A Block on the Past

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Review of 'Sorrows and Rejoicings' by Athol Fugard, Tricycle Theatre, London

Athol Fugard's 'Sorrows and Rejoicings' is an exploration of the life of a dissident poet.

Dawid, an anti-apartheid Afrikaaner intellectual, has died. His widow, Allison, and his black house servant, Marta, begin a compelling retrospective of his life. Allison, who returns to Karoo village for the funeral, may own the house, but she is unmistakably a stranger in what is Marta's home.

Flashbacks show how Dawid's poetry was banned for its subversiveness, leading him to leave for London to voice his opposition to the South African regime. Inspired by Roman exile Ovid's Sorrows, he plans to write a companion piece of inspirational Rejoicings. However, wrenched from home, he loses his muse--who we discover was not Allison, who was won to his politics, rather it was Marta, with whom he had a taboo relationship. His dying trek home leads to a last few weeks of hermitic vigil, representing his political impotence as a lone poet with writers' block. He implores Marta to describe life in the village in the most trivial detail in a futile attempt to relive the years he lost in London. He is too ashamed to face the people he failed to speak for so he remains a passive observer.

Although Dawid, obviously a semi-autobiographical character, is portrayed with charismatic aplomb by Marius Weyers, 'Sorrows and Rejoicings' is also about the subtle tragedy afflicting those who his life touched--Allison, who he vented his frustration on whilst in drunken exile, Marta, who kept the house 'just the same' in expectation of his return.

Despite this, 'Sorrows and Rejoicings' is not a play about despair, but about overcoming it. Dawid fails in his ambition to live to see 2000, but Allison has a millenarian vision of reconciliation--for the family, and allegorically for the country as a whole. How viable is the latter without a transformation to remove the economic apartheid that has outlived the political? This is a question raised, if not answered, by Marta's scepticism that the local school will ever get the money for improvements. Therein lies the contradictions facing post-apartheid South Africa--freedom of expression without the material means to develop and use it is a shallow phrase, and even the most potent voices of hope can be muted if isolated from a collective alternative.