"Painting A Wall" opens at the Finborough Theatre, London

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Painting A Wall opened on Thursday last week at the Finborough Theatre, to coincide with South Africa’s recent general elections. The play is set in Cape Town, in 1970, and explores the life of four Cape Coloured South African painters living under apartheid. Cape Coloureds refers to the modern-day descendants of slave labourers imported into South Africa by Dutch settlers, as well as to other groups of mixed ancestry. Under apartheid, the term Cape Coloureds referred to a specific category of Coloured South Africans amongst a variety of Coloured subgroups, which were defined by the apartheid bureaucracy. The policy of apartheid was adopted in South Africa when the National Party, founded by Afrikaner nationalists in 1914, came to power in 1948.

The title largely sums up the play. When the play begins the wall is bare; an hour later it is painted green. Throughout the duration of the play, the audience witnesses Peter, Henry, Willy and Samson painting the wall. The only element of staging is the wall; their life is painting the wall; and their only prospects are painting other walls (or, as Samson points out, lots of walls at once if they paint a house!).

The play is absurd and to a degree seems pointless. But the lives of the painters are also absurd and pointless. Beyond the monotony of painting the wall, lies an extensive use of symbolism, which indirectly raises important political issues about apartheid, the condition of Coloured workers and colonialism.

The wall, which must be painted white to comply with government regulations, is owned by the South African ‘white’ government and is a symbol of the oppressive rule of the National Party. The wall is a trap and a barrier. It is hard and unflinching and the four painters are unable to see what is beyond the wall. According to Willy, employing them to paint the wall is merely a way of keeping the Coloureds busy so that they are unable to do ‘anything else’. It is a means of preventing unrest, but also a means of narrowing their life prospects and keeping them under the tutelage of the ‘white’ government. The four men paint the wall and have no formal education. They speak pidgin English and Afrikaans and are prisoners of their limited vocabulary and inability to communicate. As Willy says, he only really knows five words, two of which are ‘wall’ and ‘paint’! He is unable to express himself, to fight for his rights, to get over the wall and to escape his life as a painter...

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