You can tell a lot about a play from the conversation in the bar afterwards.
With Athol Fugard’s Hello and Goodbye, the debate had two themes: it’s a wonderful vehicle for the actors, but the play itself is stuck in an era that faded long ago.
The drama was first performed more than four decades ago as a powerful piece of social commentary. Its themes of family discord, buried resentments, poverty and hopeless dreams still form the essence of domestic life for many people. Yet the tales its characters tell from its setting in 1963 have lost their relevance. That leaves some recognisable emotions hanging in a period piece that today’s younger audiences will not relate to.
Hello and Goodbye is set in a grimy house in Port Elizabeth, where Johnnie Smit (Michael Maxwell) is teetering on the edge of a nervous breakdown. He speaks to himself in ranting, disjointed sentences. Taps incessantly to calm himself, recites the route he often walks to bring some sense of order to his disordered brain.
He paces around the kitchen debating whether he’s going mad, looking a wreck both mentally and physically in disheveled trousers and stained vest.
Maxwell plays him brilliantly, giving the character an untamed erratic edge that could flip into anger or apathy at the slightest push.
The push comes from his sister Hester (Dorothy ann Gould) who deserted the hateful house years ago and ekes out a living as a prostitute in Johannesburg.
She’s coarse and common, sharp and resentful, and still gives her little brother a hard time as they rake over old memories.
Hester fled after her mother died and her domineering father was crippled in a railway accident. Now she’s back, desperate for a share of the money her father was awarded in compensation.
As the drama unfolds we see how Johnny sacrificed his own dreams to look after his crippled father, leaving him with an empty and now useless life.
Gould is also outstanding, switching from hate to hurt and from anger to total vulnerability as they haul out boxes full of tatty goods and lingering memories in search of the money.
The husband and wife team of Gould and Maxwell spark off each other superbly. The wordy and intense production is flawlessly executed and unfolds on a stage set that’s entirely reminiscent of the times.
Yet it’s a play you experience, rather than enjoy, and I left feeling I had watched a sad snapshot of history.
Hello and Goodbye runs at the Market Theatre until Sunday, 22nd August 2010.
For more of Lesley’s reviews follow the links alongside.