South African storytelling has rich veins of possibility that draw not only from farm novel traditions, but also the criss-crossing of many cultures and biases that soils its reputation, but makes for good meaty yarns. This is what you will find in Victor Gordon’s sterling work Brothers, an essay as much about the complexities of the prodigal son as it is a commentary on the apocryphal four sons, with a side dig at the messiness of religious fundamentalism.
It is here in a god-forsaken mielie farm with a long history of family, church and imprecations of rain that we first encounter Koot (Gustav Gerdener). He’s suave in a 1950s white South African gangster kind of way, and feels both at home and not at home in the rude abode described by the set. He knows where things are, where they should be, but he’s a stranger.
When his older brother, Ben (Dawid Minnaar) returns to the house, with another brother Jan (Drikus Volschenk) and a youngster, Willem (Ruan Wessels), much is revealed, but the work takes wise and nifty detours around truth and lies that probe the points of stability in a narrow society lie. The unravelling of one revelation follows another and the work resonates with the sizzling danger and hiddenness you find in the farm narratives of Reza de Wet – and to an extent, Yaël Farber, with her Mies Julie. Here you understand what life is away from intrusions of the big city, where a simpleton remains as such, and a child damaged from abuse carries it with him.
This beautifully performed, gripping drama presents a clear understanding of inside and outside contexts, with a cleverly made set and an evolved reflection of the idea of the four sons, presented in the Torah: the wise, the wicked, the simple and the one who knows nothing at all. It’s a device used in the Jewish Passover seder, but is instructive in a reading of this play as well. The four proverbial ‘sons’ appear. And each has the kind of internal value system you would anticipate. Only, there’s a volte face in the issue which centres on the potency of a little black bible.
While there is a tad of overacting on the part of Volschenk as the simple brother, and a couple of shining anachronisms in the set design – in particular, by way of the kind of brackets under the chairs which would not have existed in the period of the piece – this work is a powerful, legible and above all, highly intelligent foray into what holds siblings together and what forces them apart. Headlined by a shimmering performance by Minnaar opposite Gerdener, it’s of the calibre of de Wet’s storytelling muscle in terms of its extrapolation on local metaphor, cliché and taboo.
- Brothers is written by Victor Gordon, and directed by Francois Jacobs (mentored by Mncedisi Shabangu). It features design by Mandisa Hope Vilakazi and mentee Lebogang Rammala (sound), Karabo Legoabe and mentees Gift Makadikwa and Philani Masedi (set and costumes), Kosie Smit and mentee Neliswa Fantesi (lighting) and is stage managed by Ali Madiga and mentee Philadelphia Williams. It is performed by Gustav Gerdener, David James, Dawid Minnaar, Drikus Volschenk, and Ruan Wessels at the Barney Simon Theatre, Market Theatre complex in Newtown, Johannesburg, until 23 February 2020.