Scene It: Miss Helen's Mecca of love and mercy

April 16, 2018

The Road to Mecca, presented by the Fugard Theatre in honour of Athol Fugard’s 85th birth year, reveals one woman's struggle for self-determination through creative expression. This very personal journey unfolds when she finds her own voice in relation to those who profess to help her, but actually need her as much as she seeks independence. This 1984-penned play, set in 1974, dramatises the life of Helen Martins, the unconventional visionary who called the Owl House in Nieu-Bethesda home.


Fugard’s plays are generally characterised by a strong political message in the context of characters facing an direct, unjustified threat because of apartheid-measures and prejudices. With The Road to Mecca, Fugard deviates from this style in the sense that the political commentary is subtle and secondary to the personal struggles (albeit prejudice driven too) of the characters, apart from the strong reminders presented by the very verbose and liberal teacher, Elsa Barlow (Emily Child). She reminds the audience, as well as the older Miss Helen (Sandra Prinsloo) and Ds Marius  Byleveld (Marius Weyers), of the political backdrop to the everyday conservatism of the village that sees Miss Helen’s Owl House and the Camel Yard as the idolatry of a mad woman.

The main part of Act One slowly sets the scene for the real drama that picks up pace and powerfully unfolds in Act Two when the fight for Miss Helen’s freedom truly becomes central to the plot.


Act One is dominated by Elsa reprimanding Miss Helen for writing a distraught letter that made her drive 12 hours from Cape Town, as well instructing Miss Helen to stand up for herself when she reveals that Ds Marius wants her to move to a church-run old age home. Although Elsa as a character is somewhat patronising, Child portrays her with a clear understanding that there is a wounded heart hiding behind the opinionated bitterness and bravado. When looking beyond the façade you find yourself agreeing with Miss Helen that Elsa cares more for the lot of people than she (at that time) can bare to reveal.


Once Ds Marius enters the equation, the dynamics shift and the play becomes a war of words more than a chastising by monologue. Through their insistence that the one knows better than the other what is best for Miss Helen, Elsa and Ds Marius in Act Two betray that, much like her, they too want “to make the good a little bit more than the bad”. Yet, unlike Miss Helen, they have not allowed their real self, their inner child, to embrace life with nonconformist abandon. In these stand-offs, Weyers is absolutely captivating as he brings a balanced understanding to the attitude that Ds Marius hides behind and the sentiment he struggles to verbalise.   


Miss Helen transcends the limits and rules of the world Elsa and Ds Marius are bound to. It is that rebellious charm that draws them to her. As tempers flare, personal truths are exposed: Elsa gravitates to Miss Helen to escape the shackles and regrets of her own life, while Ds Marius may be Miss Helen’s contemporary, but only in age and not in vision. In fact, when Miss Helen explains to Ds Marius how she found the inspiration for her Mecca he responds with surprise that that is where she ‘went to’ all those years ago when she stopped coming to Church – he himself not brave enough to journey there.

When Miss Helen finds her voice, she becomes incandescent as Prinsloo brilliantly speaks of her truth and her journey. The triumphant climax when Miss Helen faces her fear of the dark to be seen as she really is –while candles flicker as bright as her passion for her Mecca– rings of freedom, but also echos of intentional ambiguity. Miss Helen clearly hints to the fact that even though her journey to her own Mecca is not something she’s willing to compromise on for the approval of others, every journey must come to an end. While we know the real Helen Martins took her own life, Fugard’s depiction of his Miss Helen is but inspired by her, so would their fates, their journeys’ ends, be the same?


Perfectly cast, Prinsloo, Child and Weyers collectively explore every emotional nuance of this human-interest story with great respect for the tension-driven pendulum that calls on their characters to fluctuate between extremes  – each fighting to be heard; to be seen. They go from vulnerable to fierce in a compelling fashion, turning what could otherwise be a very laborious play into something truly special.


In this staging of The Road to Mecca, small gestures (including the subtle sound design by Charl-Johan Lingenfelder) have a big impact. Director Greg Karvellas bravely chose not to mold or adapt the original text. Instead of tempering Fugard’s play into something more easily digestible in length and complexity, Karvellas makes the play accessible by highlighting the delicacy of the love and trust relationships and allowing the performers to develop their characters –through tone and mannerisms– into flawed people the audience can care about. This gamble by Karvellas pays off as it brings to stage the timorous yet passionate Ms Helen (Prinsloo), the ever-deflective Elsa (Child) and the denialist Ds Marius (Weyers) in a fantastic display of storytelling. The sincerity with which this talented trinity portray their characters allows you to escape into the world of owls, mermaids and wise men to understand the darkness they are each fighting. The depth of their performances are further enhanced by the colourful set (an insightful nod by designer Saul Radomsky to Helen Martins’ Owl House) where candle flames reflect in mirrors as the characters project their opinions onto one another.

When allowing yourself to focus on what the characters are feeling rather then what they are saying – as this is a very wordy, metaphor-driven two and a half hour play – you can immerse yourself in Miss Helen's world. In the end, it seems very appropriate that 'Bethesda' (from the Aramaic 'beth hesda') means 'house of mercy'.


The Road to Mecca is currently on stage at the Fugard Theatre until 19 May 2018. Tickets are available through  Computicket .


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