Miss Helen Martins is a lonely, creative soul in her late 60s, living a solitary existence in a small, isolated village in South Africa. A sudden visit by her young friend, Elsa Barlow, changes everything in Miss Helen’s life and is the catalyst for the drama. ‘The Road to Mecca’, the award winning play by Athol Fugard, was recently presented at the Indian Embassy in Thimphu.
The play was produced and organized by Nehru-Wangchuck Cultural Centre, under the leadership of the Indian Ambassador.
‘The Road to Mecca’ is a play based on the true story of an outsider artist and explores the themes of old age, freedom, creativity, personal autonomy, and relationships in a most universal way so that the audiences in Thimphu could enjoy the engrossing production and easily empathize.
Live theatre is not really a thing in Bhutan, but it should be. The obvious enjoyment by the audiences who witnessed both performances of ‘The Road to Mecca’ was a result of the beautifully written drama as well as the strong performances of all three of its actors.
Charmi Chheda, who directed the play also performed as Miss Helen. At the start, Charmi’s Helen is weak and seemingly fragile, but by the end she has come into a realization of herself. She is a person who is able to make her own light.
The tension between local pastor Marius Byleveld, played by Ambassador Sonam T. Rabgye, and the social worker friend of Miss Helen, Elsa Barlow, played by Ariana Minwalla peaks as we in the audience learn secrets and longings of each of the three characters’ past and present.
Miss Helen, a widow of 15 years, has become something of a social oddity in her solitude and she makes strange statues that populate her garden instead of a socially acceptable vegetable garden. Her art fills the void of her loneliness. But Marius is afraid she isn’t safe living alone and that her art has taken her away from her faith. He wants her to move to an old age home where she can leave her odd art and be with people of faith. Elsa passionately confronts Marius and pleads the case for Helen staying where she is.
Ariana Minwalla brings very convincing energy to the role, as do all of the actors in the dialogue heavy but engrossing script.
By the end of the play, Charmi’s timid and confused Miss Helen has become a symbol of creative strength and the energy that comes from living one’s truth.
The benefits of theatre are multifold. Theater is not just entertainment. It is an outlet for creativity, for teaching, for empathy. It was marvelous to see a good play with strong acting talents performing it. Let’s have more of it.
(Linda Leaming is the author of ‘Married to Bhutan’ and ‘Field Guide to Happiness’)