The Blue Iris is bitter and beautifulJennifer de Klerk
Jennifer de Klerk: The Blue Iris starts slowly and steadily builds up to a climax that has you shuddering in your seat.
It’s an intimate play, well suited to the small Laager at the Market Theatre. Anything bigger and you would lose the sense of being caught, even trapped, in the minds of the characters.
Yet, in typical Athol Fugard fashion, the spaces around echo to the immensity of the landscape – the boiling black clouds over the mountains, the vast distances of the arid Karoo, the deserted, tumble-down buildings of long-deserted farms.
A clever backdrop, like a stylised greeting card, sets the scene. Here, before the fire-blackened ruins of what was once a beautiful farmhouse, two people move about their business.
Who are they? What happened? Gradually, through their interaction, we start to discover.
This cannot have been an easy play to direct. It certainly cannot be an easy play to act. Each of the three has what amount to lengthy soliloquies, addressing the audience and themselves as they recreate the past. A great deal depends on delivery and sheer technique.
They do not fail us.
Outstanding is Lee-Ann Van Rooi as Rieta, the maid of all work. Totally in her character in every move, word and expression, she takes on depth and nuance as the play unfolds, or rather expands, adding layer upon layer, dimension upon dimension.
Graham Weir is the haunted Robert Hannay, hopelessly clearing out the rumble from the ruins of his dreams. It’s a strong performance.
Claire Berlein has an even more difficult role – the desperate, isolated ghost of his wife, Sally, the English exile, returning in anguish to unfinished business, while thunder and lightning crash around her.
Through it runs the symbolism of the Blue Iris, the delicate, fragile wildflower, dressed in blue and gold, which contains enough poison “to bring down an ox”.
Poison there is in plenty, we learn, as the trauma of the long years unfolds. Events unravel from different points of view and truths, bitter, dangerous and poignant, are revealed.
It’s desperate stuff and the pain reverberates long after the lights dim on the performance space.
Little touches add pathos, like Rieta carefully laying a place for the master on the rickety, blackened picnic table and eating her own meal by the primus; Rieta gently and hesitantly reaching out to comfort, afraid to touch; Sally delivering a mini-lecture on the anatomy of the flower as a way of holding to a form of sanity …
Robert, poor Robert, jolted in the realisation that so much of the life he thought he had was sheer fantasy – beautiful outwardly, poisoned within.
I was a bit bothered by Graham Weir’s English accent in this role. Robert is a Karoo farmer “with big crushing boots”, Afrikaans neighbours and Afrikaans-speaking farmworkers. I would have found him more believable if his accent had been broader, somewhere between Sally’s diamond-clear English and Rieta’s more earthy dialect. At times it seemed at odds with the rhythms and poetry of the text.
Ultimately though, this play belongs to the playwright, with Athol Fugard’s inimitable grasp of emotion and the human heart.
The master has done it again.
The Blue Iris is written by Athol Fugard, directed by Janice Honeyman and presented by the Market Theatre, the Fugard Theatre, in association with Mannie Manim. The Blue Iris is at the Laager at the Market Theatre until October 7.
Jennifer de Klerk is editor of Artslink.co.za
Market Theatre Complex, Newtown Johannesburg Gauteng South Africa