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Monday, September 21, 2015


(Ralph Lawson as Alan Paton)

Lawson gives a superb performance as Alan Paton – recently seen at the Hilton Arts Festival. (Review by Margaret von Klemperer)

In the decades since the principled demise of the Liberal Party in South Africa, liberalism has become something of a dirty word. Even Alan Paton, the subject of A Voice I Cannot Silence, a play by Greg Homann and Ralph Lawson, has come in for criticism. But, fashionable or not, it is hard to ignore the generosity of spirit that motivated Paton and the party. He deserves to be celebrated both within and beyond his beloved country.

The excellent set for this play is centred on a recreation of Paton’s study, untidy and lived-in. The work opens with Ralph Lawson as Paton, alone and mourning the death of his first wife, Dorrie, in 1968.

Lawson gives a superb performance, re-creating the well-remembered mannerisms of the writer and convincing in both his strength and his frailties. The other two members of the cast are Clare Mortimer as Anne, first Paton’s secretary and later his second wife, and Menzi Mkhwane who plays a variety of characters from Paton’s days as principal of Diepkloof Reformatory, most notably Sponono, who morphs into the sometimes shocking voice of Paton’s conscience as he comes to the end of his life.

The politics of the time are central to the play, but it is also about love and memory, and about what drove Paton as a writer – the voice he could not silence and that spoke of injustice, but also of beauty. It is not a hagiography: Paton was a towering figure but he was also a flawed one, and the violence that lurked below the surface is shown, as is the carelessness of the feelings of others, both of those under his control at Diepkloof, and of Anne, once they were married.

The script gives Mortimer the difficult job of turning Anne into the nuanced figure she undoubtedly was, and is. On the one hand, she is the efficient and sometimes playful secretary; on the other, she is the sometimes controlling and resentful wife. Mortimer, who is a fine performer, does her best but the two halves of her character don’t always mesh.

However, my main criticism of the play is of the final scene. Anne Paton has been public about her reasons for leaving South Africa – reasons certainly shared by many. But while Alan Paton would no doubt have been vocally critical of much that has happened and is happening, it is hard to imagine he would have found nothing he could celebrate. The souring of the voice that could not be silenced leaves a faintly unpleasant taste in the mouth. - Margaret von Klemperer