Hope in darkness

Pacharo Mzembe (Solomon) and Gillian Jones (Marion) Photo © Jeff Busby.

Pacharo Mzembe (Solomon) and Gillian Jones (Marion)
Photo © Jeff Busby.

Solomon and Marion
By Lara Foot, Arts Centre Melbourne, Fairfax Studio, 7 June to 20 July
Review by Penny Mulvey

South African playwright Lara Foot says we have to engage in the dark to live in the light. It is that desire that sits behind the latest MTC offering by Foot, Solomon and Marion. This beautiful, gentle play reaches into the dark political undercurrent of South African society, shining a light on it in a deeply personal way through an unlikely friendship.

Marion (Gillian Jones) is an older white woman who has spent her life on the outskirts of a village. Her husband has left her, her daughter has moved to Australia and her son has died. She is alone and unwell, but refuses to leave.

Solomon (Pacharo Mzembe) literally creeps into her life. Her response to his arrival reflects the embedded fear and violence in which she lives: “I’ve seen you lurking around my house for days. If you’re going to kill me be quick about it.”

Directed by Pamela Rabe, Solomon and Marion is an updated play of Foot’s original work, Reach. As Foot sat with Reach she realised the bias strongly favoured the older white woman, Marion. She has rectified this with a more nuanced presentation of the character of Solomon, a 19-year-old black man.

While it is clearly a play set within its localised context, the themes it explores resonate with all societies. Marion, played with intelligence and pathos by Jones, is a woman waiting to die. The promise of life has crumbled around her, so eloquently captured by set designer Richard Roberts.

She might have a sharp tongue, but she is defeated by grief, so deeply personal and yet so universal.

The arrival of this young black man from her past is confronting and unsettling. He too is broken and defeated. A man who had so much promise as a young boy now struggles to find his place and identity. It is through their ongoing relationship that each finds new confidence and a purpose to live.

Jones and Mzembe are compelling – she, the autocratic white woman navigating the post-apartheid years, alone and vulnerable; he, a pre-schooler when Nelson Mandela was elected president, still feeling worthless and guilty.

Foot uses theatre to create a safe place where people from all walks of life, of many differences, can come and see each other in ‘the glorious light of humanity’.

Her plays often use real incidents of violence as a way to explore healing and redemption. Foot is quoted as saying: “Healing is a process. Redemption is a process. The process involves engagement and it involves empathy and that in itself takes time.”

An optimist at heart, Foot believes that the power of theatre can change people’s own narratives, their own biographies.

Solomon and Marion, in acknowledging the pain and grief and violence with which many people live, also demonstrates that through genuine relationships of mutuality and truth, there is hope.

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