FORTY-ONE YEARS AGO, Paul Slabolepszy’s play Saturday Night at the Palace rocked the theatre-going sensibilities of South Africa. This was art so close to the mirror that it reeked and terrified. It’s enjoying a season currently at the Joburg Theatre, under the direction of Albert Maritz and it is no less riveting and disturbing than it was then.
You may think we as an aware society have outgrown socially revolting behaviour. You may consider yourself and your peers to be super-sensitive to the plight of everyone else, and yet a play such as Slabolepszy’s ground-breaking piece still hits nerves that we have forgotten we have. This work is so much more than a period piece.
Set in the late 1970s at a roadside café just shy of one of the outlying towns east of Johannesburg, in the rude hours of the night, a completely perfect entity of a story is cast. It’s about what one can get away with, armed with white privilege, cocksureness and the immortal ideas that being young projects. It’s also about the things that remain forbidden in our society.
The writing is bold and terrifying and South Africa’s taboo racial expletives are spat, not mumbled, into the texture of the play. It presents Beckettian give and take in an isolated context; one that is infused with toxic masculine values that mark the more virile of the two white youngsters, Vince (Charlie Bouguenon) as the ‘top dog’.
Forsie (Francois Jacobs) is weaker, softer, more responsible and more befuddled with the nuanced business of being a man in the here and now. But then, there is September (Samson Khumalo), an older black man, who works at the roadside café in question. And his presence among these bloodthirsty boys tosses a level of blood curdling expectation and nauseating stereotype that smells like only apartheid South Africa can, into the mix.
And then, there is the set. In your mind’s nose, you can smell the used chip oil and the cheese drippings from the establishment’s toasted-cheeses, replete as it is with cheery hand painted signage and an instruction to flick headlights, rather than hoot, for waiters’ attention. It’s a self-contained set of the ilk of that in Sylvaine Strike’s Dop, and one that conveys the texture of this type of fast food establishment back in the day.
Even if you were not born 41 years ago, or are not old enough to have seen theatre of this ambit then, the central premises of this work are drawn with narrative clarity and boldness that are not simplistic, but as legible as headlines on a street pole ad. It’s a tale of drive-ins and dagga, of ‘scoring’ with girls, familiarly described as ‘gooses’. The slang is beautifully honed like a time-specific fabric that shifts and gives the period authenticity and coherence and the characters are so well-cast and performed that you leave with a heady sense of hate for them, conjoined with a helpless pity and an articulate sense of rage that will sear you to the core.
Saturday Night is nothing short of a South African classic, honed and polished during awful times, but here in your face and on stage again, to ponder on the delicate balance of human behaviour. Even here. Even now.
- Saturday Night at the Palace is written by Paul Slabolepszy and directed by Albert Maritz. Featuring set and costume design by Megan Miller, it is performed by Charlie Bouguenon, Francois Jacobs and Samson Khumalo at the Lesedi Theatre, Joburg Theatre complex in Braamfontein, until August 20. Booking through Webtickets