Alan Paton equally relevant now as reflection of our society as in the day

Ralph Lawson won a Naledi Best Lead award for his portrayal of Alan Paton.

Were you surprised by the award?
I was so certain there were other more worthy nominees that I was seated in the middle of the back row in the circle. I had to do a 100m sprint and was too breathless to say thank you!                               

One reviewer who met Alan Paton says he was “gobsmacked” by your impersonation.   Yes, people who knew Paton have remarked on the physical likeness. This obviously added a vivid dimension. Photographs and footage helped with the external creation but his personality as expressed in the day-to-day stuff like letters made it possible to internalize aspects of his character and his reactions, which added to the overall picture. 

What does the play say about now?                                                                               Passages from Cry the Beloved Country are as relevant now as reflections of our society as the day they were coined.
Paton’s writing is so full of timeless truths that he seemed, almost prophetically, to say it all without much direct intervention on our part.                                                           

What was your main goal?                                                                                              We were anxious not to present anything that smacked of a pure tribute, but to make his story dramatically viable and, above all, to make him human.            

Menzi Mkhwane won a Naledi Best Newcomer award for his portrayals of Sponono and Hapenny.

How significant in Alan Paton’s life are the characters you play?
Both the boys’ stories reveal how guilty Alan felt about the way he handled some crucial decisions. His encounters with Sponono question the idea of forgiveness, how Alan struggled to follow through with his religious belief that when you forgive someone once, you must forgive them even 70 times seven. Hapenny has a vital role too. Alan was grappling with how to deal with this delusional homeless boy and there’s a sense of guilt when he unpacks Hapennny’s story, as if he feels responsible for what happens to him at the end.

What for you are the play’s most meaningful lines?
Lines from one of Alan Paton’s poems: “Cry for the broken tribe…for the woman and children bereaved. Cry the beloved country. These things are not yet at an end ... ” They’re indicative of the  pains that plague our young democracy; the land issue, the need to stabilise previous economic imbalances and the hurts that haven’t been properly resolved.

Clare Mortimer plays Anne Paton, the secretary who became Paton’s second wife.

What insights are there in the book Anne Paton wrote about life with her husband?         Anne is extremely discreet.  She was clearly devoted to Alan. Perhaps the most annoyed she became was at an event in his honour in the States, where he had forgotten his cigarettes - this happened often - and did not bat an eyelid as people drove miles to fetch some. Yet she was endlessly patient with his seeming lack of social etiquette.

How would you describe her?                                                                                         Ralph and I always joke about her being the ultimate girl-guide. Astonishingly organised, nurturing and yet just a little brusque! Jolly hockey sticks, no-nonsense. Quite lovely to play.                            

What was her impact on him?
She grounded him. He was bereft after the death of Dorrie. He needed someone for support and friendship. Someone to whom he could entrust his arrangements, and travel with. Anne was quite unpopular with the public as she was strict with his time and imposed rules about the number of interviews and appointments he granted, but she did this for his sake.

Greg Homann directed and co-wrote A Voice I Cannot Silence with Ralph Lawson. The play won a Naledi Best New SA Script award.

What was the biggest challenge in creating ‘A Voice I Cannot Silence’?
Alan Paton lived a big life. He was a complex man who lived in a complex time and country, and he made a huge contribution to politics, literature, education, and public debate in his 85 years. For us the hardest thing was what to leave out in creating a play that could capture the essence of that life.

What are the play’s most meaningful lines for you?
His definition of liberalism: “Generosity of spirit. A tolerance of others. An attempt to comprehend otherness. A commitment to the rule of law. A high ideal of the worth and dignity of man. A repugnance for authoritarianism and, above all, a love of freedom.”

Do you believe theatre has the power to make a difference?
It certainly has power to shift the way we think or feel, and through that, yes, it can make a difference to how we live our lives.

‘A Voice I Cannot Silence’ is at The Fugard, District 6 in Cape Town, until June 26

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