Norman Mailer’s wife comes out of the shadows

Solomon and Marion, a new play at the Print Room set in South Africa, whose emotional impact is potent and long-lasting

22 November 2014

9:00 AM

22 November 2014

9:00 AM

Go See

King’s Head Theatre, until 29 November

Solomon and Marion

Print Room at the Coronet, until 29November

‘It’s not as bad as I thought it would be,’ said Norman Mailer to his wife, Norris Church, after reading the first chapters of a novel she wrote in the 1970s. It took her decades to recover from this accolade and the book remained unpublished until 2000.

Here’s a two-handed drama she drafted in the 1980s. The setting is a New York strip joint. A social anthropologist finds a girl in a booth and hires her to describe her daily life. He feeds her banknotes through a slot, like a zoo-keeper giving peanuts to a caged marmoset, and she prattles away at him earning a dollar every 60 seconds. She strongly suspects he’s not a scientist but a self-deluding voyeur who disguises his carnal appetites as an intellectual investigation. Happens a lot, she says to him.

Cut to a new scene. Same city, same actors, same hairdos, different names. An aimless divorcé improvises a traffic accident in order to foist himself on a sad female cyclist. They chat, they bond, they drink fizzy pop. They head out to a sleazy bar. Then we cut back to the strip joint for more social anthropology. Then we’re back at the sleazy bar for more fizzy pop.

The two scenes, which seem to overlap here and there, develop in parallel. It’s a mystery. But not one that belongs to the mystery genre. The confusions of the plot are clumsy and unintentional, and only in the closing moments does it become clear why these poor, questing, damaged loners have fallen into each other’s company. The man (named David or Paul) is a bisexual who may be in denial about his HIV status.

When Norris Church sketched out this play there was no more fashionable or dramatic theme than Aids. It was a new and incurable disease, and it began by killing your love life and ended by killing you. Early on in the medical panic, it was thought that only homosexuals and heroin-users were at risk. And this led some cynics to suggest that a semi-habitable island be set aside for druggies and gay men to indulge themselves to their hearts delight. That mission is now complete. It’s called Ibiza.

Another two-hander at the Coronet in Notting Hill. Once a playhouse, then a movie theatre, now a playhouse again, the Coronet is the new home of the hit-and-miss Print Room. Solomon and Marion, set in the Eastern Cape in 2009, traces the unlikely friendship between a chirpy black handyman and an elderly white widow. A shudder ran through me when I read that outline. It sounded like a theatrical homage to the South African script-monger Athol Fugard (much lauded, best avoided), whose humourless dirges always present us with a noble, mysterious and primitive continent being pillaged by thick, heartless, overseas spivs. Fugard writes in black and white, literally, and offers no shades in between.

Lara Foot announces her individuality by taking a cheeky pop at another revered South African wordsmith, J.M. Coetzee. Marion, the widow, is struggling to complete Coetzee’s latest novel ‘about a man with one leg who wants sex’. ‘What is it with him?’ she says to her new pal, Solomon. ‘The most depressing piece of literature ever conceived. Give him a kick from me, would you?’ Solomon is a nervy kid who offers to paint Marion’s house in return for her second-hand junk. Marion develops a habit of calling him ‘my boy’ and when he objects —‘racist!’ — she’s outraged and heartbroken. ‘My boy’ is the endearment she reserved for her only son whose violent death is the play’s central mystery.

Solomon’s motives for befriending Marion seem a little opaque but the writing is so natural and believable that one suspends one’s doubts. As the piece develops, its artistry becomes clear. Foot uses misdirection superbly. Marion gets tipsy one night and embarks on a long and affectionate anecdote about her late husband’s hypochondria, which ends with a hilarious punchline. Solomon laughs politely. Then he says, ‘I was there when Jonathan died.’

This bombshell leads to the play’s harrowing final act and to the revelation of Solomon’s awful secret. It’s a short drama but its emotional impact is potent and long-lasting. Khayalethu Anthony is jumpily impressive as Solomon, and Janet Suzman delivers an amazing essay in crotchety tenderness concealing an abyss of grief. Dame Janet was once among the great names of the British theatre. And now that retirement has been abolished for lady thesps, her day is bound to come again. She’s more than a match for any Oscar-nominated Downton hatstand.

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