SPECIAL THANKS TO GUESTS FROM AFAR, the final play in the 8th Artscape Spring Drama Season, has the unenviable task of being Nicholas Spagnoletti's sophomore play, following the enormously successful and brilliant LONDON ROAD. While vastly different to its predecessor in its setting, characters and narrative, SPECIAL THANKS TO GUESTS FROM AFAR also explores (as did LONDON ROAD) that ever-important human desire to connect and the multiple layers of difficulties within which that yearning are wrapped. The good news is that Spagnoletti has crafted a play that is, by turns, diverting and thought-provoking, one that has been brought to life quite vividly by director Matthew Wild and the company of actors in the cast.
Set in Germany, the play introduces two old university friends who, thanks to the wedding of one of their mutual friends, have the chance to reconnect in person rather than on Skype. Luke Upton (Nicholas Dallas) is a lovelorn gay Capetonian professor in economics and Thabisa Buhle (Chi Mhende) is a sexually liberated and independent black woman who works as a successful downsizer for a company in Europe, having long since chosen to leave life in South Africa behind. At the start of the play, the two seem to have picked up pretty much where they left off. Therein lies the rub: there is so much they have left unsaid in their time apart that it takes little more than the appearance of the groom's brother, Markus Weitig (Gideon Lombard), to bring the pot to the boil. Soon, in competition for his attention and in response to his own – to them – unimaginable quirks, Luke and Thabisa are saying things to one another that they have been bottling up during the years they have been apart, partly because their relationship seems to have become defined by the kind of connection afforded to contemporary society by the social media.
The performances are rich and layered. Dallas finds a great balance between Luke's WASP-like pleasantness and neurotic posturing, and the genuine emotional dilemma of trying to conduct a singleton's life in South Africa's Mother City. Mhende delivers some powerful work, particularly in scenes where Thabisa is forced to deal with their hotel owner's racist prejudices and in her confrontations with Luke, which contrast well with the droll persona with which Mhende endows the character in the earlier scenes in the play. Lombard is frightfully amusing and completely endearing as the personable Markus, capturing every inch of a man who has realised certain things about himself, but who is less sure about how to relate to the world around him in the light of that discovery.
While each of the actors brings his or her character to life in strokes both vivid and subtle, what takes the piece to another level is their excellent ensemble playing. Their work here is a brilliant reminder that much of the business of acting is in reacting. By bringing the relationships between these characters to life, the play and its themes are liberated in a manner that is organic and uncontrived. And by staging the play in a manner that allows the actors to play those relationships convincingly in physical space, Wild has, through his direction, elevated a play that could quite easily come off a little trite and clichéd were it placed into the wrong hands. Nonetheless, there were some rhythmic issues with the execution of certain moments in the play on opening night, but these were of the sort that will most likely work themselves out as the actors have more opportunities to inhabit the world of the play in front of an audience.
The cast is costumed by Angela Nemov, a designer who has an eye for making statements about characters in her wardrobe. The costumes in SPECIAL GUESTS FROM AFAR show us Luke's tendency to try too hard and Thabisa's sense of obligation. Nemov's work here is incisive and on the mark.
Much of the play is set in the beachside hotel room in which Thabisa and Luke are staying. Alfred Rietman's design of the room is spot on, clean and quaint and absolutely the product of the no-nonsense German hausfrau who, due to to her racial prejudices, causes Thabisa no end of frustration and rage. The room is later transformed into the beach itself by turning around various pieces of furniture and props, on the reverse of which are printed images of sand and deckchairs. Were the preceding half of the play not so fastidious in its realistic detail, the transformation would work perfectly. As it is, however, the transformation is stylistically jarring with that which has gone before and the time taken to implement it, and subsequently to reverse it, disrupts the rhythm of the play unnecessarily.