PICTURE THE SCENARIO. Suddenly, everything that you may have known in your life has been curtailed down to extreme basics. You’ve a toilet and running water. Electricity. Some magazines, maybe. You can hear what is going on, but cannot reach it. Does anyone know that you are there? You are holed in the guest loo of your house, while burglars ransack your possessions. What is going through your head? This is the premise on which Mike van Graan’s Helen of Troyeville rests. Performed by seasoned actress Gina Shmukler, it is the kind of play that will engage and haunt you, not only because of the magnificent performance, but also because of its political crux.
The work is similar in many respects to the premise in Megan Voysey-Braig’s 2008 novel, Till We Can Keep an Animal. Helen is a white woman who has enjoyed the wide range of privileges that living in South Africa for a white person has presented to her. She’s educated, she’s got all the material possessions she could wish for, including the facility of a guest bathroom, in her home, which has become the repository for everything. She’s widowed. Her daughter has children of her own and lives elsewhere. Hers is a comfortable complacency that comes of age in a context of privilege. All her life she’s had a sense of her own agency. She’s felt that she has a role to play in her own decisions. Suddenly all of this is broken.
There are strange men in her house and she has become victim to a hostage situation and what happens next hangs is in the balance. Helen is savvy of her position as a statistic that won’t leave a blip on news feeds, either way. She’s also cognisant of the awkward role of privileged whites in a society beleaguered by poverty, corruption and oppression that traditionally still befalls people who are not white. She was once a “do-gooder” in society, that enthusiastic buyer of informal knick-knacks from beggars at traffic lights, she argues to herself.
But now she isn’t. Disempowered, disenfranchised, cast out of the picture, subject to the will of others. It is this scenario that forces her to rethink everything – life, her place in it, and what it all means. All she has to bounce ideas off is the bathroom mirror and her memories. And there follows a beautiful concatenation of ideas articulated with a texture and a rhythm that is infectious, almost Shakespearean in its flow, volume and width.
By and large, Helen is not a character given to self-pity, but her mood and her perspectives wax and wane with the flow of time, which does seem to stop, as she strains her ears to get an inkling of what may be happening upstairs in her home. To her possessions. And with a gulp of horror, to her dogs.
Focusing on everything from what she has to what she doesn’t have any longer – she gets you to remourn your own losses – as she ponders the sister she lost, the husband, the adult child who never fitted in, the child of a domestic worker, killed in a crime.
It’s a beautiful play, honed with tiny but provocative musical interludes, exceptional skill and Mike van Graan’s characteristic and intense depth of focus, all enclosed in a tight whorl of values – even to the point where Shmukler’s articulation is not always completely audible – on a level, she is, after all, alone and in her bathroom, allowing her thoughts to bounce off the tiled surfaces.
But it’s also a very frightening play, almost obvious in its framework and in the country’s state of mind with regard to this kind of crime. Handled by professionals highly skilled at their craft, from playwright van Graan to Shmukler to relative newcomer Lesedi Job at the directorial helm of the work, it’s a jewel. But Helen won’t leave your heart or your mind as you leave the theatre.
- Helen of Troyeville is written by Mike van Green and directed by Lesedi Job. It features creative input by Mandla Mtshali (lighting) and is performed by Gina Shmukler in the Wits Downstairs theatre, on July 29 at 18:00 and July 30 at 18:00, as part of the Wits 969 Festival. Visit webtickets or see Wits 969’s facebook page.
- For an interpretative commentary on this show, by seasoned columnist Geoff Sifrin, read this.