The power of gender as a signifier for being in the world is incontestable. Consider all the transgender debates setting fire to social media and fingering critics as suffering from irretrievable bigotry, when they use the wrong pronoun for a trans individual. The sex of a stranger has nothing to do with you, but when you see someone who you cannot categorise quickly and subliminally as ‘boy’ or ‘girl’, the stability of some part of your worldview is threatened.
And this is confronted deliciously and with an evolved sense of how it troubles your place in the world in Manfred Karge’s astonishing turn of the era play, Jacke Wie Hose, written in 1982 and translated here in a fiery, scintillating Afrikaans, which will keep you completely focused, even if you don’t understand every nuance. The work, featuring the inestimably fine Antoinette Kellermann, is one of those stage pieces which makes you remember why theatre is a medium worth paying money to attend.
The ethos and coherence of the play as well as its bizarre confrontation with a world troubled by war, begs comparison with Joel Grey’s portrayal of the sinister Emcee in the 1972 film of Cabaret as it forces you to think of Oskar Mazerath, the formula-smashing self-made dwarf central to Guenter Grass’s classic war novel The Tin Drum (1959).
As Die Broek Pas tells the between-the-world-wars Weimar Germany story of a woman, Ella Gericke, who lived, undetected, as a man, through two social orders, because of bureaucratic error and the need to remain financially relevant. This is not an erotic double-take. It’s not crass cross-dressing that expects you to “be in the know” and titter behind your hand. The challenge of the individual mirroring her society and the actress slipping into this curiously ambiguous, yet dangerous role is met with such a sense of grace and wisdom that you will be haunted by her performance in its vulnerability and sense of theatrical muscle.
Further to that, the work features many voices, a talismanic reflection on the era under scrutiny, yet one performer, impeccably directed. This give and take with a multitude of voices is handled with a device built into the set, which casts elements into ghoulish green, sinister red or grotesque white light, which can be upsetting to one’s general state of complacency, appropriately.
Similarly, the set’s backdrop is designed to enable digital projection, featuring images drawn from World War Two dynamics. There’s a wisdom and an astuteness to the approach which never allows the blood to flow from war narratives crassly into the sacred space of the environment, but keeps its sense of horror intact and in tune with the story.
More than any of this, and the uncompromising, riveting tightness of this work about love and death, horror and compromise, is the use of Afrikaans. Arguably the first play in this language staged by the Market Theatre in at least the last two decades, the work is inflexible in its embrace of high Afrikaans. While many South Africans educated in this country probably do have a working knowledge of the language, the seductive texture, simplicity and complexity of the material is priceless, making this easily the theatre experience of the year, so far.
- As die Broek Pas, written by Manfred Karge and translated from the German by Willem Anker is directed and designed by Marthinus Basson, with lighting design assistance by Wolf Britz. It is performed by Antoinette Kellermann, at the Barney Simon Theatre, Market Theatre complex in Newtown, Johannesburg, until June 28: 011 832 1641 or markettheatre.co.za