AS SHE APPEARS on stage brokenly and almost distractedly singing words and phrases from the Christian hymn which begins “Immortal, Invisible, God only wise…” Jenna Dunster in the role of Hazel Smith hauntingly sets the scene. The set of Immortal is sparse, but for some large stones and a diagrammatic reflection of the ill-fated Blaauwkrantz Bridge, the other ‘character’ in this play.
It’s a fresh and candid reflection on a very famous Grahamstown story which in 1911, saw a train, heavily loaded with both passengers and stones freshly quarried for the building of the city’s Anglican cathedral, fall from the bridge crossing a gorge between Grahamstown and Port Alfred. Seven-year-old Hazel was one of the few survivors of this tragic accident and playwright Peter Terry casts the whole horror of the experience through her eyes.
The work elegantly and without artifice sheds a sensitive light on what life was probably like for an average family living in the British colonies during late Victorian times, and Dunster does a fine job of articulating seven-year-old foibles and fascination for the beach and her siblings. It’s the calm before the storm: If you read the blurb in the programme or know a smattering of Grahamstown history, the plot of this work would be known to you. The challenge then, for the creative team that evolved this project was roughly threefold: the context, the build-up to the horror and the aftermath.
The context is handled with a sophisticated reflection on the way in which the Eastern Cape is drenched with the historical blood of much internecine and tribal warfare, and hauntingly beautiful echoes of the Xhosa beliefs and rituals are depicted as rising from the ravine, lending the work spiritual rumblings far more uncontrollable and unknowable to a Victorian context than the sedate churchly manners observed by the colonialists occupying the land. The Xhosa gods of the area become implicit presences and witnesses.
As the accident becomes immanent in the telling of the tale, the work is enhanced with an extremely successful use of sound that makes you gasp with the shriek of the train in anticipation of catastrophe. Throughout the work, the sound, the rhythm of the train on its tracks, the noise of a fall are handled agonisingly and beautifully, painting the sense of the landscape in your mind’s ear. But the build-up of this catastrophe through Dunster’s performance at this point feels rather bland.
You don’t find yourself gripping the edge of your seat tightly, or notice your knuckles turning white as the catastrophe hits. When Hazel loses her loved ones quite literally before her eyes, you do not feel the sense of brokenness that you think you should. The prosaic nature of the work at this point begins to bruise the overriding potency of the story’s construct.
And what we’re left with is an aftermath that doesn’t really leave you with the potency with which the work began. Yes, there’s a dramatic element in which Hazel turns her eyes, wretched with grief back at the church and condemns these ‘stones of God’ which took away her family. And indeed, it will make you rethink the historical sanctity of Grahamstown’s defining Cathedral of St Michael and St George which adorns the city’s central square.
But the ordinariness of Hazel Smith’s life after the accident, dovetailed with the accident itself and the dramatic context of the ravine, pales into inconsequence, and while the structure of the work promises a symmetry of how the piece began so hauntingly, this is not an opportunity grabbed by the throat, and the piece seems to end mid-thought.
It’s a lovely work with a great heart and soul, but there’s a little fire missing from it. In reading the piece’s programme notes, you expect to go home in a state of emotional shock and political fire. You don’t.
- Immortal is written by Peter Terry and directed by Chris Weare. It features design by Andrew Botha (set and costumes) and Kieran McGregor (lighting) and is performed by Jenna Dunster, as part of the Wits 969 festival for 2016, in the Wits Amphitheatre, which ended on July 24.