What is it that makes a theatre director muddy his own clarity of thought and compromise something utterly wise and moving, with quick and nasty literal gimmicks? Matsemela Manaka’s Egoli, first published in 1980, is a powerful paean to manhood and the collective challenges it faces, but this production of it has mixed success in the rash of grotesque horrors it thrusts at its audience.
More than that, it’s a play that so flagrantly ignores basic precepts of audience comfort that it can be a really frightening experience that reaches beyond the performances, the narrative or the context. It is clear that the director wanted to evoke the kind of terrifying, claustrophobic entrapment miners face daily, for you, who has paid for a ticket and sits in the audience, and in doing this, he succeeds, but perhaps there should be a disclaimer or two at the door or the box office.
You cannot get out of this space without walking through the stage, once the work begins to unfold. You may wish to – on opening night, a woman in the audience actually vomited in response to the drama onstage. There are terrifying strobes and an environment which at times is completely brutal in its description of loss and mourning, shock and anger.
It’s sad: In 2006, there was a production in this theatre complex of Es’kia Mphahlele’s The Suitcase, directed by James Ngcobo with set design by Nadya Cohen. The idea of the horror of sudden loss was absolutely unforgettably conveyed with the crash of a metal dustbin lid. It was a gesture so simple and so devastating and shocking that it reached far beyond its simplicity.
Egoli begins with an astoundingly fine metaphor that evokes that bin lid crash in its wisdom and subtlety, in representing the mine shaft elevator, but sadly there is scant follow through on such sophisticated thinking and much of the work, with the exception of some untouchably lovely a capella work, is violent and crude.
Also there are other elements in this work which seem to overlook the fact that the audience is the final component to a play. If you only speak English, you may well miss some 70% of the work’s nuances. If you’re not able to turn your head completely around, like an owl, you may not be able to see all of the work in entirety: the performers use every corner of the theatre, including areas behind the seated audience. While this is effective, it’s also counterproductive.
Having said all of that, this tale of the horrendous challenges faced by men is at times so achingly beautiful and tragic, it will take your breath away. A work that presents South African miners in delicate three-dimensionality, Egoli is a series of stories within stories about love and hate and humiliation and terror and premature loss and politics, and in this respect, it succeeds in the same way that iconic texts like Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1961) reflects on the humour and fear and crushing inevitability of men in a mandatory situation at war. It’s headlined by nuanced and superb performances in the authoritative hands of Hamilton Dhlamini opposite Lebogang Motaung – as Hamilton and John respectively.
While the texture of the work is convincing and tight, mine tales are mine tales and struggle tales are struggle tales. Knitting the two together feels contrived and the story’s central kernel is a flawed one because the association of the two men feels impossibly coincidental. But it’s a narrative flaw that’s easy to forgive in the face of bigger theatre sins: Gritty and deep, clever and rich, the work, if you’re able to overlook the vomit-inducing elements, the constriction and threat to audience safety, is replete with such developed subtleties and symbolic gestures that its wild leaps toward brutal literality make it feel as though there’s a director too many at work here.
- Egoli is written by Matsemela Manaka and directed by Phala Ookeditse Phala, mentored by Makhaola Siyanda Ndebele. It features design by Nomvula Molepo (lighting), Onthatile Matshidiso (set and costumes) and it is performed by Faith Busika, Hamilton Dhlamini, Billy Langa, Katlego Letsholonyana, Mohlatsi Mokgonyana, Lebohang Motaung and Alfred Motlhapi, at the Laager Theatre, Market Theatre complex, Newtown, until January 31. Call 0118321641 or visit markeettheatre.co.za
- Arguably, the success of the environment overrides the critical success of the play itself. Read this piece.