"Oft expectation fails, and most oft there
Where most it promises; and oft it hits
Where hope is coldest, and despair most fits."
-William Shakespeare (1564-1616), All's Well That Ends Well
Athol Fugard's play Victory in the Peter Hall Season at Bath's Theatre Royal is short and sour. The anger that was Fugard's muse during the apartheid era has been replaced by despair.
It is easy to understand his disappointment. He had risked much as a white liberal working and waiting for the overthrow of the apartheid regime. The thrill of seeing his objective achieved as Nelson Mandela walked free and universal elections took place must have been euphoric. But then he had to face the realisation that political change made little difference to the day-to-day lives of many of his black compatriots.
The new regime has done little to improve the economic welfare of the country. On average, it can be classed as a middle-income economy but the reality is that South Africa has one of the highest rates of income inequality in the world. It also faces an epidemic of HIV/Aids, with 20% of its adult population infected, and is having to cope with an influx of refugees, especially from Zimbabwe (a country which provides a stark example of what South Africa could have become).
The government's efforts to expand the economy by increasing the rate of privatisation and by cutting government spending is opposed by organised labour, one of the reasons why growth has not been strong enough to reduce the unemployment rate. Poverty, unemployment and lack of economic empowerment are still endemic among disadvantaged groups. And corruption is a serious problem.
It is not only white liberals like Fugard who have to live with disappointment; at least they have the option of moving away. The people who remain in the slums have little to look forward to and perhaps this is why crime has exploded. South Africa has the second highest level of violent assaults in the world per head of population, and the second highest level of murders. It is top in murders with firearms, top in rapes.
With this background, it is not surprising that Fugard's play is so bleak. A young black couple attempt to rob the house belonging to Lionel (Richard Johnson), a liberal white man. Vicky (Pippa Bennett-Warner) is the daughter of Lionel's dead housekeeper. She was born at the time of Nelson Mandela's release from prison and named Victoria, a symbol of the hope that came with the creation of the Rainbow Nation.
Lionel has recently been widowed and, in his despair, he failed to answer Vicky's calls for help as she faced poverty, abuse and hopelessness in the slums. So she has brought her boyfriend Freddie (Reece Ritchie) to steal money which she saw in the house as a little girl. Freddie too is facing poverty and hopelessness; in his mind, the only way forward is to join the gangs of Cape Town.
Fugard has waited thirteen years to write this play which is based on an incident in his own life. He is remarkably honest. It is difficult to admit that the hopes of your entire life have been dashed, which is what he has done in a thinly-veiled allegory for the despair that has replaced the hopes of South Africa's first free election.
One wonders if Lionel is actually Fugard himself, who has now abandoned his home country to live in California – just as Lionel has abandoned Vicky. He recognises that his liberal ideals failed to change the reality of life for the majority of South African blacks.
It must have been hard to hold up the banner of freedom against the vicious white supremacist regime, but Fugard's socialist liberal ideals which helped defeat apartheid no longer offer a better future for the country. Free market ideology has been successfully espoused throughout much of the East (including Communist China and socialist India) as the route out of poverty. But in Africa and the Middle East, regimes cling on to the discredited economics of the 1960s and 1970s, and are surprised when poverty remains and social unrest erupts.
The despair of Fugard's play belongs only to the text. The director (Cordelia Monsey) has brought the best out of an excellent cast. Johnson, Bennett-Warner and Richie present three tortured individuals whose lives are filled with disappointment. They have no hope for the future.