Wednesday 20th November 2019 at York Theatre Royal.
Laura Ann Price’s set design for Hello and Goodbye gives us a crystal clear vision of what’s to come as soon as seats are taken – our first glimpse of Athol Fugard’s world is ramshackle and void. Walls are incomplete with jagged edges. Colour is muted. Lighting from Sara Burns offers a blanket of foreboding and a near constant stream of smoke across the production places us firmly in the grips of this barren space.
Our characters are direct reflections of this first visual and Fugard’s writing unravels their secrets and true intentions with skilful control. It’s a drip feed of revelations across the emotional spectrum and it’s beautifully handled by this cast. Hester (Jo Mousley) and Johnnie (Emilio Iannucci) are brother and sister, separated for years by circumstances and Hester’s defiance of them. They’ve been living worlds apart and with Hester’s flying visit to this family home, she brings with her questions and trauma Johnnie would rather not think about.
Hester has reinvented herself elsewhere. Johnnie stayed behind and became sole carer for their disabled father. His mind is full of stories from the past and the present carries little sense of harsh reality for him. For Hester, all is grim reality and past stories only offer frustration and resentment. The play goes well beyond sibling bickering, though there’s plenty of that for some well planted laughs. Instead, it’s a brutal dismantling of the bonds that hold us. Taking on the depths of poverty, the grinding duty of family and the harrowing lot of the woman in Apartheid era Port Elizabeth, the play casts off any and all ornamental surface layers and examines the gnarly bare bones beneath.
Mousley’s character dominates and her performance matches the gravity of the character note for note. It’s a performance which humanises a person we might otherwise find insufferable. The evident internal pain ends up justifying the blunt selfishness of her shell, and Mousley exposes the wounded core even as the shell continues to harden. Iannucci’s Johnny is no match for such a formidable force and it’s in Iannnucci’s sensitive take on this man living a simple life shaken up by this wayward sister that the character finds his footing within a narrative which is quite clearly the soap box of the wronged female.
The opening scenes are convoluted and more than a little frustrating in their blatant lack of clarity and mumbling madcap ramblings – if the intention is to cast Johnnie as this meandering fool with a touch of insanity creeping in, it does the job but also makes for an unfulfilling opener. From there though, and particularly with the arrival of Hester, it’s an intense ride and as a two hander Hello and Goodbye is a generous vehicle for a talented cast like this one.
John R Wilkinson’s direction is restrained and rich in charged hesitations. Tension ebbs and flows with each flare up from Hester which is undercut with Johnnie’s futile and deeply flawed sense of detachment from the injustice and pauperdom he lives in. It’s never entirely clear whether Johnnie is a genuine fool or merely foolish – I’m inclined to say he’s both. Little by little we see through the smoke screens each has pulled up around themself until we reach a series of damning revelations and intense tirades from Hester which feel increasingly confessional as much as they are accusatory of the systems which have oppressed her since childhood.
For all its unreserved darkness and despair, Fugard proves once more that he is a gifted wordsmith. The most bleak assertions carry grim lyricism and the moments most resembling something like optimistic thinking are laid out like sacrificial offerings to the pervading gloom. Many of his Hester speeches carry explosive force; even the speeches offered in desolation roar with the power of Fugard’s take down of the systems leading to the scenes we see unfolding. Respite arrives in the form of dark wit and a healthy dose of clashing personalities so there are certainly laughs to be had but this is a rare kind of production which makes the relentless angst feel entirely necessary. There’s an undeniably compelling strength in the misery we see and it goes without saying that regardless of its bygone era setting, it carries sharp resonance with 2019 woes.
Hello and Goodbye is a York Theatre Royal production. It plays until November 30th 2019 and you can find tickets here.
Production photography: Jane Hobson.