Of tumbling walls and elephants in the auditorium

jericopic

FOR THE LOVE OF TRUTH: The Vizier (Lebohang Motaung), the prostitute (Kelly Eksteen) and the solder (Jovan Muthray) confront each other. Photography by Sanmari Marais

CAN ONE REALLY ever successfully conflate politics with art, yielding a resolved and engaging artwork and a convincing political gesture at the same time? Art and theatre history is littered with the casualties of this earnest cleaving together of values. And often political crudeness will hammer the nuances in the artwork into submission. Allan Kolski Horwitz’s play Jerico is sadly another casualty in this litany, but it plays an important role in opening this country’s theatre industry to new work and new perspectives.

Jerico aligns a reflection of the Israelite invasion of the eponymous biblical city with that of the contemporary Israeli-Palestinian conflict. So far so good: land grabs and ownership come to mind. And this controversial position is one which many may support vehemently – as many may argue against, with fury in their hearts – but this is not the work’s greatest problem. In attempting to breach biblical unfairness with contemporary discrimination, the work becomes infinitesimally complicated, and Horwitz’s use of actors doubling up in several roles is problematised by their distinctive physicality and the similarity of the period costumes in which they’re all decked, barring some completely fabulous headdresses from the State Theatre’s wardrobes.

While you’re struggling with not knowing who is who, the work is punctuated troublingly with scene changes and transitions. And whilst on paper, this is not a bad thing, each interregnum between scenes features a snippet of filmography, looking at some aspect of Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Unless you have a grasp of the subtleties in the issues, the meaning of these glimpses into contemporary warfare is not clear: created in a bizarre kind of a dreamscape, the visuals are migraine-inducing and blurred, the words feel as though they’re being articulated from the wrong side of a megaphone, and the context is mashed together. The snippets become a little like the broken chunks and crumbs of a bad dream once you’ve woken up. And the presence of this contemporary Israel scenario remains like a pall hanging over the work: it’s not directly engaged with, and becomes a bit of an elephant in the auditorium, conjoined rather bluntly with the words “Free Palezion” emblazoned in red on the set.

So the story unfolds: The two spies (Lebohang Motaung and Jonathan Taylor) have personal narratives that conflate with one another in several ways, and the play rather successfully sees them acting out their domestic lives concurrently. But all is not as it seems. While the famous biblical tale of the Canaanite prostitute, Rahab (Kelly Eksteen) giving the men protection and a way out before the place is destroyed under God’s hand, is told according to the original story, Horwitz has developed a backstory to it all. He fleshes out the spies as conflicted men with the kinds of issues that real people face: weaknesses in the face of a beautiful woman; instinctive distrust for one another; digressions in their own loyalties and moralities.

The work is long and heavily driven by much biblical dialogue and not a lot of physical drama, but it does offer satisfying narrative curves and recesses – in tandem with the city’s shattering walls, there’s a shattering of internal social walls in the work’s denouement. But you have to work quite hard to access these strong turning points in an otherwise rather text heavy, circumstantial piece.

Clearly, the Israeli West Bank barrier wall, built between 2000 and 2003 separating settlements inhabited by Israelis from Palestinian areas is a cipher to a lot of Horwitz’s material in this play, and his story implicitly points at a crumbling of these walls in the biblical Jericho style. This is, however literally left to the last bit of filmography in the work, and the effectiveness of the analogy is left diluted.

Having said all of that, Jerico is part of an initiative to bring back theatrical relevance to the State Theatre. The facilities have been invested with friendliness – there’s a functional restaurant on the theatre’s grounds and there’s an usher at every corner waiting to guide you around the corridors. While the space – on a Saturday evening – is still in many respects ghoulishly empty, the environment is beginning to feel alive.

  • Jerico, is written and directed by Allan Kolski Horwitz, with design by James de Villiers (soundscape and visuals) and Lionel Murcott and Nandipha Kubheka (set). It was performed by Kelly Eksteen, Tshego Khutsoane, Lebohang Motoung, Jōvan Muthray and Jonathan Taylor at the Momentum, State Theatre complex in Pretoria, March 2-19.
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