A version of this review appeared in the SA Jewish Report in the issue of August 15. sajr.co.za
Mention Alison to virtually anyone in SA in 1994; they’ll know who you mean. In December that year, in a story that rocked the media, this ordinary woman in her 20s who worked at a travel agency, was abducted outside her Port Elizabeth home by two white men. They raped, stabbed and almost disembowelled her. Her throat was slashed16 times. She was left for dead. Miraculously, she survived. This is her story. And it’s everyone’s worst nightmare.
This play hangs on this story’s momentum. Rape is complicated to depict onstage. It cannot be sexy. Or comical. But it must be legible. Alison’s attack in the first part of this play is terrifying, sickening and dramatically impeccable.
In the script, her inner voices shout in her quest to get help. Bleeding heavily, she dragged herself several hundred metres to Port Elizabeth’s Marine Parade, where she was found. The relationship between Alison and her body and her inner voices is impeccably and hauntingly handled, by the cast and director.
But when a play is underpinned by this much historical veracity, its narrative is sacred. Alison was in the audience on opening night. As was the man, then a young veterinary science student, who stopped to help her. The play is based on Marianne Thamm’s book, featuring verbatim interviews with her.
Is it still a play? Can it be subject to critique? On one hand, yes: it is professionally performed. And yet, as a work bound by factual truth, it teeters between representing Alison’s ordeal and a sense of advocacy, which tells you how to respond to the story.
These limits shouldn’t allow the work’s professionalism to be compromised. The court scene is a case in point. It was the first time Alison– who was able to identify her attackers and be material in their sentencing — was given closure and triumph. It could have been a crescendo to the piece, and yet, it is bland and wooden in its performance and lighting, and immensely amateurish.
Further, aside from a strong performance by Suanne Braun in the lead, the rest of the five-strong cast play several characters supporting the story, from the killers to Alison’s mom, Alison’s friends to bystanders in seamy central PE. These roles are not directed convincingly, resulting in a cardboard cutout blurring of detail which hurts the story.
So, what do you leave with? After holding tightly to your seat, your knuckles will be whitened, but after its violent denouement, the play is flooded with religious saccharine.
Unlike the extraordinary play ‘A Human Being Died that Night’, based on the text by Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela about Eugene de Kock’s apartheid crimes, Alison’s story is not fleshed out with context. You’re not left contemplating evil, or ill-luck. You’re glad Alison recovered and re-made her life, but there’s scant grist for the thinking mill in this story in which ordinary people became heroes. And it is upon that that critique teeters. No, it isn’t flawless. But yes, it’s worth seeing. And retelling. And, bring tissues.
- I Have Life: Alison’s Journey is written and directed by Maralin Vanrenen, based on the book by Marianne Thamm. It features design by Denis Hutchinson (set and lighting) and Jemma Kahn (costumes) and is performed by Clayton Boyd; David de Beer; Suanne Braun; Zak Hendrikz; and Shaleen Tobin. It performs at the Auto and General Theatre on the Square in Sandton until August 30.