You don’t frequently come across a theatrical work so elegant and uneasy in its entirety that it makes you remember why you go to theatre. And why it exists as a discipline, altogether. Bash, by Neil LaBute, a play which debuted in 1999, was not awarded a Gold Ovation Award at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown this year for nothing: it’s a flawless and riveting contemporary indictment on ghastly flaws in the moral fabric of our society, bringing together the cream of young local performers by way of James Alexander, Ashleigh Harvey, Daniel Janks and Jessica Friedan.
It also celebrates collaboration. The name of the lighting professional does not appear in the programme, but the manner in which subtleties play over the two red plastic tub chairs on stage show the mark of a sophisticated hand: never does the set, conjoined as it is with a filmic projection, become bland or two-dimensional or easy.
It’s an unusual play, set in the conceptual rubric of a filmed interview. It comprises three stories, unconnected on any level, but stories through which a sophisticated narrative voice runs with smooth, crisp and golden cohesion. The first and last stories are premised on the values cast by Greek tragedies, each told directly to the audience, with astonishingly vivid and beautiful words rather than re-enactment.
In the hands of Janks, the work’s first part, Iphegenia in Orem, and in the hands of Harvey, the work’s third part, Medea Redux are brought to horrifying life. There’s a touch of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita in the latter, and a bit of an insight into Pistorius’ conundrum in the former; they’re immensely difficult monologues in which the monstrosity of the primarily characters are insidiously brought to bear: and the performer has only her- or himself and the audience to toss the story around with. And when they are done, and you have caught your breath in the wake of the hairpin bends of their respective stories, you want to kiss their shoes. This is what tour de force performance is all about.
In the second work, A Gaggle of Saints, James Alexander and Jessica Friedan (who readers might recall recently directed the marvellous Gogol production ‘Government Inspector’ at Wits University) don’t look at each other at all. And the impeccable manner in which the other two stories are directed is articulated here too. This device of having the two protagonists tell their side of a story from their own perspective makes the work that much more intense, but also exposes the horror in each side of the tale, clothed as it is in a contemporary garb with values of relationships and love that you and I can access. Because we are human. The device of two performers opposite each other lends the telling of the tale more latitude and manipulability, but that horrifying volte face which happens three quarters of the way through, makes your hair stand on end and increases your blood pressure. And you realise you’re sitting in the face of truly projected evil, in the embrace of truly great art.
Each performer really shines like a gem in this immensely difficult but eminently heart-changing piece. In less capable hands, the work might judder into being text heavy or too intense: for a third of the work, the spotlight is on one performer who holds the responsibility of keeping you entranced and focused. You emerge with your head spinning with the horror and beauty of Greek tragedy and moral chasms in contemporary values told with wisdom and poetry and hard-hitting haunting indictments.
As each vignette is developed and brought to closure, taking the colloquial word ‘bash’ and splaying it relentlessly and unequivocally in several associative directions – as theatre practitioners like Lionel Newtwon and Sylvaine Strike recently did with ‘Greed’ – your gaze at the performer becomes irrefutably coloured and three-dimensional with a sense of increasing horror. In many respects, this foray into central taboos, from killing of one’s own children to breaking the bodies of those whose life-choices differ from your own, is a post-modern horror story: there’s no gore; it is all internalised into a fiercely elegant piece of theatre.
You emerge with a sense of universality and one of dread of the heaviness of moral culpability, but with the understanding of privilege in having seen something completely magnificent.
- Bash, written by Neil LaBute and directed by Megan Willson is performed by James Alexander; Jessica Friedan; Ashleigh Harvey and Daniel Janks, at the Auto and General Theatre on the Square in Sandton, until September 28, (011)883-8606.