It’s odd how the conjured image of a fruit can be such a potent conveyor of horror and sadness. Think of Mark Behr’s The Smell of Apples (1993) or Renos Spanoudes’s The Apple Tree (2002). Jan Groenewald’s Die Pruimboom (the plum tree), an Afrikaans play, fits in this uncomfortable and memory-laden sub-genre, which ultimately, is about the connotations that the smell, texture and taste of a fruit – or the jam which it is turned to, in the case of Pruimboom, can be twisted on its axis and can speak of terrible memories, monsters and demons.
It’s a bleak tale of loss, of advantage taken and of ultimate victory, but victory that is tinged with the sadness of impossibility and the emasculating ghoulish shadow that childhood abuse casts over a whole adult life.
Jan is 13 years, seven months and seven days, when everything that he thought he was, gets irrevocably broken, and we’re taken slow motion through three defining days of his life. While never stooping to graphic description, the play is deftly written – its climaxes are alternatively very subtle and terrifyingly sacramental – and it is performed with a sense of dignity that doesn’t prevent words and realities to tumble over one another breathlessly.
And while you feel incredulous that a 13-year-old boy would have the ability, the temerity, the words, the presence of mind to look his molester in the eye and make a bargain with him, you will such a turn of events into life.
The work is arguably bruised by at least two parallel narratives that are happening at the same time as Groenewald’s performance. There’s a videoed sequence that is played by way of a set. Rather than only illustrating the text, it heaves and clashes, loops upon itself and presents a jumbled mix of values, including tarot cards, a CGI-designed boy chasing a kite and scenes in a hospital context. At first, they resonate powerfully with the words, and there’s a heart stopping moment which brings a church and a post office into an overwhelming clash of values, but as soon as they loop and present their narrative again, your attention fights to hold onto Groenewald’s words and not be swept into the rhythm of the projected story.
Similarly with the music. There’s a bit of Vivaldi and other composers, piped into this play’s digital presentation. At times, you catch yourself being swept away by the phrases and nuances in the music, forcing you to lose your hold on Groenewald’s words, or to consciously hold so tightly to them that the act of watching becomes stilted.
But the play is an important one: touching the uncomfortable place that Sarah Blecher’s riveting recent film Dis Ek, Anna (reviewed here) evokes, which threatens to rip the guts out of the strict moral behaviour of Afrikaans society, the work is both a fable and a horror story. It’s subtlety and its frankness keeps it overwhelmingly human.
- Pruimboom is written and performed by Jan Groenewald and directed by Erik Holm. It performs at Foxwood Theatre in Houghton, on January 23 and 24. Call 011 486 0935.
- Pruimboom is one thing. But the energy in the audience, quite another. Read this piece.