SOUTH AFRICAN AUDIENCES are not generally privy to strong theatre works that engage meaningfully with a Middle Eastern narrative, clean of the clutter of political positioning. Standard Bank Young Artist for 2016, Jade Bowers, brings you Scorched a play written by Wajdi Mouawad in 2003 and in many respects, the narrative muscle of this work holds it all together. Beautifully written, it is a complex tale of the atrocity of war, the bond of family and the immutability of maths, cast in the Lebanon wars of the 1970s that presents hairpin narrative twists and turns in its denouement that will simultaneously frighten and replenish you.
With an ingenuous and haunting pared down set, featuring an astonishing fine use of suitcases and red thread that demonstrate a foray into not only the predicament of the alien, but also into the ritual of burial itself, set designer Nadine Minnaar presents an eloquent, sophisticated reflection on what it means to be a civil war refugee. Death and the inability to belong, are issues that are allowed to segue together magnificently in the manipulation of the suitcases, which become so much more than repositories of possessions.
Further, Bowers has cast a guitar and mandarin player in the form of Matthew MacFarlane who lends the work the precise, gentle and sometimes witty interplay of sound and texture that makes the piece sing and never forces it to bend in the direction of fashionable harsh electronic sound that would have crippled the delicate dynamics at play here.
But beyond all of these elements, Scorched boasts a script replete with the kind of rich and subtle weaving of contemporary narrative with legendary notions that filters through the novels of Turkish writer and Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk, playing with the preciousness of ancient tales and giving them a relevance you can taste like blood on your lips. It’s a mix of values that makes your head spin as you are plummeted into the rich aesthetic of Middle Eastern story-making.
Sadly, most of Bowers’s cast of seven, a couple of days into the work’s brief Johannesburg season, seemed to be trying so hard in shouting out their words and overacting, that this almost three-hour long work becomes rather bamboozling. There is a great focus on the minutiae of travel and conversational details, which feel like they muddy the flow of the story, at times.
But then, you get sucked into the plight of Nawal Marwan (Ilse Klink), a woman who has loved and lost and held quietly to terrible secrets. You lose yourself in how this character has been scripted, and how her twin children, Janine (Cherae Halley) and Simon (Jaques de Silva) deal with the mysteries of her life, but it is the harshness of the set which seems to come back to bite the work ultimately.
With the exception of Halley’s genteel and focused performance, and some moments of singing by Ameera Patel, so utterly refined that it makes your hair stand on end, the characters, embodying a multitude of roles, seem to be attempting to compensate for the emptiness of the set, by making unnecessarily grand gestures with their bodies and often shouting in a way that hurts the subtleties of this beautifully evolved and emotionally devastating work.
It’s a pity – this piece brings together some of the cream of South African theatre talent, including Klink and Mpho Osei-Tutu, but they seem to struggle with the rather brutal concrete space that the theatre offers.
- Scorched is written by Wajdi Mouawad and directed by Jade Bowers. It features design by Nadine Minnaar (set), Oliver Hauser (lighting), Camille Behrens (costume construction) and Matthew MacFarlane (music) and is performed by Gopala Davies, Jaques de Silva, Cherae Halley, Ilse Klink, Mpho Osei-Tutu, Ameera Patel and Bronwyn van Graan at the University of Johannesburg, in Auckland Park until August 5. Visit jadebowers.com