Fugard in fine form with tender new play

Graham Weir and Lee-Ann van Rooi bring Athol Fugard’s The Blue Iris to detailed life at the Market Theatre. (Ruphin Coudyzer)

Graham Weir and Lee-Ann van Rooi bring Athol Fugard’s The Blue Iris to detailed life at the Market Theatre. (Ruphin Coudyzer)

Sensitively directed by Janice ­Honeyman and played against Dicky Longhurst’s brilliantly creative set, it is an intimate examination of facets of love — love of land, of home, of nature; love that turns to longing for the unattainable; love that leads to hatred, bitterness and estrangement. And like love, which can blossom at unlikely times and in unexpected places and is not always benign, the blue iris, which can survive the driest of times in the most barren of landscapes, also has its own less than congenial side — it is deadly poisonous to animals.

Battling with the trials of the present and memories of the past amid the ruins of a farmhouse in Fugard’s beloved Karoo, Robert Hannay (Graham Weir) and his housekeeper, Rieta Plaasman (Lee-Ann van Rooi), exchange memories as they sort through the charred debris left by the fire that has ravaged their lives and his home.

Once master and servant, their relationship has undergone a metamorphosis as they struggle to rebuild something of their lives. Now it is she who is in command — while he tries physically to rebuild the house, she battles to rebuild his spirit.
For both of them, though, the person most pervasively present is not there at all — well, not initially, at least. She is Sally (Claire Berlein), Robert’s late wife, a victim of the fire.

It was Sally who painted the portrait of the blue iris that Fugard uses as his extended metaphor and that frames his exploration of the internal world of his protagonists.

Weir, looking uncannily like a younger Fugard, is the living evocation of Robert’s personal tragedy. It is an extraordinary performance, largely low key and always ­compelling.

Van Rooi brings to the role of Rieta a heartbreaking dignity and warmth that inspire both sympathy and admiration.

The one jarring note for me was Berlein’s Sally, a portrayal a little too large for the very intimate confines of the Laager, a difficult space in which the actors are almost in the laps of their audience. The fault, though, I think, is in the writing — the edge of hysteria is out of tune with the otherwise subtle interaction in the rest of the piece.

Judging by The Blue Iris, South Africa’s most famous playwright has regained some of the form he seemed to be losing during a period of increasingly sentimental and self-indulgent semi-autobiographical work, most notably the quite awful The Bird Watchers. That, in itself, is cause for applause.

The Blue Iris runs at the Laager Theatre in the Market Theatre Complex until October 7

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