Review: Statements After An Arrest Under the Immorality Act at Orange Tree Theatre, London ★★★☆☆

The Immorality Act in the title of Athol Fugard 1972 play refers to the law prohibiting sexual activity between whites and non-whites in apartheid South Africa - a ban that wasn't lifted until 1985. Errol Philander (Shaq Taylor) and Frieda Joubert (Scarlett Brookes) are already well into a relationship that contravenes the Act by the time we meet them to a gentle soundtrack of birdsong and soft South African music.

Where productions of Statements After An Arrest Under the Immorality Act generally have the actors performing mostly in the nude, here, under Diane Page's direction, they are mostly clothed. The nudity that shocked in 1972 is less relevant now and does not impact the production. Unfortunately, the themes of racism and racial segregation at the heart of the play do remain shocking and all too familiar. 

Scarlett Brookes and Shaq Taylor. Photo: Helen Maybanks 

Taylor gives a truly captivating performance, full of emotional intelligence and intense physicality, that perfectly captures Errol's internal and external conflict at his role in this illegal interracial relationship; he is the teacher who is crawling in human waste, desperate to go somewhere he doesn't feel he belongs without getting caught; he is the black man who cannot accept the white woman's offer of water when it is needed but must beg for it when it is necessary; he is the man who cannot betray his family but is sleeping with a white women every evening. His torment appears so real that it is difficult to watch his disintegration into a man whose world has frayed at the edges and feels his entire being falling apart.

However, despite his commanding performance, there are times when the relationship between Errol and Freida seems implausible. There is something of a disconnect between the two main actors; particularly in the early part of the play when the main impression of any relationship comes almost exclusively from Taylor's Errol.

Shaq Taylor and Scarlett Brookes. Photo: Helen Maybanks

Brookes is best when describing their first encounter - the shyness, the tension, and anticipation are all palatable - and in her matter-of-fact recounting of her lack of surprise at there being a black man at the door because it was the back door he came too. But, more often than not, it's a performance that feels slightly adrift from the rest of the play, perhaps not helped by a South African accent that slides between English and Australian. A monologue delivered in defence of Errol is stilted, with an almost Beckettian delivery in short sharp bursts that appeared out of place from what is happening in the play.

The set design by Niall McKeever is both clever and frustrating, with the main space engulfed by a pit in the centre in which the action moves in and out of. It provides a stunning visual when the two lovers hide in panic, but proves problematic for audience members in the compact space of the Orange Tree Theatre, who do not just have to peer down into the pit but also end up peering around other audience members in their sight-lines. That said, when the action moves to the edges of the space there is a real sense of being in the play and the reduced playing space increasing the tension in the production.

Richard Sutton and Shaq Taylor. Photo: Helen Maybanks

There is great support from Richard Sutton as the hard nosed Detective Sergeant J. du Preez who catches them in this compromising situation and orchestrates the photos of their act that condemns them. He is all braces and barely concealed anger. He boils under the surface until he can hold his rage at the couple's act no longer, finally exploding in fury. It is a short but impactful role that manages to encapsulate the disgust and resentment towards interracial relationships and the inherent racism that exists with sections of society. Almost 50 years after the play was written it is being performed in a world where we are still not approaching anything near racial equality. For that reason, it is a play that still feels wholly relevant.

The image that lingers long after the final bow is the visceral fear and shock of two people who have been caught in the flash of a photographer's bulb; trapped with no escape.

Statements After An Arrest Under the Immorality Act is at Orange Tree Theatre until 2 October.

There is also an OT on Screen livestream on 23 and 24 September, available on demand from 5 - 8 October.

And don't miss out on our interview with Richard Sutton.


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