If the material in Robyn Paterson’s one-woman play feels quaint, then her performance is anything but. It’s an impressive act of virtuosity and memory that flits between each half of a pensionable South African couple, showcasing great dexterity and timing. Two vivid characters are created, both well observed, with the physicality that differentiates men from women realised with a change of aspect and contortion of the face. The performance sets the tone, for this is a story about contrasting postures.
Paterson’s Helene is upright and uptight, she moves eloquently, she’s aspirant. Paterson’s Gordon is gruff, put-upon, bad tempered and habitual. It looks to the casual observer like they have little in common bar a shared history; a thread the woman who inhabits them both pulls on, amidst a social backdrop that’s conditioned two very different outlooks.
There’s plenty to enjoy here. The script deftly introduces the uninitiated to the character of South African life for old white farmers – anxiety from profound changes to the country’s political climate, the loss of privilege and the ongoing threat of violence (around 50 people are murdered every day in the country when celebrity killers are discounted, with farmers in particular, a target for crime).
Helene no longer feels safe or culturally secure and hopes to move to New Zealand, whereas Gordon, despite the murder of the couple’s son years earlier, is rooted. It’s a conflict gently explored and peppered with comic vignettes. There’s not a great deal of drama here but Paterson gives us a colourful portrait of a loving couple entering a new phase of their lives. It’s a story that feels lived in and culled from experience.
As someone whose own life was once upended by the question of what constitutes a home, location or the people in it, I found watching Helene and Gordon wrestle with this philosophical quandary personally affecting.
Paterson’s play invites us to reflect that we’re both culturally conditioned and shaped by our close relationships, with neither being easily divided from the other. The South Afreakins is about finding one’s place in the world, a safe space in which you can be yourself. But what’s particularly appealing, and I think honest about the piece, is that it marks the difficulty in reconciling one’s sense of belonging with lifestyle aspirations. Anyone’s who ever felt displaced or alienated on their doorstep, will recognise something of themselves here. It’s a very human treatment. A charming evening.