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African Gothic
Published on Wednesday, 18 May 2011

4 stars

Iambic Arts Theatre (venue website)
18-20 May, 3:00pm-5:30pm; 16-17 May, 8:00pm-10:30pm
Reviewed by Catherine Meek

 Suitable for age 15+ only.

African Gothic is an unusual story, well scripted, and a powerful and intense performance which takes risks.

Sussie and Frikkie are curled up in bed, wrapped in one another’s arms like lovers. Sussie sits up, stretches and gets out of bed to use a chamber pot. Frikkie berates her for making a noise... and reveals she is his sister. With this opening there is more than a hint that the play will break the mould, and the audience is already cast as voyeur upon this intimate scene.

From their emotionally-charged conversation it becomes clear that the pair is bound to suffer one another, and that they are deeply affected by horrific events they have witnessed together. Visitors to the family farm in South Africa are rare, and when Sussie spots the unexpected arrival of a man in a suit, she denies her fear by creating an occasion; her childish enthusiasm to substitute their ragged, dirty attire for their dead parents’ Sunday best, retrieved from a wooden trunk, exemplifies the way these two make childsplay of almost everything. Their world is insular, strange and detached from reality, as shown up by their “straight” guest on a mission.

Jane Akuwudike is undeniably superb as Sussie, a young woman demonstrably psychologically trapped by the influence of parents who controlled her behaviour and condemned her thoughts. Now, she knows only how to enact the character of scolded child or her bitter mother. As she slips in and out of alter ego, she responds to Frikkie alternately as her brother, the husband of her mother, and her father - for whom she was a “little doll”.

Frikkie is equally affected, having been abused by his father and tormented by his mother. But his own madness is kept in check by his obligation to mind the provocative Sussie, who often gets hysterical and dominates him altogether. In the face of a character like Sussie and an actress who puts everything she has got into expression of the role, Gary Wright nonetheless holds his own, and is more than capable as Sussie’s protector in the face of their guest.

The twist at the end comes as no surprise, but it doesn’t matter; the situation is in any case enough. Sussie sometimes shouts her lines, which is alienating in a small venue, and the director's decision to have her regularly run off stage - feet stamping down the aisle and back - jarred as well. All told, though, this performance is a credit to the writer, the Barebones Project and Iambic Arts. Recommended.

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