensuality as their contrast of equality forces them to talk about race, class, and privileges. Examining personal feelings, as well as political beliefs, creates friction, a love story unravelling.
In the close proximity of the theatre, we watch them, aware that their love is doomed even before Esther Kehinde Ajai’s sound design adds to the tension. The lovers cower like trapped animals bombarded with shouts, and bangs sounding like gun fire, the cacophony battering down any resistance. Rajiv Pattani’s glaring, flashing lights illuminate the whole place, spotlighting their relationship, their shame, changing the private sanctuary into a maelstrom.
Into this enters the officious Detective Sergeant J du Preeze (Richard Sutton). A nosy neighbour has watched the couple and reported them to the police who secretly photographed them for evidence, before finally breaking into the library to arrest them. The detective pronounces their crime in a cold, ferocious manner in contrast to the emotionally charged Errol and Frieda.
Diane Page captures the injustice, discrimination, and fear that threads through the 75-minute play, doing justice to the layered and complex text. This is a compelling and deeply moving love story in which we see the lovers yearn for respect, dignity and freedom. Shaq Taylor and Scarlett Brookes are compelling on stage, although Shaq’s fluctuating accent and Scarlett’s fast and indistinct speech was difficult to understand at first, their fearful desperation was palpable.
The immorality act is gone but there are many parallels and aspects in this play that are still relevant today – the themes of surveillance, human rights abuses, and the invasion of privacy by government and/or unseen powers.
Review by Anni Domingo
Anni Domingo is a writer, actress, lecturer, director, and MA graduate of Anglia Ruskin Creative Writing. Her poems and short stories have been published in various anthologies.
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