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The Theatreguide.London Review

Bush Theatre       Autumn 2006

Kay Adshead's new play is about the atrocities routinely committed by South African police during the apartheid era, and of the immense difficulty of reconciliation and forgiveness today.

That's a big and serious subject, which makes it a particular shame that the play is so weak, built on one cliché after another of plot, character, dramaturgy and language.

Except for a couple of flashbacks to 1969 in which a black youth is interrogated and tortured, the play is set in the present, as a 50ish white woman tends to her dying husband.

The minute she mentions in passing that he is an ex-policeman, you know what's coming. The minute we learn that government forces digging up her rose garden in search of an ancient burial ground have discovered a more recent mass grave, you know what's coming.

The minute her black maid claims to be a mystic who can cure the dying man, but only if the wife visits the dig site, you know what's coming.

Maid forces wife to acknowledge not only her husband's crimes but her own long-time knowledge of them. Wife begs that her years of inner regret and guilt be accepted as punishment enough. And the spirit of that black boy, channelled by the maid, appears in the climactic scene.

You might not be able to predict every detail of the plot from the opening moment, but every detail of the plot is telegraphed long in advance by the by-the-numbers structure.

Meanwhile the play's language, though printed in the text as blank verse, is ploddingly prosaic and self-consciously literary.

The wife's long confession of what she had seen and known back then, for example, is in the language and sentence structure of written English, not spoken, and plays like someone reading from a history book.

The white woman - snooty, self-absorbed, so used to privilege that she doesn't even approach awareness of her abuse of her servant - may well be a completely accurate depiction.

But it is also one we've seen so many times that it's a cliché, and Adshead offers no illuminating variants or additions to the type.

The portrait of the maid is almost racist, both in its inanely grinning, dialect-speaking moments and in its near-mad avenging angel scenes.

Actresses Pauline Moran as the wife and Sarah Niles as the maid and boy do what writer-director Adshead asks of them, which is to play the stereotypes as stereotypes. Atmospheric pre-show and entre-scene music is provided by drummer-singer Joe Legwabe.

Gerald Berkowitz

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