Douglas Hodge directs this eerie play by Athol Fugard which explores the consequences of our inability to act against something we know to be wrong.
Designer Bunny Christie has conjured a sleepy fishing village on the Donmar Warehouse stage. A rickety wooden construction on two tiers, strewn with lanterns and ropes, is the home of Dimetos, his niece Lydia and long-time housekeeper Sophia.
The trio in Fugard’s play have been living in a self-imposed exile for five years, since Dimetos (Jonathan Pryce) decided to leave the city where he had made his name as a highly respected engineer and head for the coast, where the only engineering he is asked to do is work out how to lift a horse that is trapped in a well.
The piece begins with this strange and dark scene, with Lydia – in her muddied underwear – descending from above to tie ropes around the frightened horse. The animal is depicted by Alex Lanipekun, who later enters the play in the role of Danilo, an interloper from the city who arrives to ask Dimetos to return to help with a vital project. It is one aspect of the eerie symbolism running throughout Fugard’s play in which the lives of his characters are forever changed on the day the horse is rescued and Danilo appears.
Pryce plays the title character as a warm, kind hearted man with an air of faded gravitas, who is dogmatic about his refusal to return to the city. Exactly why is never made clear, but it seems strange, especially as his enthusiasm at using his skills to rescue the horse indicates a certain regret about no longer working.
But there are many secrets in the lives of these characters. Loving uncle Dimetos harbours illicit desires and wearied, no-nonsense housekeeper Sophia (Anne Reid) reveals a bitterness which rears its head at a crucial moment. Impatient city boy Danilo is the catalyst which causes these secrets to explode, while Lydia (Holliday Grainger) is the victim. A girl on the verge of womanhood, Lydia is nevertheless made younger and more innocent than her years after being cocooned in the country for so long, where time stands still. The sudden contact with the forthright Danilo is more than she can cope with.
After a first act tragedy, the second act sees the characters three years down the line, struggling with guilt. As Dimetos frantically tries to apply his engineering skills to find the answers to his internal demons, he descends into a dark, torturous well of his own creation.