Skip to main content

My Children! My Africa! review Tristan Bates Theatre

Cage up hope on Nancy Surman’s stage for My Children! My Africa! at Tristan Bates Theatre and see what happens.
Athol Fugard’s play set in the later years of apartheid asks, perhaps now the most fundamental question of the 21st Century, what is the best means to overcome oppression? And what is love? Friendship? Betrayal? Forgiveness?  The play has not been revived in London for 25 years but it’s happening now at Tristan Bates Theatre and everyone should go and see it.
Screen Shot 2015-05-05 at 12.56.23
Anthony Ofoegbu as Mr M and Nathan Ives-Moiba as Thami © Boris Mitkov
Why? Apartheid ended in 1994 and though South Africa is still racked with poverty, inequality, corruption and xenophobia, it is trying to turn its back on a dark painful past and racial segregation that was a part of its legislative fabric since 1948. But, as given voice by Mr M, the kindly Bantu teacher who acts as an idealistic pivot between would be friends high achieving black student Thami and middle class white girl Isabel, it is a reader on how us human beings are more- more than we ever realised, more capable of things than we thought we or each other can be- that we can dare to have hope but yet, how destructive that hope can be, as much as the forces that bring it into being.

Set circa 1985, much of its dramatic structure is made up of scenes where Thami and Isabel, representing their very different schools and experiences, engage in debate: the opening contest sets up hope for South Africa’s modernising as a whole when it puts gender equality at its core. As Thami and Isabel draw intellectually close, Mr M has a chance to put into practise his core ideology- education first, liberation (from apartheid) second. But Athol Fugard fully explores his belief that out of desperate times comes desperate but perhaps emancipating acts (even as designer Nancy Surman’s stage separates the audience with a wall of barbed wire and encourages us to see the characters as actors and that no one is emancipated here, either physically or finally, ideologically- they are, perhaps, only emancipated from themselves into something new). Mr M cannot see that he becomes representative of a regime that must be overthrown (his own and the ruling government). He (Anthony Ofoegbu) as the teacher prances the stage like a caged lion for whom freedom- from the restraints of a humiliating Bantu education system (designed to prevent its black township students from doing anything but the most  menial of jobs) in the form of star pupil Thami, whom he wishes to send to university- comes too late. Thami’s 'moveness' away from his mentor and reason and towards the emotional rebelling youthful comrades against apartheid (Nathan Ives-Moiba develops from a gangly boy out growing his school uniform to a hooded street wise youth) Mr M’s betrayal to the authorities out of an inverted spite against himself and others (tragic in its childishness) and Isabel’s inability to understand what it is like to ‘live in a black skin’ destroys- or nearly destroys their friendships. It also sets up the polemic- do we overcome oppression with forces motivated by passion- i.e violence- or do we take the longer path, the one called reason?

But friendship and how it cannot be destroyed by colder barbaric anti human forces is also at the play’s heart here. Athol Fugard is really writing domestic dramas as well. Mr M is a follower of Confucius and the three characters illustrate how one may learn from wisdom according to that man: ‘first by reflection, which is the noblest; by imitation, which is the easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.’ Mr M might well be no.1, Isabel no.2 and Thami no.3. As much as we might be asked by directors Roger Mortimer and Deborah Edgington and the designer to reflect upon ourselves (to feel also what segregation does to us as the audience) and as much as Athol Fugard can be seen as a polemical writer (Los Angeles Times writes ‘flawed Fugard can still be powerful Fugard') I wonder if we worry much about its perhaps simple story dynamics, messages and roles the characters imbue. We are asked to see the present political degrading system from all points of view and the passion all three actors exhibit- the faith in the text, the belief in their characters and the ardency with which they perform, leaves one at a loss for words.

What’s at stake? It is a picture of how an oppressive society divides humans and tries to destroy and can destroy love. Thami rejects Mr M and all that he has taught him and it breaks that man’s heart. Isabel’s love for Mr M is not allowed- Rose Reynold’s Isabel is innocent, frustrated and, in her attempted hugs of Mr M, seemingly struggling against that regime which supports her but not him.

Athol Fugard believes in genuine confessions, genuine forgiveness. Confessions come all too quickly from these three, so do judgements- Isabel’s notion of Mr M is challenged and found wanting. So too her idealistic vision of Thami- a sort of western romanticism of him (the influence of the West which he so fears at the beginning of the play) and the conditions under which he lives.
Thami wants action to lift the oppression. Mr M wants more peaceful means. Isabel is more provincial, outside the struggle until she is forced to understand South Africa with new eyes.

My Children! My Africa! is one man’s lament for his country’s children (perhaps also Fugard’s). It looks at how society affects our closest relationships, and, more importantly, the potential of those still to be formed. It reframes idealism (if you think Mr M is idealistic) through a realistic lens- and we see, painfully, that Mr M’s notion of achieving peace and equality through the steady, prolonged, lengthy sustenance of education (words are magic: Mr M holds up a dictionary and a rock and says that they both weigh about the same but the dictionary is words and power and the rock is just a rock) is not enough for those who confront the realities of violence as brilliant young men and women who are robbed of their future. The young no longer want to suffer in the same way for the generations to come and Thami must leave the classroom-  all Mr M can do is ring the school bell in defiance.  The theme of hope- for Mr M as destructive as hate or despair- is a double edged sword in African literature- it can alienate and frustrate as well as give one a reason to live. Hope mustn’t be let out of the cage- the cage we have on stage- must it? Fugard seems to be saying- or must it? This is what leads to desperate acts that can emancipate- or not.

In the end, do words speak louder than actions? Is it best to let hope out of the cage and move like a raging animal?  It was a question for South Africa then and it seems to me, a question that seems just as relevant now and for us all.
But don’t forget that Athol Fugard also keeps hold of the idea of love, friendship and reasoned hope at the play’s core. Isabel can at last be close to Mr M though not in the way she imagined. And herself and Thami can still carry the hopes of South Africa on their shoulders and push that country forward, though again, perhaps not in the way they had imagined. And with, tragically, clearer vision.

Deserving to be packed to the doors with critics and audiences alike, this production burns a hole in your heart and your head, but carries you out into the night with careful hope and love. Two Sheds Theatre production of My Children! My Africa! is at Tristan Bates Theatre until 16th May.


Set & costume design - NANCY SURMAN
Lighting design - JACK WEIR
Sound design - ERIN WITTON

further sources

This review and others can be seen at Theatre Bubble


Popular posts from this blog

Walking the Tightrope- Theatre Delicatessen

Site-specific set? Perhaps. In the old Guardian offices in Farringdon, Offstage Theatre and Theatre Uncut curate a cycle of 12 short plays exploring the tension[s] between art and politics, reactions to the budget cuts to the arts in the UK and debate freedom of expression controversies. Corruption, class divides, perception, blood money, gesture politics and culpability, it’s all there and recent topical events are given stage time, from The Tricycle’s controversial decision to withdraw their support for the UK Jewish Film Festival to the Barbican’s cancelled Exhibit B. The plays are entertaining- Sun City by April De Angelis, Re: Exhibit by Gbolahan Obisesan, Old Newland by Julie Pascal, Tickets are on Sale Now by Caryl Churchill and Exhibit A, by Neil LaBute, all deserve special mention for looking beyond the parameters of funding and freedom of expression in the UK arts- by which of course, I mean a theatrical London still surfing the very last trickling waves of Colonialism and it…

A Man of Good Hope: review

“The ability to have someone tell your story is so important. It says you know I was here.” Maya Angelou It’s a piece of musical theatre about having hope. It’s an urgent work which speaks of age old global phenomenons such as migration and life as a persecuted refugee. The term refugee has been part of the western world’s history since the persecution of protestants in France in 1540, the term migrant is biblical. The book upon which the show is based, an account of the life of Somali Asad Abdullahi who witnessed the murder of his mother when he was eight years old in Mogadishu during the civil war and who then fled across Africa as a boy and young man as a consequence, is in some ways so traumatic a read that the stage work has to offer more positivity than the title infers. 
In the Isango Ensemble and director Mark Dornford-May, with a little help from Stephen Daldry, the book, by Jonny Steinberg, has found the perfect stage partners. One feels that no other company could do this wor…

Safe House- art meets theatre at the Young Vic with Jeremy Herbert and Gabriella Sonabend

It starts with a journey down a narrow corridor, fist clenching wooden key.
‘Follow the yellow line’ the polite Usher says and I do, around the corner and into a foyer area, where I am met with a gust of wind from a machine that Jeremy Herbert, the designer, has created himself. As my hair blows and my cheeks and eyes are battered as if I am standing on top of a mountain, I am tempted to remain here, to continue to feel the gusts in my face and listen to the sound the wind makes. I don’t want anything else and I can’t hear anything else, only aware of a need to immerse myself in it, to let myself go in the rapid flashing lights that emanate from its surface. I’m one who craves aloneness and enjoys it all too well, but I am afraid that someone will come and disturb this brief relationship myself and the wind machine have struck up, or that my mind will interfere, the buzz of thoughts getting the better of me.. so I move on around the room, after all, there are four more ‘safes’, all a s…