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Tuesday, September 22, 2009


Margaret von Klemperer reviews production of Athol Fugard classic performed at the Witness Hilton Arts Festival.

Athol Fugard’s Hello and Goodbye is getting on for half a century old, but it is an example of how the best writing is timeless. Johnny and Hester Smit are as enthralling today as they were in the past as Fugard’s script brings them to life in all their poignancy and squalor. 1960s poor whites may be an extinct breed, but people in despair are universal.

Of course, having husband and wife team Dorothy Ann Gould and Michael Maxwell to play the brother and sister is a huge bonus. Maxwell’s opening scene as Johnnie, on a set that is as shabby and rundown as his life, establishes him as a man on the edge, the only thing that had kept him going taken from him with the death of his invalid father. Just how far he is slipping from reality is made clear when his sister arrives, and he has no idea who she is. The letter she had written remains unopened, and all Johnnie wants is for Hester to go: simply to say hello and goodbye.

But she has her reasons for being there. She doesn’t know that their father is dead, but she is sure that he must have received compensation for the accident that crippled him, and she wants her share. It is a play that, at any rate in the first half, relies on talk rather than action, and here Gould and Maxwell triumph. Slowly the hell that has been and still is their lives is laid bare, tragic and funny at the same time. Gould has a glorious dirty laugh that punctuates her story as the brother and sister move from confrontation to uneasy co-operation to a measure of understanding.

There are lines that will stay with the audience long after the actors have left the stage. Johnnie’s “He died in my sleep” and “A man on his own two legs is a shaky proposition” are just two of them. Fugard’s author’s note describes his play as “a little two-hander”. But it is much more than that. In the hands of Gould and Maxwell, faultlessly directed by Mark Graham, it can take its rightful place as one of the great classics of South African theatre. - Margaret von Klemperer