By BRUCE DENNILL
Florence / Directed by Greg Homann / Barney Simon Theatre, Market Theatre, Newtown, Johannesburg 8.5
Superficially, Florence is a one-woman play examining the life and legacy of Florence Phillips, the apparently unstoppable arts patron, philanthropist and wife of mining magnate Sir Lionel Phillips. Playwright Myer Taub’s script celebrates her many achievements, but also reveals the many trials she faced – on account of her gender, her class, her marriage and more – in trying to realise her goals.
Extra layers are added by structuring the piece as a sort of melded conversation between the narratives of Phillips herself (unfolding in the late Ninteenth and early Twentieth centuries) and a modern-day actress charged with embodying all that Phillips had been and stood for (both played by Leila Henriques). To begin with, those parallel stories are relatively difficult to discern. But as it becomes apparent that there are two characters rather than the one suggested by the title, the mechanism becomes a subtly powerful way of underlining Phillips’ accomplishments and her wide perspective relative to the flighty, insecure actress; and a means of including unexpectedly hilarious lines and asides; and a technique to tie observations (about Johannesburg, South Africa, politics and art) made in three different centuries together.
The set, designed by Richard Forbes, is a stark, unique work of wonder, a rising spiral of palisade fencing that is a constant metaphor for the obstacles that Phillips (and the actress) find placed in their way, as well as a physical representation of actual boundaries, such as the security apparatus erected around her beloved Johannesburg Art Gallery to prevent theft – a precaution that should not be necessary if the respect for art that Phillips felt was shared by everyone.
The fence also forms a broken barrier between Henriques and her audience, and partially obscured views are reasons, in most theatres, to dock ticket prices! But it’s another brave move that pays off here, complementing the fragmented nature of the story, adding to the inherent twitchiness that Phillips exudes and also providing a striking frame for Henriques’ face when the script calls for her to lean forward through the fence, her face brightly lit, to underline a point.
Leila Henriques is astonishing in her dual roles. Superficially, the fluidity with which she delivers her abundant lines is noteworthy enough. But it is in the details – the unique phrasing of a particular kind of line by one or the other character; or the small, barely noticeable tics she exhibits during the lead-up to the recollection of a memory, as though the character were marshalling her gathering thoughts before speaking – the she truly excels. It is possible to imagine that, were her performance filmed and then muted, the audience would still understand, and feel, the emotional arc of the play.
Phillips had an unbreakable, influential bond with the Johannesburg of her era. The actress being asked to play her is a tightly wound product of the modern city, and perhaps of its ingrained cynicism. Market Theatre audience will understand both that connection and that scepticism, making it easier for the piece’s parallel themes (separately and in tandem) to affect their response. There are moments of hilarity and of profundity, and the play as a whole is as poetic as it is dramatic. It is original, and superbly made in all respects (the lighting is superb, and there are clever, unexpected prop interactions). A triumph.