By BRUCE DENNILL
Written as a play, BreaThing Space cleverly combines aspects of theatrical intimacy and delivery with the wider scope and more natural perspectives of film. Playwright Michelle Douglas directs the theatre aspects of the piece and television and video director Alan Farber helms the filmic aspects. Credit must go to both of them for the seamlessness with which the two facets of the production are combined – whatever the practical aspects behind its creation, BreaThing Space is easy to watch, free of distracting visual glitches even as the narrative jumps backwards and forwards in time.
At the centre of the story is Olive Schreiner the boundary-obliterating author, commentator, activist and philosopher who died 100 years ago this December. Much of the script is based on Schreiner’s letters, read by the characters in their various contexts – young Olive (Lauren Urmson) in the Karoo or in London or elsewhere; older Olive (Douglas), alone in a room with a bed and a couple of suitcases, reflecting on her adventures and relationships; and Rebekah Schreiner (Natasha Sutherland), Olive’s loving and almost equally outspoken mother.
This has the effect of clearly defining and communicating Schreiner’s still relevant and revolutionary views, which remain challenging and compelling a century later. The energy of the piece does dip slightly when nothing else is happening but a single character reading a letter (one they’ve been sent or one they have written or are currently writing), but the cast do an excellent job of animating the words on the pages and the happenings they describe. Douglas is especially convincing, consistently displaying the shortness of breath, fatigue and speech patterns that come with the sort of severe asthma that Schreiner suffered from. Sutherland and Urmson appear in may scenes together and have lovely chemistry – particularly in an early scene in which they mock the airs of some upper-crust society types.
This is not light entertainment. Schreiner was zealously dedicated to seeking fairness for all genders, races and those prejudiced against in other ways. There is often joy, and just as often, despair, in Schreiner’s gaining of valuable knowledge and the pain that comes with confirming uncomfortable answers, but her unflinching striving for the truth and her great courage in persistently calling out those whose actions were so terribly damaging her country were, and remain inspiring, even as they highlight – for most of us – our relative lack of noteworthy action in these same spheres.
There is a passage towards the end of the play when an exhausted Schreiner is writing that contains the lines, “I’d like to say to the generations who will come after us – you will look back at us with astonishment and wonder at the passionate struggle that came to so little.” That may be true in terms of the fact that the tireless actions of Schreiner and her allies could not keep South Africa from falling into the hell of apartheid, but they are also a prescient, powerful comment on where we are now – on the rights that still need to be fought for (#MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter relate to just two ongoing injustices) on a daily basis.
Thoughtful, questioning material.