Spotlight: Nudging the audience towards Helen’s Mecca

May 2, 2018

Athol Fugard’s The Road to Mecca is currently on stage at the Fugard Theatre until 19 May 2018 in celebration of the 85th year of the playwright’s life. In this Spotlight interview, Director Greg Karvellas, in conversation with the play’s set designer, Saul Radomsky, and its sound designer, Charl-Johan Lingenfelder, explores what he describes as a ‘bitter-sweet story’ .


In The Road to Mecca, Fugard explores the personal relationships between unconventional artist Miss Helen (Sandra Prinsloo), opinionated teacher Elsa Barlow (Emily Child), and Miss Helen's conservative friend Ds Marius (Marius Weyers). As the tale unfolds, Miss Helen transcends the limits and rules of the reality known to Elsa and Ds Marius.


From a directing perspective, Karvellas approached the dramatic composition of The Road to Mecca as ‘[starting on a] really tense note; tense all the way through Act One, very tense in Act Two, then there is a big relief but no real resolution, and an ambiguous end’. In most tension-heavy plays, ambiguity would be the last thing to appeal to an audience, but in The Road to Mecca, it actually works. ‘You kind of feel hopeful but also unsure of what happens to these characters, with the exception of maybe Ds Marius, but certainly [with regard] to Helen and Elsa,’ says Karvellas. ‘I really want the audience to have that sense of the bitter-sweetness of the story.’


The creative team behind this emotive staging of The Road to Mecca agree that the way the play is interpreted and presented is strongly influenced by not only Fugard’s text, but also his style of writing. ‘What makes his writing, and particularly this play, so good is that it is so very, very human,’ says Karvellas. ‘There are light moments, there are dark moments, and sometimes these can intersect and interweave.’

A Text-Inspired Set

Fugard was inspired by the life of Helen Martins and her Owl House in Nieu-Bethesda as a human-interest story. In looking to Fugard’s text for guidance as to how to give expression to his vision, Radomsky recalls that the team kept saying, ‘It’s not a documentary, it’s not a documentary; it’s actually a play by Fugard, and that’s what we’ve got to honour —not Helen Martins’s life story’. ‘Fugard wrote the play two years after the real Helen had died,’ Radomsky continues. ‘Athol told me once that he’d never met her; merely seen her in the village and waved to her [...] but the way he has written it, as if he did know the woman and all her thoughts, those are all the clues for me to put into the set.’

With that knowledge, Radomsky designed the set as a room —with two walls, darkness-fighting candles, and colourful frosted glass windows— that could plausibly be associated with Helen’s Owl House ‘in terms of the demands that Fugard has made in the play, but actually as a room does not exist in its entirety in the House’.

As a visual playwright, Fugard is a designer’s dream: It’s ‘between the lines of the actual text’ that Radomsky finds the details. ‘Athol talks about mirrors in the dialogue […] Helen would put up an unframed mirror, or a piece of mirror glass, in a corner so that you get a reflection of what you are seeing behind you.’ ‘That’s something that struck me when going to the Owl House,’ adds Karvellas. ‘Whenever you are in any one room there is always a window into another room, a sense of more house beyond that room.’ It’s that sense of infinity to which Radomsky’s set design speaks, and this sense of mirror-based infinity is further enhanced by the presence of candlelight.

‘The whole thing of candles, and the crying of candles, I think is extraordinary writing,’ says Radomsky. ‘Helen the character talks about the only tears being from the candle that night after her husband died. It’s such a strong image —a candle crying while she is fighting darkness and goes mad for light, putting mirrors and glitter on the walls, because she wants light and to see beyond the darkness. So, that’s what we were trying to do as well.’

As far as textually derived demands are concerned, Radomsky also believes that set design should be purpose-driven and natural. ‘It’s not just about putting something on the stage; what you put on the stage must be comfortable’ (in relation to the story). Apart from displaying the ‘darkness vs light’ theme, the candlelight also reveals to the audience the important fact that Helen does not have electricity in her house.

‘It is a big deal for her to even boil water for a bath,’ Radomsky elaborates, ‘so through the set design you get that sense that there is a little primus stove or something just out of sight, where she does the boiling for the tea and the washing, and it’s all in the text.’ ‘That’s another reason for having a set where you can see through the just-out-of-focus reflection that somebody is going into what could be the kitchen.’

Through those reflections, purpose-driven set design complements purpose-driven direction. ‘You know there is something specific happening beyond, because of the candle-shadow of an actor supposedly getting the tea tray ready,” says Radomsky. ‘No movement or decision is a chance thing that simply comes and goes by accident; it’s been so directed [and happens] on cue in terms of the dialogue.’ 

Subliminal Inclusive Storytelling


The design for The Road to Mecca sets the boundaries within which the story unfolds, with every element a form of suggestion carrying a degree of symbolism in relation to the text, and these elements collectively nudge the audience into a certain mind-set.


‘Nudging is a good way of putting it,’ says Karvellas. ‘That was another thing that we all spoke about, because I didn’t want the audience to sit and watch a play; I wanted them to almost feel on a cellular level, and —through sound, lighting, and set— to be pulled into the room”. As The Road to Mecca is a very dense Fugard text that can easily allow the audience to disengage with the story, Karvellas ‘wanted the audience to be nudged into a corner [of Helen’s house] and to sit there and observe.’ ‘It’s all subliminal,’ he adds.


‘That’s the right way of looking at it,’ Radomsky agrees, ‘and that’s why the set is a corner with only two sides: a square on a diagonal.’ ‘The rest of the room comes out towards the audience in what they call a thrust-stage style, so the characters come right out and get closer to the audience, but in the background is just two walls.’


That physical link between the characters and the audience, as well as the feeling of inclusiveness, reinforces the ambiguity to which the play builds. From both the dialogue and the design the audience gets the sense that you don’t know how far any of this goes, how safe it is, or even where it all ends —all clever, suggestive trickery of the mind. As Radomsky puts it: ‘As designers, we are con artists, because we are asking you to believe what isn’t’.


The Sound of Muffled Unease


Con artists they may be, but as audience members we very willingly present ourselves at the theatre, begging to be conned in our pursuit of the ultimate form of escapism, storytelling. A key part of that escapism in The Road to Mecca is Lingenfelder’s sound design.


When sound merges with a Fugard play, Lingenfelder cautions that the designer must always be aware of how Fugard himself treats his words. ‘Fugard’s art is all about the spoken word —and the spoken word is sound already— so when I do highlight something through sound design, I need to make very sure why I’m highlighting a specific moment.’ From the start of The Road to Mecca’s creative process, Lingenfelder avoided cluttering the play with any unnecessary additional sound effects —reminiscent of the purpose-driven approach reflected in the direction and set design.


‘When Greg and I initially spoke, he was clear that he did not want anything to be literal. We didn’t want to have the sonbesies, and the cicadas, and the crickets at night. We did not want something that was underpinning Helen’s work, but rather wanted to zoom in on the people and their lives within that incredible environment.’


To give his sound design that abstract, personal perspective, Lingenfelder drew on personal experiences that placed him in that story setting.

‘I remembered visiting my aunt, who lived in the Karoo and in her eccentric ways reminded me of Helen, and I remembered that piano sound refracted through her house because of the floor boards. There were no high frequencies, because the sound filtered through her house’s thick walls. Remembering all that, I sat and I played in the Fugard’s Annex, just sat playing on the piano, then recorded what I was playing, cut out all the high frequencies in the sound, and gave it to Greg to listen to.’


Karvellas recalls the impact of that sound. ‘It makes you feel… I mean, when I first heard the bit of concept that Charl sent, it gave me that exact feeling of, “Wow, this is really beautiful, but really miserable, but so hopeful, but I feel really sad”, so it was making me feel the way the characters feel in this tense and ambiguous journey.’ In taking this approach to the play’s sound design, Lingenfelder says he created ‘that sort of mushy somewhere-in-the-distance, muffled, not real, weird, almost sounding badly-recorded sound’.


By linking that sound to his ‘submersive’ understanding of theatre, Lingenfelder evolved his design into something unique, like the world Fugard’s Helen created for herself: ‘What’s so great about sound is we can pull it away from the stage. I wanted the source to be somewhere behind the actors, but we are hearing the effect of it behind us [as the audience]. Sort of like a long sound, that’s what I wanted to work with.” Ultimately, Lingenfelder produced a sound design that speaks to key moments in the play, with the focus on ‘one specific moment where Helen’s world comes alive; a moment that needed to become something otherworldly, because that’s where she lives’.


‘That’s what we tried to capture,’ he continues. ‘There is no idea or sense of the world on the outside, as if people are coming into her world and observing through the characters’ eyes. It’s voyeuristic in a way: We not only observe but judge when watching this play. We form our own opinions, because it’s almost like a court case: the characters are sort of giving evidence and we get to decide. It’s only then right at the end of the play that the first semblance of an outside world is identified in that you hear children play, a dog barking, a church bell ringing… That’s the only thing that starts filtering through in the last dying moments of the play to remind the audience that there is a world out there that Helen still has to combat on a daily basis […] which can be a positive or a negative, you don’t know. But that’s life.’

‘But that’s life’


The ‘But that’s life’ sound-induced feeling is in answer to the  external-internal conflict the characters grapple with. Karvellas sees that mirrored in Radomsky’s set design too with its inside-outside reflections.


‘What I love about this play is that these characters all mirror each other. It’s like this hall of mirrors. Just when you think you’ve figured it out, then you see another version. How Athol has written this play is he takes one thing and looks at it in different ways: constantly looking at it, looking at it, looking at it. So coming back to how this sound and the set is working, there is this duality, and this a very human thing: I could right now be sitting here, talking very confidently, but inside I could be absolutely dying and just wanting to run, and it’s how we present ourselves. There was a lady who after one of the shows came up to me and said, “I just want to say thank you; you have no idea what that did, just that feeling of trying to keep the dark out”. I don’t know what specifically she was talking about in relation to herself, but this is it, the play through all its elements does that exact thing —it tries to keep the darkness out.’


Ruminating on that, Lingenfelder adds, ‘I find the role of the individual becoming so much more important in our society, because our society is becoming more and more about adhering to rules —unspoken social media rules’. ‘Right now, it’s all about trying to fit in. People are so desperate to want to fit in, so to be a true voice, a unique voice, and stick to your guns, is so hard.’ ‘For me, every time I watch the play, that’s the thing that gets to me, what people see in Helen: When you live that life, when you go on that journey by yourself, you realise how hard it is to stay true to yourself and believe in yourself. It is sometimes only through somebody else’s eyes that you can actually word it.’


If this insightful and contemporary contemplation does not seem like reason enough to see this powerful play, directed by Greg Karvellas and starring the talented trio of Sandra Prinsloo, Emily Child, and Marius Weyers, then these final words by Charl-Johan Lingenfelder must surely win you over:


‘When I get to deal with a play like this, it’s like a breath of fresh air, because it forces you to slow down. It literally makes you reimagine what it’s like to live a life that’s slightly removed from this rat race that we’re in.’


You can slow down with Miss Helen as she makes her Mecca known to Elsa and Dr Marius at the Fugard Theatre until 19 May 2018. Tickets for The Road to Mecca are available through Computicket.


Photos are used with the permission of Canned Rice Productions. The photos remain their property. Permission must be obtained from Canned Rice Productions before using these photos in any capacity that goes beyond the sharing of this online article.


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