Soulpepper brings The Road to Mecca, a story about the Apartheid struggle, to the Toronto stage
I used to think that harshly critical reviews were the hardest to pen, but I’ve since discovered that, for me, writing about the great shows is equally troublesome. When a performance is so carefully wrought and meaningful, so perfect in its blending of elements, I struggle to figure out how to best frame the experience. Such is the case with Soulpepper’s production of The Road to Mecca.
In Athol Fugard’s The Road to Mecca, a woman calls on a good friend to help her say no to the conservative Afrikaner community that wants to put her in an old age home. They want to put her there because she freaks them out. Why? Well, that’s where we get into the thick of it: what the story is about.
This play is like a perfectly cut gem—richly coloured, shaped to intrigue and delight you, simple in its presentation. Based on the true story of Helen Martins and her famous Owl House, the play shows us a single, decisive evening in the life of Miss Helen: her stand against conservative intolerance in Apartheid South Africa.
The play begins with a whirlwind of activity as the elderly Miss Helen scrambles to tidy her home to accommodate the arrival of Elsa. Almost two generations younger than Miss Helen, Elsa is her most trusted friend. Despite the joy of this meeting, we discover that Elsa’s arrival is no happy accident. She has come in response to Miss Helen’s cry for help.
Elsa has always been fascinated and inspired by Miss Helen. No stranger to controversy, Elsa herself has stirred up some trouble; as a teacher, she has tried to inspire her young charges to challenge racial segregation.
As the two women reminisce and share their present tribulations, we discover that Miss Helen, after the death of her husband, has alienated herself from her conservative religious community by focusing on her art. Her house and yard are full of giant figures made from found objects and materials. They confound and threaten the local inhabitants—the very people who used to be her friends—because they don’t fit their conservative ideals. Those former friends now want her put away.
This conspiracy is spearheaded by the local pastor, Marius, who tries to convince Miss Helen that she should leave her home and artistic pursuits for her own good. His argument often sounds quite reasonable, but there are dubious intentions lurking beneath his authoritative reasoning. With the support of Elsa, Miss Helen is able to make a final stand for her freedom.
The play takes place during a very dark time in South Africa’s past. With the social and political turmoil of Apartheid looming in the background, the text grapples with such notions as individuality, faith and friendship.
It is its depiction of friendship that I found most moving. These two women bait each other, but they do so in an attempt to define and explore their differing viewpoints and grow stronger as a result. It is an awesome spectacle: these women passionately challenging each other.
This is a highly symbolic work, in both its text and design elements. There is much talk of light and darkness, friendship and loneliness, youth and age. The set depicts an immense and colourful home with huge windows, filled to the brim with whimsical artifacts—Miss Helen’s art. These creatures tower over the actors, winding around corners and poking out from behind curtains. They would be overpowering if it were not for the intense performances.
Diana Leblanc, Shannon Taylor and David Fox are riveting—truly. They find humour in surprising places and never let the tension slip despite the constant poetry in the dialogue.
This is a stunning production. Once again, Soulpepper has wowed me.
- The Road to Mecca plays at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts (50 Tank House Lane, The Distillery) until May 28.
- Shows run Monday to Saturday at 8PM, with Wednesday and Saturday matinees at 2PM.
- Tickets are $29 to $74, Rush tickets (when available) are $5 to $23
- Tickets can be purchased at the Young Centre Box Office, online, or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666.
Photo of Diana Leblanc and Shannon Taylor by Cylla von Tiedemann