You don’t need to know much about South Africa’s troubled history or its Boer settlers to appreciate that finding Heaven on Earth can be hellishly difficult.
Reza de Wet’s deeply unsettling, award-winning play, African Gothic puts a human face on the destruction, disappointment and collapse of a nation’s dreams and, at times, it is hard to watch.
From the moment the audience arrives at London’s Park Theatre 90 auditorium they are plunged into a nightmare of sights and sounds that make up the fractured heart of a sweltering, arid and uncompromising nation.
A couple are lying in bed as we take our seats. They are wrapped intimately in each other’s arms and, when the play starts, we get the first shock, discovering that they are brother and sister and not lovers.
When the Boers first arrived they saw South Africa as their Utopia (once it had been ethnically cleansed and controlled). Here was a country that the new arrivals could make their own and carve out a future for their families.
But African Gothic, in all its feral, filthy flea-infested finery, shows us the terrible price that has to be paid when it all goes belly up.
Central to the story are damaged siblings Sussie and Frikkie. The pair cling to each other as they claw their way through what now passes for their life, watched over by their largely silent maid Alina.
Their world has turned upside down since their parents were butchered in an apparent robbery. Now, they sleep through the heat of the days and their nights are spent scratching in the dirt looking for water and acting out disturbing scenes from their childhood. Something is clearly amiss.
Enter a city lawyer who arrives to talk to the pair about their aunt’s will and a knowing audience waits through an increasingly tense drama to discover if he will make it out alive. It’s edge-of-your-seat stuff.
African Gothic is a universal story that could easily be set in the backwoods of an American bayou or even a ramshackle smallholding in the wilds of Northumbria but de Wet’s powerful narrative delivers a shocking attack on her own country’s oppression.
Oliver Gomm and Janna Fox are chilling as the brother and sister whose close relationship now dominates their actions. Frikkie, we learn, had a childhood being thrashed by his sadistic father while their twisted mother inflicted terrible mental abuse on both children.
The last time I saw Gomm he was as a laid back surfer-type in the BBC’s short-lived daytime drama, The Coroner. Here he’s mesmerising, a tightly coiled spring, capturing the madness of a mentally unbalanced young man unable to face responsibility and adulthood.
Janna Fox is unnerving as a child-like girl who is locked in a fantasy. At times it is difficult to understand her Afrikaans’ accent which seems to get stronger the more emotional Sussie becomes.
But there’s no mistaking her intent. These savages are lost in a wilderness and now survive purely by animal instinct.
Adam Ewan’s meek, city lawyer, Grove, is a bit of a stereotype – until you listen to him insult and talk down to the maid purely because of her skin colour. She’s heard worse, of course, and Lesley Ewen, as Alina, does a nice line in sneering and contemptible expressions.
Emotionally African Gothic is at times harrowing, bleak, visceral and poignant. There are moments when you have to give the siblings your sympathy but then realise that it’s wasted on a couple raised by a flawed ideology.
Two Sheds Theatre’s co-directors Deborah Edgington and Roger Mortimer have come up with a tightly told and gripping drama that is expertly packaged into just 80 minutes although I can’t help thinking that I’d have done away with the interval to maintain the tension.
African Gothic runs at Park Theatre, London, until January 23.
Disturbing, absorbing & visceral. Reza de Wet’s African Gothic exposes the dark side of a country’s oppression through a very harrowing story of flawed humanity.