Decades ago, when I was a first-year student at Rhodes, I met Alan Paton. He was fulfilling one of his many speaking commitments; this was rather bizarrely combined with an inter-house debate, in which I took part. The students’ content was frivolous; Paton’s, needless to say, wasn’t.
Ralph Lawson in A Voice I Cannot Silence at the 2015 National Arts Festival in Grahamstown. The play, directed by Greg Homann, is based on the life, stories and poems of Alan Paton.(Photo: CuePix/Sithasolwazi Kentane)
I mention this because sitting in the Rhodes Box on Friday night I was gobsmacked by Ralph Lawson’s extraordinary impersonation of this daunting man in Lawson and Greg Homann’s dramatic tribute to this liberal icon, A Voice I Cannot Silence, based on Paton’s life and work. Although Lawson has cut back on the trademark Paton rasp, the set of the jaw and teeth, the gestures, the stance, the brusqueness are all painstakingly reproduced but never caricatured. He inhabits Alan Paton. This part could have been made for him, as they say. And, indeed, Lawson and Homann (last year’s Standard Bank Young Artist for Theatre) have themselves made this part, this play.
It’s a pretty good dramatic adaptation, a skilled distillation of much source material, directed with flair by Homann. Designer Nadya Cohen’s evocative set, which combines Paton’s study with an exterior (Paton loved his garden), is sensitively-lit by Michael Broderick, while the atmospheric soundscape – with a starring bullfrog – is provided by Evan Roberts.
The production, although advertised in the Festival programme as running for two hours, runs for only 85 minutes. Thus it’s pretty tight, although another ten-minute trimming wouldn’t have hurt. Excerpts from Paton’s iconic 1948 novel, Cry, the Beloved Country, are sparingly but crucially used, as is Paton’s depiction of Sponono, an inmate of Diepkloof Reformatory, which Paton headed as Warden from 1935. When he resigned 13 years later (after some underhand manipulation by the authorities), he had transformed the institution into a school, headed no longer by a warden but a principal.
The scenes in which Paton and Sponono “debate” their individual moral views are particularly rich. Sponono and one or two other characters are well played by Menzi Mkhwane, who has a strong stage presence. Clare Mortimer plays Paton’s secretary, Anne Hopkins, with feisty Englishness. All three actors are involved in the poignant (and cautionary) tale of Halfpenny, the homeless child who creates an imaginary family for himself.
The play opens with a heartbroken Paton, who has just lost his beloved wife, Dorrie (1967), about six months before he dissolves the Liberal Party, which he cofounded in 1953. He resolves to oppose John Vorster, then Minister of Police, in other ways: his voice will never be silent. He marries his divorced secretary Anne, who tells us her first marriage failed because of her cold, “proper” upbringing.
The second marriage for them both comes across as a fond compromise; a union of convenience. Although she has provided some order in his chaotic correspondence, she becomes increasingly less tolerant of his scattered approach. He – a lover of nature and of his fellow man – flies around the country, giving talks. In one he directly addresses the Special Branch, who have relentlessly intruded on his privacy and his life. We are also told of how members of the Branch, while searching the Patons’ house, were invited to have tea, and they all sat together discussing dogs and asthma, from which one policeman’s wife suffered. Strange times indeed! We see Paton becoming more pessimistic as the years pass. He’s had his passport confiscated, and he fears house arrest.
In his 86th year Paton dies from a brain tumour, the onset of which is brilliantly depicted by Sponono’s appearing to him as his conscience, flaying him for his failures.
Did Alan Paton fail as the white liberal/liberal conscience of his beloved country? That’s a big debate. Most Black Consciousness adherents would reject his approach as paternalistic. Hopkins expresses regret that this passionate advocate of equality did not live to see freedom, but adds that she is also glad he did not see what has happened post-1994. His voice would no doubt have not been silenced today.
A Voice I Cannot Silence is not popular fare; it’s unlikely to see full house signs once it leaves here, but I do hope it has some sort of life beyond Grahamstown. It deserves to.
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