Ghosts in the machine


THE gentle king of the strings: the cello.

MUSICAL INSTRUMENTS ARE arguably the most complex and mysterious of objects invented. They can never just be objects. They can sing. They can laugh. They have identities and secret histories. They are beautiful and crafted and have a purpose which is about something a lot more intuitive and complicated than pure functionality. And if you play one of them well, a little bit of your soul – and its – intermingle in a way that shouldn’t be put to scientific scrutiny. Die Tjello, an Afrikaans-language radio drama which broadcasts on Radio Sonder Grense on Thursday evening at 8pm, considers not only a cello through the heart of its 500 year history, but also the impact of music on a talented lonely boy.

Theo Bauer (Francois van Rensburg) was a child prodigy, whose cello took him all over the world and beyond the ken and reach of his Calvinist family. It’s a narrative which may evoke the relationship which South African guitarist James Grace has described of himself and his instrument, and one that violinist Min Kym put to paper in her account of her relationship with hers. Now at 32, Theo is struggling with his relationship with his music, with the need to create and a sense of meaninglessness in the world. He’s an only child, the grandnephew of a man who understood this plight in his own personal dilemmas. And then, there is a catalyst. His grandfather dies.

An important privilege of mourning a loved one is about taking cognisance of the things that that person kept, and rehousing them. It’s a convoluted privilege because it also comes with the possibility of disrupting those things, and perchance of discovering something that has not been touched or thought of for many years.

In this play Michiel Potgieter brings together these two values, and with a spot of magic realism and some genies in the belly of an instrument, he conjures up a dialogue between the contemporary performer and the whole trajectory of cello-playing history behind him.

There is a tendency to reduce the frisson of the supernatural to the prosaic, which sometimes smudges the story’s thread, forcing you to consciously remember that some of the characters Theo interacts with are not of flesh and blood. Zizek (Richard van der Westhuizen), the luthier, is a curiously crafted character who exudes a strange mix of Jewish colloquialisms amid his English and Afrikaans scripted works. He feels like an anachronism, but lends the play important texture.

As a performed radio drama, however, the work lacks pace, and some of its dialogue is a little wooden in its give and take. This knocks the unexpected twist in the tale into sharp and potent relief, but it is a punctum that leaves question marks in its wake. Above all, the intervals of beautiful cello music make this a delightful foray into something completely fresh.

  • Die Tjello is written by Michiel Potgieter. Directed by Helena Hugo, and featuring technical input by Neria Mokwena and Patrick Monana, it is performed by Eloïse Cupido, Lochner de Kock, Ronele Korb, Francois Stemmet, André Stolz, Woutrine Theron, Richard van der Westhuizen and Francois van Rensburg, and broadcasts on RSG on December 5 at 8pm. It is rebroadcast on the station’s all night programme, Deurnag at 1am on Monday December 9 and is also available on podcast:

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