Two men and a long road home

journey

IT’S going to be a long drive: Martin McGuinness (Colm Meaney) alongside the Reverend Ian Paisley (Timothy Spall). Photograph courtesy Ster Kinekor.

OCCASIONALLY, A FILM crosses your awareness that makes you remember why films exist in this world. Nick Hamm’s The Journey is unequivocally one of those productions that celebrates the value of beautiful storytelling and the impeccable characterisation of historical figures, while it relentlessly keeps you utterly transfixed in a what-if scenario that blends political history with a foray into human values. It’s the kind of film that will suck you in, body and soul, and one that you will feel bereft when it reaches closure. And the pinnacle of its brilliance is its fictional premise, rather than its reconstruction of period, politics or the wide world.

Northern Ireland was one of the world’s most virulent hot spots since 1968, seething around the schism between Protestant and Catholic values, as it festered over the constitutional status of the area in the United Kingdom and the eruptions of ethno-nationality which saw the deaths of many innocent people in 30 years of unmitigated tit-for-tat violent recriminations. The Reverend Ian Paisley (Timothy Spall) was the firebrand Protestant clergyman who became the face of hardline unionism. Sinn Féin politician Martin McGuinness (Colm Meaney) was his arch rival. Republican champion of the IRA, he was considered an arch-terrorist – depending, of course, on where you sit as you read history.

In 2007, these two men did the unthinkable: They came to terms with their differences and put an end to the internecine violence in the region. What was it that enabled these two sworn enemies, on the cusp of great, righteous anger, to suddenly see eye to eye and to shake hands?  The history books will tell you one thing. They speak of time and cogitation, much renegotiation and hard work.

Director Nick Hamm, looks at this conundrum from a human perspective. Take two men. Leaders and important figures, by all accounts. Strip them of their lackeys and supporters. Frighten them a little in a road with detours and with no clear recourse to help. Pare them down to their basic humanity, and something else can happen.

And of course this is not Hamm casting aspersions at the facts of history. And of course this is not a real-fire solution to intractable politics in the world. The work, since its UK release in 2016, stands amidst a furore of critical opinion, some of which angrily declares that Hamm is hurting history for future generations. It’s a curious concern which reflects more on the success of the credibility of this piece of cinema than on the argument: if this critical position held sway, all fiction that rests lightly or heavily on fact would be rubbished.

Having said that, and as you find yourself magnetised to the premises of the tale, you get to empathise with both men. They’re in a car on the way to Belfast. The weather is wretched and it is the eve of Paisley’s golden wedding anniversary celebrations. He has to make his flight in time. You know how it will end – the proverbial book-ends of the story are firmly and unapologetically in place. But it’s what happens between point A and point B that is the central kernel to the work.

Like the play, Freud’s Last Session, this piece places emphasis on content as well as context and the words matter as much as the performances. Spall – who you may have last seen in the film Mr Turner – reflects the immovability of a man nearing the end of his life. He offers such a beautiful understanding of the persona and physical idiosyncrasies of Paisley that you cannot stop looking at him. The sculptural quality of his head is given emphasis and it sits with irrevocable nobility on his shoulders, which are more often than not hunched away from his travelling partner.

Meaney’s McGuinness is a fantastic visual, intellectual and human foil to Paisley and his vanities: he’s a bit of a jokester, but one firmly focused on his values. He’s more ordinary to behold, smiles more easily, but is no less tough a companion, with a fervent and focused understanding of the fight for freedom central to the ethos of him and his followers .

It’s a tale of attempted manipulation – featuring a very cleverly primed driver in quiet communication with MI5 Harry Patterson (John Hurt), but one in which the universe prevails. Things go wrong. And the two icons reach crisis in a remote forest covered in a forgiving layer of moss, in the presence of a godforsaken church and a dying deer.

It’s a story that resonates with the blood of innocent lives that gets shed in the name of ideology and power. It’s one about the seductive temptation and the possibility of power that the ego is prone to. It’s about an understanding of the Anti-Christ and a reflection of the 10 IRA hunger strikers who died in the 1980s. It’s also about the beauty of the Scottish landscape and the nuance of Irish dialect, of ancient graveyards and stained glass windows paying testament to the agony of martyrs. Above all, it’s a crisp and refined piece of storytelling that will not let you down. It will make you laugh and weep, it will stay with you for good.

  • The Journey is directed by Nick Hamm and features Ian Beattie, Frank Cannon, Stewart David Hawthorne, Freddie Highmore, Michael Hooley, John Hurt, Mark Lambert, Catherine McCormack, Ian McElhinney, Colm Meaney, Aaron Rolph, Kristy Robinson, Timothy Spall, Toby Stephens, Barry Ward and John Wark. It is written by Colin Bateman and features creative input by Stephen Warbeck (music), Greg Gardiner (cinematography), Chris Gill (editing), Olivia Scott-Webb (casting), David Craig (production) and Suzi Battersby, Chris Lyons and Polly McKay (makeup). Release date: October 26 2017.

 

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Everything you ever wanted to know about crime, but were too afraid to ask

crime

IT INFILTRATES OUR very existence – from the way in which we conduct ourselves in life, to the literature we read, the misconceptions of others we indulge in and the sensationalism that it smears across a world of broken dreams. The concept and reality of crime, that is. And with this reflection on the all-pervasiveness of it, the Comaroffs’ latest publication The Truth About Crime is unputdownable, but not for the conventional reasons. This foray into the complexities of crime, particularly in a South African context comes under the intense focus of quintessential seasoned sociologists Jean and John Comaroff; while you will not emerge with one gleaming “truth” which reflects “solution”, you will have a rollercoaster of a read.

Academic writing is a curious thing. Fraught with many rules of accreditation and checks and balances, it can be immensely dry and formulaic. Combined with old-fashioned hard work and rigorous intelligence, it can surpass the value of any bit of fiction, even yarns well-written. And this is what you get here: an intense, oft witty, detailed and wise explication on stories that go bump in the night, about real people. The text is dense but it flows with a mellifluousness that makes you want to read it out aloud. The Comaroffs play with sounds and idioms, with parables and metaphors as they knit together associations and perceptions, book research and field work.

While they do manifest a tendency to use terms like the ancient regime as a reflection on apartheid, which might not necessarily always be contextually meaningful to most readers, and you obviously need to bypass the in-text references if you’re just an ordinary reader and not an academic, these are minor digressions that cannot even be seen as inconveniences. The text is divided into two parts – the first offers insight into the historical dynamics of modernity and its interface with policing, the order of things, and the economy of representation; the second looks at the other side of crime dynamics, the mythostats and the kangaroo courts, the witch hunts and the alternative methods designed and marketed to keep crooks out of your stuff, including the fake ivy product on the contemporary South African market called Eina!

Stories pepper the text, from the big headline events that saw Oscar Pistorius attempt to use white fear as a foil to explain the violent death of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, to more low key ones that sometimes don’t make it to headlines, but are nevertheless no less complex and disturbing. These include the 50-year-old hairdresser in the Western Cape willing to sjambok any miscreant to death in the name of social justice. They’re stories told with a great deal of levity, accessible facts and balance, leading you through the Comaroffs’ focus by the proverbial hand.

Indeed, the book touches on all the bits and pieces that comprise our society, and there are moments in which you will feel as though you’re reading a South African manifestation of Michel Foucault, touching as it does on so many elements that point to the basis of power in our society. But it is not the last word in crime. It’s not a how-to text that offers you insight into where you should go to protect your body, your loved ones and your life from being hurt by others. But it doesn’t pretend to be.

You emerge from this heady read with a whole lot of stories that you won’t forget in a hurry. You emerge with an enlarged sense of context as to the huge catchall that may be understood as criminal behaviour – from the draconian rules and appalling legalism applied by the apartheid regime, to the values of the 1990s Muslim organisation People Against Gangsterism and Drugs that was headlined in the Western Cape. It’s a book that will stand proud and well-thumbed on any reader’s bookshelf – over and above the mandatory university library and syllabus for which it is designed.

  • The Truth About Crime: Sovereignty, Knowledge, Social Order by Jean Comaroff and John L Comaroff is published by Wits University Press (2017).

Mary’s boy-child

The Man Jesus. Starring: Lebohang Toko. Directed by: Robert Whit

FOR what shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world and suffer the loss of his soul? Lebo Toko in The Man Jesus. Photograph by Suzy Bernstein, courtesy The Market Theatre.

IRISH WRITER COLM Tóibín did it with the Testament of Mary. As did Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis with The Last Temptation of Christ. South African-born playwright Matthew Hurt steps into this hallowed terrain in taking one of western culture’s most known biblical tales and splaying it out in a quasi-fictional stage production. And under the directorial reach of Robert Whitehead, there’s an element of chutzpah and wisdom for which this production should be commended. But it is not all pervasive.

Armed with a greenish robe, a lightly brocaded shawl and thong sandals, Lebo Toko takes on the whole community surrounding Jesus, which comprises a mêlée of men and women and a whirligig of serious political, biblical and apocryphal figures. He is supported in the multiple criss-crossing tales he tells, with a set comprising wooden pallets and paper scrolls and a soundscape which brings the texture and presence of village dynamics to unsettlingly jagged life.

While the mottled flavour of the theatre, painted as it is in patches of turquoise, browns and whites, is distracting and fights with the set, which serves as a multitude of hiding places rather than as something that has direct functional value, it is the sound design and music that lends much of this work its poignancy and fierceness.

Toko generally does an admirable job, but is stretched in a myriad of directions – some of which seem too far or far-fetched – and the casualty in this work, which is maybe 15 minutes too long, is often in either the articulated language, which, when it reaches the outer margins of shrill, loses its clarity; or in the characters represented: from Judas to Simon, Mary to Johanna, John the Baptist to King Herod, they’re handled with a similarity in tone, boldness and focus that leaves you a tad bewildered as to who is who; sometimes the camp key is pressed a little too vehemently, and sometimes nuance flies out the window.

If you’re not completely familiar with the twists and turns in the way in which the biblical tale and its fictional counterparts duck and dive around one another, you may get lost in the folds of this work, which oddly blend a sometimes two-dimensional reflection of what Judaism means – or meant – with all its loaded connotations of history, belief and politics.

Structured in such a way as to carve out an understanding of Jesus not through direct representation of him, but through his implied presence in the opinions and the gossip of others, the work is rich in text and resonates with general competence, but it is the way in which the presence of Mary, mother of Jesus, enfolds the whole production that lends it the maternal edge that holds it together with a universal energy that is haunting.

She’s a young, unmarried pregnant woman, at the outset, looking critically and not without horror at the way in which her society seems to have lost its moral compass. And when all is said and done, at the other end of the tale, she’s a woman who has had to face any mother’s most awful nightmare. Throughout this work, at times Toko gleams and sparkles, shines and glistens, but it is his portrayal of Mary that is unequivocally a victory for him.

  • The Man Jesus is written by Matthew Hurt and directed by Robert Whitehead. It features design by Noluthando Lobese (set and costume), Mandla Mtshali (lighting) and João Renato Orecchia Zúñiga (composer and sound) and is performed by Lebo Toko at the Barney Simon Theatre, Market Theatre Complex, until November 5. Call 011 832-1641 or visit markettheatre.co.za

Levelled by floodlines

drowningworld

THAT’S all there is. Gideon Mendel’s 2015 photograph of João Pereira de Araújo, standing inside his house, in Taquari District, Rio Branco, Brazil.

IT’S THE SILENCE that grabs you first. And the gaze of the sitters. And then you notice the truncated quality. Everyone is submerged in cold, dark water. But it is the silence that holds your heart in thrall, as you walk through this astonishing selection of photographs from Gideon Mendel’s Drowning World, a project which has occupied this South African-born photographer’s emotional and aesthetic focus for the past 10 years.

This is more than an exhibition. It’s a gesture in the name of what is happening to our planet under the relentlessness of global warming: world-wide floods. Since 2007, Mendel has been travelling all over the world, from Nigeria and Thailand to Australia and the United Kingdom, America and France, Brazil and Bangladesh, taking photographs of the devastation left by flooding.

But this is not documentation in any bald way with an environmental set of boxes to tick at hand, or a great big glossy budget. It’s a deep, achingly human gesture. The images focus on the lives of the people it has touched. And in doing so, you, in the gallery, get to understand the horror of the situation not by evaluating the economic damage, not by looking at the vast implications going forward, not by gazing into images which sensationally cast unleashed flood gates at you with torrents of water boiling down, evoking Armageddon, but by looking at the eyes of the people in the photographs.

They are first world country people and people eking out a living at the bottom end of the world’s economy. They are people with the wherewithal to wear diving suits and Wellington boots to protect their bodies from the rank water in which their furniture floats, and people without these things. People alone, and people with their loved ones. Old, young, black, white. It doesn’t matter: the look in their eyes is the same. One that says they have lost everything.

The project collectively embraces four different focuses. There are conventional images of waterlogged landscapes, the portraits of the flood victims, images that document the waterline inside domestic environments and photographs that peer through water damage at the intimate mementos of ordinary people. The series interject one another with the sense of thoughtfulness and empathy characteristic of Mendel’s oeuvre.

Here is a photograph of a photograph of a child, the texture of the photographic paper bloated and discoloured beyond recognition, just a little chubby hand on one side of a great big stain, indicating the loved photograph that once was. There is a couple, their arms around each other, as they stand in what was possibly their lounge. The water is above their waist level. And the horror of now having nothing, sits like a massive exclamation in this silent wateriness. There are no tears. Just blank horror.

In another image, two young Muslim women stand, hijab in place, the world around them like a stage set. It gives you a jolt when you realise that the torn environment, the strong setting in which you see them, is a byproduct of the flood waters. And another jolt when you lower your eyes to acknowledge the flat line of browning water that hides their legs.

The body of displayed work, which comprises photographs from each of the different components of the project as well as a 39-minute-long looped video which you will struggle to pull yourself from, opens up a collective understanding of human values. As part of this species, we like to acquire things. We take ownership of them. We indulge in a sense of our own importance. And yet, in the wake of weather of this nature, we are all the same. It’s a great leveller. An irrevocable one.

Photography, by its nature stands in the oft rickety breach between art and documentation and that breach is very clear in this exhibition. But you do not emerge from it with a sense of aesthetic victory. You emerge with a sense of awareness. And with one of having touched the fabric of what makes life precious on this planet.

The exhibition segues with that of Masixole Feni’s Drain on our Dignity, a body of work for which the young photojournalist was awarded the 2015 Ernest Cole Award, which is on display in the museum’s upstairs gallery. While Feni’s work represents the indignity of broken and ill-functioning sanitation and sewage systems in areas close to Cape Town, and offers a Jacana Books-published publication containing these images, the energy of the two bodies of work jostle with one another.

You leave Feni’s collection oddly able to shut out the sadness you have seen in the images because they resonate like conventional media images. But with Mendel’s you cannot close the door to that silence. That sense of bewilderment. That loss. Because they resonate like art.

  • Drowning World by Gideon Mendel is at the Wits Art Museum in Braamfontein, until February 15, 2018. Visit https://www.wits.ac.za/wam/ or call 011 717 1365.
  • Masixole Feni hosts a walkabout of his exhibition on October 28 at midday. Drain on our Dignity is also on show in the museum until February 2018; the publication of his work is on sale for R250.

One whale and a whole school of red herrings

whalecaller

I am calling you. The Whale Caller (Sello Maake ka-Ncube). Photograph courtesy Ster Kinekor.

IT WAS TOO easy: Just one quick glance at the poster and title of this movie got you booking your tickets: The Whale Caller? A South African director? Ah, it must be a celebration of the surreal poetry of Hermanus, you declared to yourself, a grin on your lips as you handed your money over. Hermanus, a 90-minute drive from Cape Town is one of those quaintly beautiful places in South Africa that is resplendent with landscapes and burgeoning tourist culture; in its suburbs, it is very rich and very poor, simultaneously. And it has old colonial churches who baptise their congregants on the beach. And it also boasts whales who visit the shore seasonally.

But the truth is, this film should have been called something like “Saluni: the woman with a penchant for the bottle”, but that wouldn’t have made you buy tickets, would it? The character in question, portrayed by Amrain Ismail-Essop is jarringly and crudely over-acted. She’s a mess: she drinks too much, she loses herself too easily, and she embarrasses herself in public all the time. She’s also a paper cut out in terms of her character development, but she is made to dominate the whole story in such a way that her presence destroys any potential for poetry.

Amongst other things, she chases and catches the Whale Caller, played by Sello Maake ka Ncube. He’s a quiet bloke who lives in a rustic little blue wooden cabin with a startling orange deckchair on the outside, an image which is easily the film’s visual pinnacle. And this Whale Caller, while he does have a tendency to stare into the blue yonder often, enjoys a passionate obsession with the whales of the district. He even has a very special horn that he blows and a uniform to go with it.

In a sense, this yarn gives you to understand why quiet men shrink from shrill loud women – or why they should. The relationship, utterly devoid of electricity is forced and doomed before it begins and it unfolds, characterised by lice and wine, fear of darkness, and blindness, and above all, manipulation. In short, it’s grubby all the way through. And empathy is never developed on the side of Saluni.

While the original idea of Zakes Mda’s which sees a man’s love tossed between that of a woman and that of a whale, is rather majestic and beautiful in the values of magic realism it offers, it really doesn’t work here. The tale is wound around the Coloured community of the district and it is punctured with a whole rash of red herrings that go nowhere – an issue of homophobia is mentioned but dropped. Saluni goes blind and then is healed miraculously and we don’t understand why. They’re characters with pasts that are never alluded to. There’s a graphic section intimating a dream of the Whale Caller’s which is embarrassingly amateur and oh, the list goes on…

And then there’s the children. In a whole development of this tale, twin girls of about 11-years-old are discovered by Saluni. They live in a disused building with their parents. And they can sing. There follows a very uncomfortable friendship between these children and Saluni which rapidly finds the girls in the bath and Saluni being offered red wine by way of payment if she looks after them. Weirder things can happen, in this day and age. Or can they?

The main reason you should see this film, however, transpires toward the end of a very turgid series of horrid events, and brings the whale itself into the frame. She – the Whale Caller calls her Sharisha – is simply magnificent and the struggle she faces in getting back into deeper waters is epic. As you sit there watching this unfold, the tears running down your face, you almost forgive the shrillness of Saluni; you can almost look away from her moth-eaten fur coat and her foolish dreams of ‘becoming a star’.

There’s a moment of victory when you might cast your mind back to 1990 and a magnificent moment of abstract play of choreography and photography in Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves, but alas, it is another opportunity lost and ka-Ncube’s whoops of gladness are embarrassing and juvenile and do not do his apparent life long love for this grand mammal dignified justice.

There’s an ingot of possibility in this story, fuelled as it is with a lovely soundtrack composed by Pops Mohamed, but this possibility is whipped away from you, before you have a chance to grasp it. And yes, there’s the landscapes, but the cinematography too is stripped of nuance and is so harsh and bright, sometimes you can’t bear to look.

  • The Whale Caller is directed by Zola Maseko and features a cast headed by Amrain Ismail-Essop and Sello Maake Ka-Ncube. It is written by Zola Maseko and Zakes Mda based on the eponymous book by Zakes Mda. Produced by Zola Maseka and Dylan Voogt, it features creative input by Pops Mohamed (music), Miles Goodall (cinematography), Nic Goodwin (editing), Charlotte Buys (sound), and Dominique Pellissier, Monique Ray and George Webster (visual effects). Release date: October 13 2017.

 

Kaddish for Elu

put-your-heart-under-your-feet-...-and-walk-Fat-2017-Two-channel-digital-video-sound

HORROR of loss: Steven Cohen in his work ‘fat’. Photograph courtesy Stevenson Gallery.

SOMETIMES THE RAW howl of loss is the only thing possible. Sometimes it is more potent than any words which are in danger of teetering anywhere near the threat of idle platitude. Sometimes the raw gesture, the unthinkable act of personal anger and sadness in the wake of loss is more appropriate than the mannered one that is societally acceptable. If you have watched a loved one degenerate into base matter through illness, before they vanish from your life, part of Steven Cohen’s current exhibition will hit you in the solar plexus and it won’t let go until you have howled that memory back into subservience. put your heart under your feet … and walk! is a potent and utterly beautiful tribute to Elu, Cohen’s life partner who passed away suddenly in July of 2016. It resonates unapologetically with deeply personal references and a brutality of fresh and alarming aesthetics which Cohen and Elu developed over the last 20 years.

In many ways, this exhibition seems deceptively modest in size. It comprises three videos and a room full of ballet shoes. And as such, it is an informal taxonomy of Cohen and Elu’s rich collaborative career. As you look at each different installation of used and bruised, torn and smashed pink pointe shoes on their little podium, you recognise snippets and talismans drawing from the rich and taboo ethos of South African performance history – of which Cohen and Elu were the centrifugal force from the late 1990s – effectively pulling and pushing at the sense of possibility in a medium that had no history yet, in this country.

There are monkey skulls in ballet shoes, hunched like demons; there’s a mummified cat strapped to a shoe. Hitler puppets and anti-semitic propaganda vie with ornamental roosters and Victorian purses. There’s an anal probe and a startling array of sex toys and domestic tools, not to forget an elephant’s tail, a pair of purses made of real toads and a pair of phylacteries strapped over a rolled up Torah Scroll.

There’s a piece of Vallauris pottery in direct and shattering reference to Cohen’s unforgettable work Golgotha (2009), which too, dealt with loss – that of his brother. And as you ponder each tableau, each combination of values with the ballet shoe pinned or sewn, nailed or enfolded around the historical reference, you see in your mind’s eye, snippets of a career that was almost thwarted by a frightened public, but a career that developed nevertheless.

Cohen speaks and writes of the Elunessless of his life, since the passing of Elu. But when you enter this space, there is something so richly personal, so irrevocably about the dancer himself, that it feels that Elu is present. Immortalised. Dancing with his characteristic sense of anguish and self-belief, in these shoes, or those. In pain and in joy.

The eponymous phrase that serves as the title of this exhibition was uttered to Cohen after Elu’s passing. It was uttered by Nomsa Dhlamini, the woman who raised Cohen and became a significant collaborator in his later works.

Cohen explains in the gallery’s flyer when he told Nomsa – who was then 96 – that Elu had died: “I asked her how I could continue life alone, she said ‘put your heart under your feet … and walk!’” The first video work that you encounter in this exhibition is one of Cohen having the soles of his feet tattooed with this phrase. The rest comprises a real manifestation of how he is making this come true.

And effectively, that’s where the aesthetic, moral and emotional pinnacle of this exhibition lies. The video works which are screened in the second half of the gallery space. Named simply fat and blood, these two works have a duration of just over 6 minutes each and yet, as you sit there in the darkened space and the abjection of these images infiltrates your head and your heart and your ability to breathe fluently and your mind’s sense of smell, they will touch you in a place that you might not have known you had, until this experience. And when you emerge from having watched them, you will be stilled. And silenced. And it will feel like hours, aeons, have passed.

In these works, Cohen brings his grief to a South African abattoir, and dressed in a white tutu, with his characteristic head of makeup and butterfly wings, he is filmed dancing his heart out, in wrenching tribute to the loss of life. It’s a tribute to the stuff and muck that constitutes what a living being is and a paean to all that in the world that must be. It’s like watching a crime, a snuff movie, a manifestation of great religious sacrifice all rolled together. It’s the kind of work that is art but transcends art and pushes it back into the realm of spiritual gesture.

It isn’t easy to see. It’s not meant to be. But it is devastatingly potent and will not let you go flippantly. Above all in this quintessential gesture of tribute and mourning, of horror and celebration, Cohen’s aesthetic remains intact and doesn’t begin to touch the slippery mess of sensationalism that pervades the grimy commercialism of our world. Indeed, you might be told to see it, for sensationalist reasons. But if you’ve looked properly, when you have emerged, you will be a different person. As you might have been when you visited Deborah Bell’s recent exhibition, or Minnette Vári’s.

  • put your heart under your feet … and walk! by Steven Cohen is at Stevenson Johannesburg in Braamfontein until November 17. Visit stevenson.info or call 011 403 1055.

Blood in the water, a sjambok on the wall

AfricanGothic

STAINED sheets and the wrath of Mamma: Frikkie (Zak Hendrikz) and Sussie (Liezl de Kock). Photograph by Jan Potgieter.

THE POTENTIALLY SINISTER and foetid context of what goes on — or used to go on — behind closed farm doors in grim and unbending religious South Africa comes under close and gory scrutiny in Reza de Wet’s riveting tale of incest and dirt, horror and gamesplaying. It’s as much a psychological tale of trauma as it is a foray into really graphic representations of violence, sinister complicity and the space between twisted imagination and terrifying reality. With a sterling cast headed by the inimitable Liezl de Kock as Sussie, the work will bleed into the very interstices of your nightmares, but promises to retain its status as a classic of South African theatre making.

Diepe Grond, the work in its original Afrikaans, saw light of day at the Market Theatre in the mid-1980s and some 30 years later, premised on an English translation of the work by de Wet herself, it doesn’t miss a beat in terms of the grim filth of a mixture between staunch Afrikaans righteousness infiltrated with an unwavering sense of religious value, and a clear understanding of what is evil, juxtaposed with moral values that have had their sanity and their heart torn out by the roots.

Sussie and Frikkie Cilliers (Zak Hendrikz) live in abject filth. There is dirt everywhere. It’s in baking tins and disused food cans and all over the table. You can smell the detritus of their body fluids on the stained mattress, in your mind’s nose, as you look at the careful and rich detail of this set. The chamber pot and the basin of water constitute their bathroom. The nanny, Alina (Thembi Mtshali-Jones) is a maternal yet sinister presence, but she is moulded to fit a traditional understanding of domestic maid in an apartheid South African context. But this is dirt and domesticity with a history that has become frozen by an event.

The set embraces everything, with the dun-coloured screen that allows for shadow against muted light and indicates another room in the house, the raw wood made of what seems to be shards of railways sleepers, and the bed itself. The only anomaly is the shiny surface of part of the construct that seems to contradict the rustic values of the space.

These ruins of what was once a farm house, with the children’s mother and father at its helm is the source of a mysterious and destructive relationship between the family and the dearth of water in the land, as well as a repository for hideous secrets. Which brings Mr Grové (Mpho Osei-Tutu) into the mix. He’s a lawyer, a young black educated man, with a job to do. A will to ratify. Information to relate. He has no idea what he’s in for.

There unfolds the kind of madness that you may recognise from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 film Psycho, which sees the characters becoming caricatures of their parents with the flick of an eyebrow, the lilt of a word, the gut-wrenching depth of a screech of pain. And you may think of Yael Farber’s harrowing Mies Julie that too deals very explicitly with the mess and rot behind farm doors in apartheid South Africa. But African Gothic stands its own ground and leaves you feeling wrecked for other reasons. The stories that are told between these siblings, and the stories that are alluded to present an understanding of abuse and madness that will keep you riveted to your chair, throughout.

Having said all of that, the work is not completely flawless. There is a sound track which seems to operate on a loop, and sinister music interjects in places where the machinations of the performances say it all with much more muscle. While the blood-curdling giggles of hyenas in this sound track work, it is the music which strips the here and now from the piece and forces you to remember that this is just a play. Further to that, it is something as small as hairstyle and a physique that affects some of the energy of this piece. Hendrikz’s hairdo is fashionable and primed, blond, curly and tapered, and it clashes with the values of Frikkie’s context and his abjection. Similarly, his body is ripped. And tanned. And we see much of it, which is not necessarily a thing to complain of – but in the context of Frikkie, you expect something baser, something paler and thinner, something you don’t want to look at, but do, as we see with de Kock.

All in all, the work is a violent firestorm of political emotions which reflect an understanding of the land and of life in the isolated reality of a disused rural farm, where jackals bay and the wind seeps willy nilly through the walls, where the spilling of blood is present everywhere and the innocence of utter cruelty is splayed out like a springbok. It promises to be one of those cultural imperatives that continues to raise the bar in theatre-making in this country.

  • African Gothic is written by Reza de Wet and directed by Alby Michaels. It features design by Oliver Hauser (lighting and audio visual), Sarah Roberts mentoring students (production), Jo Glanville mentoring students (costume and props), Nadine Minnaar (set), Franco Prinsloo (sound), Madeleine Lotter-Viljoen (costume construction), Caitlin de Villiers (props construction) and Christelle van Graan (make up). It was performed by Liezl de Kock, Zak Hendrikz, Thembi Mtshali-Jones and Mpho Osei-Tutu in a brief season at the University of Johannesburg’s Con Cowan Theatre. This represents phase four of a 13-month project; the fifth phase promises to see the work hosted on national and international stages in 2018/9.