An ambitious work, which fills the auditorium with a messy residue of many stories that are either unresolved or resolved so without narrative challenge that they fall flat, Hungry is a play lent life support by its design, but it doesn’t hold its own in the storytelling, performative or direction stakes.
Like its name suggests, this is a play about hunger as a result of poverty in a generic township, called Lusaka. It’s also about corruption and abuse in a whole range of aspects. And with an astonishing disregard for the power of the medium of theatre, it’s populated with crass over-acting and a disrespect for the audience, couched in gimmicks in which performers spill into the audience, demanding money or sex or body searches. These elements are invasive: don’t touch me physically while I watch your play – perform convincingly enough to touch me emotionally or spiritually.
Coupled with this is a script which reveals the white performers in the cast as insensitive and crude in their interface with the township dwellers.
We meet Gaddafi (a performer whose name is not mentioned in any of the theatre’s press material), a community leader, styled so much on rhetoric from George Orwell’s Animal Farm, that he lacks cohesion with the play itself. He is supported and then subsumed by his sidekicks Mpho (Chokwe) and Maponyane (Molele), in a split of the narrative which slides off ambiguously into financial corruption: this part of the story is told in an element of the set which reads as the home of journalist Johan: wheels on the staircase make this clear, but not before some silly ambiguities set in.
We meet Johan (Auret) and his young adult son Dries (McEwan), with their own issues to bury. In what seems to be a journalistic fact-finding mission, they land up further messing up the lives of a township family, already governed by the vagaries of poverty – and its offspring – illness, hunger, abuse and sex crimes. There are faint echoes of the heartbreaking story line in Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country in a contemplation of how a family gets broken by the lure of money in the big city, but it’s told limp-wristedly and you find yourself working really hard to try and believe or be empathetic toward any of the characters.
And what do we get out of the whole experience? It’s a meandering, messily told tale about values. It’s too long, fraught with red herrings and not convincingly researched: no one knows where the daughter of the township family is, but Dries, a white novice in township values, finds her on a seemingly first attempt – she’s a city-based prostitute – and makes a valiant attempt to get her to talk about her mother, instead of having the proffered ‘suck and fuck’ for R50. It doesn’t tally: neither character is sufficiently developed for this grotesque aspect of the play to hold.
But what drives you and makes you sit up straight in the audience, is how the set interacts with the narrative. As a journalist, Johan handles a very large video camera for his work. Oddly, it seems mostly when his son works the thing that the footage is broadcast onto the set, developing a resonance between what the cast is experiencing, and what you experience, in the audience. Comprising sheets of torn and otherwise mangled plastic, there’s a beautiful sense of the vulnerability of skin, broken, scarred and damaged cast across it.
The set, itself, filled with these untrammeled bits of detritus, is magnificently threatening: it’s a space, replete with hanging fluorescents and bits of brick, that speaks eloquently of disuse, dis-ease and social disease, and enables and transparent embrace of the guitarist, whose raw sounds lend texture to the work.
Sadly, in entirely, Hungry is a very weak show: it reeks of the amateur community engagement that is apartheid’s miserable legacy. And it hurts and disrespects its performers with insufficient direction and structure. It’s a missed opportunity: Pretorian audiences deserve better.
- Hungry, written and directed by Aubrey Sekhabi, with input by Mpumelelo Paul Grootboom and research by Otsile Ntsoane features design by Wilhelm Disbergen, is performed by a cast of 14, including Brandon Auret, Sanku Bakaba, Tshallo Chokwe, Cameron McEwan and Josias Molele and performs at the Arena theatre, State Theatre Complex, Pretoria, until June 8 (012)392-4000.