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.