A pocketful of stones and forgotten words

Moedertaal

BABY shoes and how to let go. Sandra Prinsloo in Moedertaal. Photograph courtesy Brooklyn Theatre.

WHAT IS IT that sews the fabric of a family together? It’s the laughter and the disappointments, it’s the shared sadnesses and the making and breaking of rules. And above all, it’s the language. Moedertaal (mother tongue) is a beautifully crafted Afrikaans slice of life, written – and directed and designed – by Nico Scheepers. It is brought to astonishingly raw and sophisticated life by the inimitable Sandra Prinsloo.

You may have seen her in Die Naaimasjien by Rachelle Greeff. You may have seen her in Oskar en die Pienk Tannie by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt. Either way, you know you’re in for a masterclass in performance, and she doesn’t disappoint. But it’s a collaborative victory: This work takes that reflection on loss and illness to a higher level. Constructed and designed like a Greek tragedy, with the presence of the sea in the background from the get-go until the shattering denouement, the narrative is clear and bold and the sense of devastation it embodies is intimate and personal, yet overwhelmingly universal.

There’s a bronze Holocaust memorial sculpture made by Karl Biedermann in 1996 in the city of Berlin. Entitled The Deserted Room, it’s a very simple yet utterly cataclysmic work which comprises renditions of two straight-backed chairs and a table. One chair is violently cast on its back, on the floor. The rest is commentary. It is the subtlety and simplicity on this level that makes Moedertaal a powerful cipher for tragedy that you don’t need to have spelled out.

The chairs, the small pale blue canvas takkies, some beach sand and stones on the beach. These are all the tools necessary to create a whimsical and wonderful tale of language and forgetting how, of having and losing, and of growing old with the idea of Virginia Woolf’s suicide in one’s pocket. It’s a story of Pinnochio and the tragic hilarity of madness, and with truly devastating subtlety offers an understanding of incomprehensible life changes and the unforeseeable devil around the next corner that sullies one’s sense of self, as it smudges clarity of memory.

Without being literal, and infused with poetry and magic, humour and the need to let go, the work is evolved and strong, stripping the souls of the characters represented completely naked. A piece of this nature, with this story as a framework could easily skirt with soppiness or crass sensationalism, but in these hands – those of Scheepers, and those of Prinsloo – it sings with a genuineness that will leave you weeping for more.

  • Moedertaal is written, directed and designed by Nico Scheepers. It is performed by Sandra Prinsloo at the Brooklyn Theatre in Menlo Park, Pretoria until February 4. Call 012 460 6033 or visit www.brooklyntheatre.co.za

Never forget to smell the roses

oskar

LITTLE boy, frightened: The inimitable Sandra Prinsloo is Oskar. Photograph courtesy Montecasino Theatere.

LOVE, LOSS AND growing old are inescapably part of the human condition. Put these three elements in a children’s cancer ward, and you might expect to yield a narrative which is hackneyed and clichéd. Indeed, you already know how the story ends. But in the loving hands of consummate professionals – from the writer, Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, to the translator Naómi Morgan, to the director Lara Bye and the performer, Sandra Prinsloo – Oskar en die Pienk Tannie is a play so beautifully crafted with such an astute sense of self, that it will rock your emotional equilibrium.

Oskar is a ten-year-old boy. He has leukaemia. Moored in a children’s hospital with a community of friends, including “Popcorn”, “Braaivleis”, “Einstein” and “Blue Betty”, kids with equally scary medical problems, he’s intelligent and sentient enough to understand that his prognosis is not good. But there’s God, who he writes to, and the eponymous “Pienk Tannie”, called Ouma Rosa, a hospital assistant, who tells him tales of women’s wrestling and carves out legends for him to hold onto and laugh at. She’s a little coarse round the edges, but overwhelmingly pragmatic. She takes no shit, has  “passed her sell-by date” and exudes the type of complex humanity you might remember in Julie Walters’s portrayal of Mrs Wilkinson in the 2000 film called Billy Elliot.

Filtered with a deep understanding of language, of human convention and the dramatic emotional extremes and unrelenting egocentricity of a prepubescent child, not to forget the horror of loss, this is an extraordinary work in which the magnificent Prinsloo paints a whole world out there, armed with just a table and some well-managed lighting.

But more than that, this is a one-person play and Prinsloo takes on the fierce vulnerability of the child as well as the gruff love of Ouma Rosa, and the myriad of other characters, with complete candidness. You are never allowed to forget the tragic circumstances of Oskar, but as the work unfolds, you get to hold onto dreamed up legends, which can make 12 days into 120 years, and projects a whole rich trajectory of dreams onto something that in the real world is curtailed and broken by sadness.

And yes, it’s in Afrikaans, but arguably the force of the narrative and the simple complexity of the writing supersedes language barriers and within the first few lines of the play you become so consumed by its magic and texture, that the medium turns universally understandable.

A beautiful six-tissue production, which will leave you with hope in your heart and an imperative to look for wonder the world every single day, Oskar en die Pienk Tannie is a delicate piece constructed with know-how and wisdom, but above all, with uncringing directness.

  • Oskar en die Pienk Tannie is written in French by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt and translated into Afrikaans by Naómi Morgan. It is directed by Lara Bye and performed by Sandra Prinsloo, at the Studio Theatre, Montecasino theatre complex in Fourways, until September 25. Visit montecasinotheatre.co.za