WRITING IS A messy business. It’s a mixture of grammar and correctness, of rhythm and texture, of perspective and controversy. But occasionally it can be so devastatingly lucid that a scene read more than 20 years ago, can still haunt. Irrevocably. Bruisingly. It takes a truly remarkable team of performers and creative people, however, to take something as earth-shatteringly powerful as this in a novel, and to bring it to stage, no less haunting than it appeared on those pages so many years ago. This is precisely what happens in Die Reuk van Appels.
This apartheid-centric tale of propaganda and betrayal, keeping up appearances and the falteringly naive yet fierce understanding of an 11-year-old boy of life, the universe and everything, was originally penned by Mark Behr in both Afrikaans and English, both published in 1993. It rocked the literary equilibrium at the time. Not only for how beautifully it is crafted but also for the unpopular narrative it contains. What does it mean to be a white man, raised — and brainwashed — to understand your pre-eminence in a country, because of your skin colour, only to discover that you’ve been on the side of prime evil, all along? And that it is your own flesh and blood that is the enemy?
Based on the Afrikaans version, this astutely directed and simply brilliantly performed work, is set to turn contemporary local theatre making inside out as it unremittingly focuses on issues as complex and messy as inexplicable hatred, an understanding of who hell is for and why, and an engagement with complicity that hurts.
The bravery and importance of this flawless play that doesn’t stint on describing the appalling horror of an apartheid mindset, cannot be understated. The value of theatre of this nature cannot be overstated, not only in terms of method, but in terms of the multitude of young voices which need to be heard in this country, in Afrikaans as much as in any other language.
Gideon Lombard plays Marnus Erasmus, as he spins a yarn around his family, the South African Defense Force, the mystery of taboo, the surrealness of awful memories and the horror of disappointment. The script is populated with characters from his father, a general in the South African army, to his mother, a wannabe contralto; his sister Ilse and his best friend, Frikkie. Not to forget a sinister character called “John Smith”, who is exotic yet undefined.
Armed with a spinning top and a floppy army hat, an army-issue water bottle, a loose rug on the floor and a military uniform eerily hanging in the air, Lombard embraces that pristine and sparkling element of childhood innocence with wisdom that forces you to understand the character from within and without. More than anything, the work is an indictment on a particular type of Afrikaner mindset at the height of apartheid, from 1974, and its unequivocal (yet superficial) hard-edged moral clarity, which believed that the land was theirs thanks to God. In being so, it offers insight into the agony of hypocrisy as witnessed and stomached by a child.
It’s a difficult play to watch, but an impossible work to drag your attention from, as it begins. And yes, the State Theatre is an appalling ordeal to visit, with its ghastly little artworks hanging in the foyer’s corners and the ups and downs of long corridors that you have to traverse to get to the venue. They still reek of neglect and poor design, of feeble attempts to reposition politicised gestures and statues, but as you get into the space and the play’s sound track punctuates your universe, you forget – and forgive – everything. This play will grab you by the throat and not leave space for anything else.
- Die Reuk van Appels (The Smell of Apples) is reworked for stage by Johann Smith, based on the eponymous novel by Mark Behr (1993). Directed by Lara Bye, it features creative input by Kosie Smit (lighting), and Lara Bye and Gideon Lombard (set). It is also performed by Gideon Lombard. Limited to no under 16s, as it features sex and nudity, violence and prejudice, it performs at the Momentum Theatre, State Theatre complex in Pretoria until September 24, at Aardklop National Arts Festival in Potchefstroom on October 3-7: https://aardklop.co.za/; and at the Fugard Theatre in Cape Town from October 17-November 11: thefugard.com