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Theatre: A Lesson from Aloes, Finborough Theatre London

Athol Fugard's play is an acute reminder of the horrors of apartheid-era South Africa

THE opening of A Lesson From Aloes lulls you into false sense of security.

Piet and Gladys Benzuidenhouts are having a lazy afternoon in their isolated Port Elizabeth back yard, awaiting a visit from his old friend Steve and his family. There’s talk of sunburn, the resilience of aloes and the significance of names — underlined by a Romeo and Juliet quote — but little more.

Fortunately, when you are in the hands of South Africa’s master dramatist you know you won’t be underwhelmed for long and, slowly, Athol Fugard begins to turn up the heat.

Set in 1963, the violent undercurrent of a nation in turmoil begins to reach the surface as Gladys frenziedly recalls a government raid on their home in which her precious diaries, and some secrets, were stolen.

Slowly a picture emerges of “a dangerous time” in which “people are frightened,” none more so than the restrained Piet (Dawid Minnaar). His revolutionary fervour has been quelled by painful experience, leading him to wonder whether he fought for a lost cause.

When Steve (David Rubin) finally arrives, conspicuously without his family, a devastating landscape of suspicion and submission emerges as the apartheid regime’s secret services have set about engendering fear into every facet of life, turning comrades against one another.

Four decades old, Fugard’s play arrives in London for just the second time under the pitch-perfect direction of acclaimed actor Janet Suzman, niece of anti-apartheid activist Helen Suzman.

She’s aided by a skilful cast, each giving detailed portraits of disturbed individuals trying to maintain their sanity and that's especially true for Janine Ulfane, whose performance as the tortured Gladys is compelling.

This latest revival serves as a fascinating historical document and a pertinent reminder of the horrors of apartheid just 25 years on from its end.

Runs until March 23, box office:


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