Vancouver Playhouse

The Syringa Tree
By Pamela Gien

Dates 31 March - 21 April 2007 Venue Vancouver Playhouse Reviewer Jane Penistan

Caroline Cave is as convincing, vivacious and charming as when she last graced the Playhouse stage in The Syringa Tree.

This one-woman show demands the highest quality in an actress, for she not only has to portray a child, her parents and attendants but herself and others in adult life. The twenty-four characters in the play are all different. There are the English South Africans, the Boer neighbours, and the native Sotho, Xhosa, and Zulu, of different ages and occupations, who all have a distinctive dialect. This differentiation in speech is beautifully managed in both enunciation and voice. The body language and the change of age and character in gesture and movement admirably portray the speaking character.

The script covers the life of Elizabeth, growing up in comfort and safely protected at home in Johannesburg, South Africa, at the time of the violence of the revolt against apartheid. The horrors of this period are seen through the eyes of a child. She cannot understand her mother’s insistence on her good behaviour, or why some things must not be mentioned, and, above all, the senseless killing of her elderly grandfather, a Rhodesian farmer.

There is childish mischief, merriment and joy, bewilderment and deep grief for this child as she grows to adulthood, but always love and respect for those around her. Among the adults portrayed are her father and mother, her nanny and other servants, the neighbours, friends of the family, and the police.

The almost empty stage is centred by a swing. The lighting is complex and brilliantly managed to effect the changing time of day or season, or to enhance the fear and apprehension of noises in the night. It also changes in the blink of an eye as there is a change of character as the performer turns from facing up stage to face the audience as a completely different person. The singing and drumming add to the safety and happiness or menace and fear as occasion demands.

Though this play deals with a very divisive and difficult time of social upheaval and violence, it is never judgmental. The facts are presented as they are seen through the eyes of a child, and later as an adult returning to her homeland.

This solo performance is spellbinding throughout its non-stop one hundred minutes, and leaves the audience amazed and breathless. Not so the actress, who floats on stage for her curtain call apparently as fresh as a daisy. What a tour de force!

© 2007 Jane Penistan