TAKE THE GENRE of the South African farm novel, throw it in the air with all its idiosyncrasies and hypocrisies, violence and violation, broken promises and trashed dreams, and a great contemporary South African classic is born. Take the work on stage, and a different kind of magic gets hatched. This is the kind of experience you can expect in Sylvaine Strike’s stage adaptation of Damon Galgut’s novel, The Promise, the recipient of the 2021 Booker Prize, onstage at the Market Theatre until 5 November 2023.
With a simple, yet uncomfortably constructed stage within a stage, that slopes toward you in the audience, and is replete with trapdoors and undercover passages; and a cast that is as versatile with their tongues as they are with their limbs, the work is a curious conflation of Tartuffe-esque contrived and polished clowning gesture, with a skewing of perspective, a contortion of how space works and dark humour which might have you shrieking inappropriately. It evokes Jane Cookson’s production of Jane Eyre for the National Theatre, screened in 2020, with its almost monochromatic set, pared down for your imagination to colour in trees and koppies, ravines and lightning, as it must.
It’s about a family with the selfish complexity of being South African farm owners, white and entitled for decades, and their anachronistic younger daughter with her damaged feet and wounded soul. It’s about being Jewish in a world which is not. And about carrying the grief and neediness of others for decades. Chuma Sopotela is the long-suffering maid, Salome, and the tiny door at the end of the crooked path, is her domain: familiarly called The Lombard House, but in fact the place where the black staff are allowed to live, after they’ve cleaned and wiped, buffed and dried the needs of the Swart family.
On her death bed, Rachel (Kate Normington), the Jewish wife of Manie (Frank Opperman) and mother of Anton (Rob Van Vuuren), Astrid (Jenny Stead) and Amor (Jane de Wet), makes a promise which runs, willy-nilly, like a stream through the big plots and tiny interstices of this book. It’s a then illegal promise (it’s 1986 and still apartheid, at the time) and dotted with loss and drama, snakes tamed and wild, tragedy and volte face changes, the threads hang strong and tight until the play’s closure.
As a theatre production, it is long. And there are one or two moments of shrillness between girls that jar. Like the National Theatre Live’s stage production of Life of Pi, it is told with a narrative voice that rings true to the cadences and nuances of the book itself, as you watch it unfold. While there are one or two instances of self-reflection: that this is a theatre production and many of the cast are wearing more than one cassock, hat or face, the work on the whole rings with the same voice of authenticity and greatness as the book on which it is premised. Choose where you sit with care: there is a light at the bottom of the set that breaks your vision if you are in the middle of the theatre. Also, there is a sprinkling of strobes in this work.
But then there is the magic of space and sound, of nuance and the way in which a fingernail can caress a piece of wood to create the beginnings of a rainstorm. There is a pair of white gloves on the hands of a senile old man with violence in his history, that will have you shrieking with a mix of horror and hilarity; and some churchy moments that reek with an outrageous sense of rule-breaking, but the beautiful sonority of a voice singing in a big open space.
This work is beautifully cast, not only for the versatility of the actors to represent the sturm and drang of a situation messed up by political values, the South African Defence Force and deep bitterness, but also humour. Galgut’s novel is not a miserable affair. It’s a human one that takes on the ridges of hypocrisy and cruelty with a sly eye. And here, Strike has employed the brilliant sense of comic timing endemic to Albert Pretorius and Frank Opperman – who might remind you of British actor Robert Lindsay in some of his more manic roles – on levels that will haunt you and make you giggle inordinately, even weeks after you’ve seen them. Kate Normington embraces the kindest and the cruellest of the characters drawn here, embodying everything from ghosts to a German mom with a contorted sense of comfort.
The story is reflected in big swathes of narrative and small anecdotes. If you have not read the work, you might be perplexed by some detail that seems to force the issues to digress, but fits in with the characters crafted here. It’s an important play. One that will keep your eyes switching across the stage, as moments of narrative and incident are choreographed to whip your attention from one situation to another. Sometimes it’s a hard play to watch. But watch it, you must.
- The Promise is written by Damon Galgut, based on his eponymous novel and directed by Sylvaine Strike. It features design by Charl-John Lingenfelder (sound design and original music), Josh Lindberg (set and lighting design), Penny Simpsons (costumes) and Natalie Fisher (choreography). It is performed by Jane de Wet, Kate Normington, Frank Opperman, Albert Pretorius, Cintaine Schutte, Sanda Shandu, Chuma Sopotela, Jenny Stead and Rob van Vuuren and is on stage in the John Kani Theatre, Market Theatre complex in Newtown, Johannesburg, until 5 November.