Just before the lights went down at the start of this production of Athol Fugard’s 1972 play, a front of house person barked at an audience member clambering over a seat ‘Stop that, it’s a health and safety issue’. Prefacing as it did what we were about to witness, it couldn’t have been more appropriate or ironic.
The Immorality Act in apartheid South Africa forbade, amongst other things, sexual relationships between white and black people. Fugard’s tale is of just such a relationship, carried on in the unlit back room of a library between a white, female librarian and a married black man. That the room is unlit is crucial. In the gloaming at the beginning we can make out two figures entwined in post-coital union. Their voices and accents indicated then to be a man and a woman, from Africa. We can eventually make out that the man is black, his partner, white, but as this state of semi-darkness persists, almost magically this colour differential seems to vanish. When we finally get harsh light half way through it’s almost a surprise to remember their skin is of different hue.
Much of the first half of the play is taken up with a discussion of their predicament. The writing is honest, and lyrical, the man talking, for example, about having ‘no vestige of beginning, no prospect of an end’. They explore emotionally and in raw fashion issues of pride and shame, of betrayal and trust and literally what it is like to own one’s skin.
Given the title of the piece, it’s hardly spoiling the plot to reveal things don’t end well. A nosey (white) neighbour becomes suspicious and the police put the library under surveillance. Eventually their secret world is brutally invaded and they are interrogated separately for their ‘offence’. For me this is where the play really takes off. Moving and thought-provoking as their discussions and arguments have been pre-arrest, once the third member of cast (who hitherto has sat, watching, from the corner) gets involved as policeman, magistrate and witness, the acting and the writing go up a gear. Now their nakedness, till now carried off with such ease and abandon, becomes, like Eden post the apple incident, a cause for shame as they try clumsily to hide their genitals or stand, shaking, vulnerable and exposed in the harsh light of interrogation.
South Africa has, of course, moved on since 1972. But around the world, absurdly, governments and religions still seek to regulate the way people love each other. Gay teenagers are being executed in Iran. Even in this country we read with horror how a young girl was smothered by her own parents for daring to have a mind of her own where love is concerned. How wonderful, then to see former refugee Mo Farrah embrace his mixed race family and the Union Flag. And how wonderful to know a writer like Athol Fugard was brave enough to write a play like this, and to see it performed by fantastic actors, reminding us powerfully that unless we keep fighting prejudice, and keep vigilant even about our own nation’s attitudes to love, being IN love will for many continue to be an issue of health and safety.