If the title of Athol Fugard’s rarely seen drama “Dimetos” sounds Greek, that’s no accident: This stark, intense study of personal responsibility aims away from naturalism to the pointedly mythic. Douglas Hodge’s purposeful production makes a sincere case for its revival, notably via a vigorous, fiercely controlled Jonathan Pryce in the title role. But even Pryce in top form cannot disguise the flaws of a work too in thrall to its own metaphors.
The script’s potential resonances are immediately apparent. Lydia (Holliday Grainger), a very young woman stripped down to her underwear, descends into view from the flies. She’s being lowered by rope by Pryce’s unseen Dimetos to the bottom of a well (impressively realized by designer Bunny Christie on the open Donmar stage), to save a horse that has fallen down it.
With this harnessing of a fully visible actor on short crutches as the terrified horse, Hodge’s bravura staging is wholly arresting. But from the following scene, in which Lydia and Dimetos recover in the sunlight, the play’s ability to sustain tension pales.
Fugard proceeds with the device of a naive newcomer whose examination of the life he meets twists into tragedy. Young, go-ahead, city-dwelling Danilo (Alex Lanipekun) attempts to bring back feted engineer Dimetos from his self-imposed exile in a remote village. Ensconced there with niece Lydia and faithful housekeeper Sophia (Anne Reid), Dimetos will have none of it. But, for reasons that only later become horribly clear, he invites Danilo to stay.
The ensuing tragic first-act climax, the result of inappropriate sexual longing, is painful to watch, but its mirroring of the opening sequence points to self-consciousness in the writing. In the second act this grows yet more apparent.
Three years on, Dimetos and Sophia struggle to make sense of their shattered lives, but regardless of the validity of deliberations on artisan vs. artist, detachment vs. engagement, guilt and its consequences — ideas Fugard returned to far more dramatically in “The Road to Mecca” — the characters and play are almost undone by self-awareness.
“Dimetos” is unashamedly Fugard’s attempt at a modern Greek tragedy, not least in its use of direct address and reported action. Dramatic action is replaced by the brandishing of imagery. But with everyone largely in stasis and/or repentance, the language grows portentous and strained.
That’s most evident in Fugard’s uncharacteristic lack of confidence. Having set up huge metaphors like the unseen but looming dead creature dominating the second act, he then has Sophia explain exactly what the metaphor means — Dimetos’ guilt — an idea already entirely obvious.
The strain is inherited by the supporting cast. Reid brings an implacable, bitter edge to long-suffering Sophia and, by necessity, Grainger tries hard to appear younger than she is in order to evoke Lydia’s innocence. As pious Danilo, Lanipekun is over-energetic, but all three surprisingly underwritten roles lack texture.
Dimetos himself is the exception and even in his final scene of wrecked and wretched desperation, Pryce’s energy keeps the play alive. He charts his character’s descent physically, his watchful body shifting from avuncular to conspiratorial to being axed by grief. Eyes wide with pain, his fingers scrabbling at his thoughts, he turns his character’s final speech into a desperate but astonishingly still gesture of hope.