By BRUCE DENNILL
Visiting Mr Green / Directed by Alan Swerdlow / Auto & General Theatre On The Square, Mandela Square, Sandton, Johannesburg 8.5
It’s been around 20 years since this play was staged in South Africa (then not long after its first couple of runs in the US) and though it is carefully positioned – via, among other things, a cleverly edited soundtrack of radio show excerpts, advertisements and music – as a representation of a specific culture, time and place, it is a simple, intimate human drama that is as relevant now as it’s ever been. In some ways, that’s odd, as the way in which playwright Jeff Baron deals with a few of the themes, including antisemitism and homophobia, feels somewhat old-fashioned. But anyone who has suffered as a result of these or other prejudices knows that those who practice such discrimination are hardly progressive types, so the script’s suggestion of an inability to move forward is regrettably accurate.
After watching the piece, the audience is reminded of how rarely in contemporary theatre performers are given a real opportunity to properly get their teeth off and – should they be capable of it – showing off the full extent of their talents. Visiting Mr Green, as a relatively long, dense two-hander, provides such a framework and actors Michael Richard (as grumpy octogenarian widower Mr Green) and Roberto Pombo (as twentysomething banker Ross Gardiner, sentenced to a period of community service) wring every nuance from the writing, convincing on every level and bringing both empathy and zeal to their characters. The pair’s chemistry is obvious and powerful and the combined effect of their performances is the creation of a scenario in which the audience can completely invest. This is true from the broad humour of the first act to the visceral fury of parts of the second, and it’s exhilarating to watch such craftsmanship.
Again, it is possible to have a production that works overall without such aspects of excellence, but it is so much the better to be reminded of what is possible, particularly in a small-scale production without a massive set or an ensemble of singers and dancers.
Denis Hutchinson’s set is a triumph of visual deception, taking an unpretentious, cluttered New York apartment and adding depth and character via clever sloping of surfaces and subtle angles to provide extra perspective. And director Alan Swerdlow deserves credit for the atmosphere he’s helped create for his cast to operate in. The pace, the texture, the phrasing of the dialogue, the length of inevitable silences – it all feels entirely authentic (sometimes hilariously and sometimes grimly so). It could perhaps be argued that the scene changes occasionally feel a touch long, but the counter to that is that the structure of the script likely requires that many breaks and that the intensity of the acting might exhaust actors not given a chance to briefly and regularly reset. Whatever the case, it’s the only potential gripe and a minor one at that.
A mark of the effectiveness of both the story and the acting is when, late on, there is an emotional moment in which both men must take a poignant step out of their respective comfort zones. As Richard and Pombo did so in the opening night performance, there was the sort of utter, unadulterated silence that is almost non-existent in contemporary theatre, where audience members keep their phones on, continuously mumble opinions to each other and seem incapable of sitting still for more than a minute or two. In this instance, it was a response – borne of respect – to the journey Green and Gardiner had travelled together, and its enduring metaphorical significance.
This production is an important reminder of the beauty that can be found in human relationships, no matter how fraught or unlikely, and it’s wonderfully, sensitively wrought.