Mind the gap: an essay on elegant dishonesty


AWKWARD reminiscences: Jerry (Tom Fairfoot) and Emma (Carly Graeme) meet in a pub. Photograph by Philip Kuhn.

IT’S THE SILENCES and gaps between words and the construction of the unspoken beat in this intriguing Pinter work, that lends it its potency and dramatic verve, but it is this potency mixed with extremely classy performances, an understated set and an unequivocal elegance that gives it the edge that keeps you focused. However, as the play reaches closure, you might question yourself as to whether there can be such a thing as just too much elegance and too many manners.

And as the name dictates, Betrayal is a tale of complicity and untruths. Of secrets and lies. And of revelations.  Emma (Carly Graeme) is married to Robert (Antony Coleman). She’s a gallerist. He’s an editor of a poetry journal. They have two small children.

And for a period of seven years, Emma has had a lover. He knows. Her husband, that is. She knows he knows. But does the lover know she knows he knows? Without the classic English understatedness, this narrative could descend into farcical humour, but it’s kept tight and succinct, demure and hilarious in its own capacity.

We meet Emma and Jerry (Tom Fairfoot) in a pub. They’re excruciatingly awkward with one another, but as they hem and haw and blurt out long sentences of memories of their friendship, and then retract them, you quickly realise this was no ordinary association. Love came into the mix.

But then it left.

This is a tale of how men and women dialogue over the deed of love, sex and relationships. It’s beautiful in its elegance, somewhat anachronistic in its costume choices – this is, after all, a period between 1968 and 1977 as the projection tells us – and the clothes the characters wear are a lot more refined than the period dictated. That said, the Bauhaus-style furnishings that quietly comprise the set are as fitting and as versatile as necessary: they’re just right.

One of the biggest challenges of a play of this nature is the danger of the work descending into blandness. Indeed, once you’ve figured out all the different levels of betrayal articulated from scene to scene, there seems little else, and the plot is exactly that – an unravelling of several intrigues. Looking at it in this capacity, the conclusion of the piece seems unsatisfying: but this is less a criticism of the work invested in it than a reflection of the original.

What happens next after the philandering partners have owned up? Why, that’s another whole story, you might suggest. Betrayal is an elegant, eminently watchable and utterly competent work to watch.

  • Betrayal is written by Harold Pinter and directed by Greg Homann. It features design by Homann (set) and Oliver Hauser (lighting), is performed by Antony Coleman, Jose Domingos, Tom Fairfoot and Carly Graeme until July 1 at the Auto and General Theatre on the Square in Sandton. Call 011 883-8606 or visit http://www.theatreonthesquare.co.za

Verwoerd’s Assassin: a bloody tale of brilliant nuance


Murder is a sexy topic, in any entertainment sphere. Murder carrying a factual trail of political blood and racial acrimony, moreso, but there’s always the threat, the possibility that the gory denouement or headline might drench the whole work in blood, thus compromising credibility and coating it with sensationalism. In the hands of Renos Spanoudes the story of the murder of Hendrik Verwoerd by Dimitri Tsafendas goes beyond story-telling. It’s a completely astonishing work in which Spanoudes magically becomes Tsafendas, and in doing so lends this much maligned historical figure the dignity and complexity he warrants.

On September 6, 1966, Tsafendas, then employed by Parliament in Cape Town, as a messenger, stabbed the then Prime Minister Verwoerd to death, whilst Parliament was in session. The gesture was the result of years of unbelonging and exile; a lifetime of being relentlessly pushed from pillar to post, with a lot of brutality and bullying thrust at him from all quarters, in between. And Verwoerd, as the author of the racist system which prevented him from a life of normalcy, was the target.

The illegitimate child of a South African Greek man and his Shangaan domestic maid, Tsafendas teetered irrevocably between racial classification. Not light-skinned enough to be considered white nor dark skinned enough to be considered black, he never knew for sure whether he was white or Coloured, and spent his early life in the impossible double bind presented by apartheid. He could not marry because he was considered white when he fell in love with a Coloured woman. He travelled out of the country, and was not permitted to return because of his being this curious anomaly.

This play, embracing everything from a contemplation of dust, to the drowning of Wolraad Woltemade to the voice of a tape worm, debuted in a slightly different form, over ten years ago. It rips into the intestines and heart of the issue, without pulling punches. It’s an essay on the horrors of apartheid brutality, conveyed with deft hands, in the directorial, writing and performance aspects of the story and represents an energised and self-critical but deeply intelligent collaboration.

Spanoudes is a completely wonderful performer, who takes Tsafendas, body and soul and allows him to soar with the kind of authenticity that keeps you completely magnetically transfixed. Neither a chronological account nor a contrived one, this is storytelling at its wisest: it opens to present a bloody and bruised Tsafendas in his jail cell, and expands and contracts around his past and present. In entirety it presents a tale of hardship and humiliation, but ultimately it is the kind of work that leaves your empowered and simmering with a sense of victory.

Yes, Tsafendas lived out his life in horror and sadness, having survived the pricks and kicks of a vindictive Afrikaans policing, and horrifying privations like being installed beneath the gallows, where he was constant aural witness to hangings, for instance, but the work is constructed less as an essay of injustice and more as a nuanced and well-paced paean to the historical figure himself, a man not unintelligent, but plagued by demons.

Featuring a relationship with dark transitions on stage, which cloaks the text in sinister allusions to other presences, be they hidden members of the police, out there to drench the prisoner in water or piss in his tea, or be they the voices in the elderly Greek’s head, ostensibly drawing from the tape worm from which he suffered chronically, this play offers a very satisfying give and take in how this performer winds his presence through the text and the character, creating a work so developed and wise that even the notoriously horrible space of the Amphitheatre falls into irrelevance.

Spanoudes, in a tour-de-force performance, at times reminiscent of Ron Perlman’s unforgettable monk Salvatore, in Jean-Jacques Annaud’s The Name of the Rose (1986) allows your heart and soul to leap and fall and leap again, with the challenges Tsafendas faced in his long and tortuous life. It’s not an easy play to watch; it’s a very important foray into an otherwise poorly explored history.

  • Verwoerd’s Assassin is written by Anton Krueger and based on the direction of Jose Domingos and Lynne Maree. It was performed by Renos Spanoudes, at the Amphitheatre, as part of this year’s Wits-hosted So Solo Festival.