My mother’s dignity, my society’s shame

Judasbok

BETRAYED as a repository for sins: the Scapegoat.

A BEAUTIFULLY CRAFTED tale of loyalty and values learned and imbibed, Dalene Matthee’s novel Die Judasbok (The Scapegoat) translates with a true sense of Klein Karoo grit into an Afrikaans-language radio drama you won’t forget in a hurry. It’s an extremely sensitive and intelligent radio-adaptation that will haunt you with all the moral decisions you’ve made that you would change if you could. And while its live broadcast was hosted a few weeks ago, this is the kind of work you will want to listen to again and again.

Karel (Dean Balie) and Lillian (Danielle van der Walt) are engaged to be married. They’re on a 1 300km road trip, to visit Karel’s mother, Ou Bet (June van Merch) in Wolwedans, the farm on which Karel grew up. They’re planning to leave the country; it’s a farewell visit. Sounds idyllic? It is, until you take a step back in terms of context. It’s 1982. It’s South Africa. Apartheid is rumbling like a destructive force through society, breaking hearts, confusing beliefs and smashing values in its wake. Andries Treurnicht, a government minister, is in the process of carving out a place in South African politics for the Conservative party. Bad things are happening everywhere.

And, yes, Karel is not white. Lillian is. Technically, their relationship, under the apartheid jurisdiction, is illegal. Ou Bet, whose the general factotum in the house and has raised the farm’s family as best she can, believing herself to be a part of it. She knows that Karel has a “Lillian” in his life, but the two women have not yet met. This roadtrip is infused with the ghosts and memories of Karel’s past, the beauty of the farm in Lillian’s unsullied eyes, and deep, difficult crossroads to encounter and confront for the mom. And there’s the memory of the farm’s dam which too contains mixed understandings of what skin colour means.

Along similar lines to Mark Behr’s Die Reuk van Appels, it’s a play which contemplates the horrors of being ‘different’ in a society that promulgates very specific race and class and gender values. Containing revelations about the past that will make you tremble, it’s a story that wrenches an old woman from her sense of where she fits in, in her everyday world, and one of bravery and beliefs in the face of disbelief.

The first adult novel penned by Matthee in the 1980s, it’s a book which contains all the energy and verve, the rich and complex understanding of an Afrikaans-speaking community who are not white-skinned and where they fit into the society in which they exist. As you listen to the crisp and solid tones and scene changes in this work, so do you melt, under the tough sway of the story’s impact, but also the way in which the environment is conjured by words and references, music and the twittering of birds. It’s a must-hear and a must-have.

  • Die Judasbok (The Scapegoat) is written by Dalene Matthee and adapted for radio by Anton Treurnich. Directed by Eben Cruywagen, it features technical assistance by Ricardo McCarthy is performed by Dean Balie, Susan Beyers, Danielle van der Walt and June van Merch, and debuted on RSG on November 17. It is available through the rsg website as a podcast.
  • RSG can be found on 100-104FM, on DStv channel 913 or live on http://web.sabc.co.za/digital/player/1.0/rsg/index.html#listenLiveTab
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Forbidden fruit that haunts

Die Reuk van Appels_images by Sanmari Marais_-34

THE horror, the horror: Gideon Lombard is Marnus Erasmus, peeking through a hole in his knotty pine floor. Photograph by Sanmari Marais.

WRITING IS A messy business. It’s a mixture of grammar and correctness, of rhythm and texture, of perspective and controversy. But occasionally it can be so devastatingly lucid that a scene read more than 20 years ago, can still haunt. Irrevocably. Bruisingly. It takes a truly remarkable team of performers and creative people, however, to take something as earth-shatteringly powerful as this in a novel, and to bring it to stage, no less haunting than it appeared on those pages so many years ago. This is precisely what happens in Die Reuk van Appels.

This apartheid-centric tale of propaganda and betrayal, keeping up appearances and the falteringly naive yet fierce understanding of an 11-year-old boy of life, the universe and everything, was originally penned by Mark Behr in both Afrikaans and English, both published in 1993. It rocked the literary equilibrium at the time. Not only for how beautifully it is crafted but also for the unpopular narrative it contains. What does it mean to be a white man, raised — and brainwashed — to understand your pre-eminence in a country, because of your skin colour, only to discover that you’ve been on the side of prime evil, all along? And that it is your own flesh and blood that is the enemy?

Based on the Afrikaans version, this astutely directed and simply brilliantly performed work, is set to turn contemporary local theatre making inside out as it unremittingly focuses on issues as complex and messy as inexplicable hatred, an understanding of who hell is for and why, and an engagement with complicity that hurts.

The bravery and importance of this flawless play that doesn’t stint on describing the appalling horror of an apartheid mindset, cannot be understated. The value of theatre of this nature cannot be overstated, not only in terms of method, but in terms of the multitude of young voices which need to be heard in this country, in Afrikaans as much as in any other language.

Gideon Lombard plays Marnus Erasmus, as he spins a yarn around his family, the South African Defense Force, the mystery of taboo, the surrealness of awful memories and the horror of disappointment. The script is populated with characters from his father, a general in the South African army, to his mother, a wannabe contralto; his sister Ilse and his best friend, Frikkie. Not to forget a sinister character called “John Smith”, who is exotic yet undefined.

Armed with a spinning top and a floppy army hat, an army-issue water bottle, a loose rug on the floor and a military uniform eerily hanging in the air, Lombard embraces that pristine and sparkling element of childhood innocence with wisdom that forces you to understand the character from within and without. More than anything, the work is an indictment on a particular type of Afrikaner mindset at the height of apartheid, from 1974, and its unequivocal (yet superficial) hard-edged moral clarity, which believed that the land was theirs thanks to God. In being so, it offers insight into the agony of hypocrisy as witnessed and stomached by a child.

It’s a difficult play to watch, but an impossible work to drag your attention from, as it begins. And yes, the State Theatre is an appalling ordeal to visit, with its ghastly little artworks hanging in the foyer’s corners and the ups and downs of long corridors that you have to traverse to get to the venue. They still reek of neglect and poor design, of feeble attempts to reposition politicised gestures and statues, but as you get into the space and the play’s sound track punctuates your universe, you forget – and forgive – everything. This play will grab you by the throat and not leave space for anything else.

  • Die Reuk van Appels (The Smell of Apples) is reworked for stage by Johann Smith, based on the eponymous novel by Mark Behr (1993). Directed by Lara Bye, it features creative input by Kosie Smit (lighting), and Lara Bye and Gideon Lombard (set). It is also performed by Gideon Lombard. Limited to no under 16s, as it features sex and nudity, violence and prejudice, it performs at the Momentum Theatre, State Theatre complex in Pretoria until September 24, at Aardklop National Arts Festival in Potchefstroom on October 3-7: https://aardklop.co.za/; and at the Fugard Theatre in Cape Town from October 17-November 11: thefugard.com

Humble plum jam: a cipher for poisonous secrets

 

pruimboompic1

UNCOMPROMISING: Jan Groenewald, the performer and playwright of Pruimboom delivers a direct and relentless tale.

It’s odd how the conjured image of a fruit can be such a potent conveyor of horror and sadness. Think of Mark Behr’s The Smell of Apples (1993) or Renos Spanoudes’s The Apple Tree (2002). Jan Groenewald’s Die Pruimboom (the plum tree), an Afrikaans play, fits in this uncomfortable and memory-laden sub-genre, which ultimately, is about the connotations that the smell, texture and taste of a fruit – or the jam which it is turned to, in the case of Pruimboom, can be twisted on its axis and can speak of terrible memories, monsters and demons.

It’s a bleak tale of loss, of advantage taken and of ultimate victory, but victory that is tinged with the sadness of impossibility and the emasculating ghoulish shadow that childhood abuse casts over a whole adult life.

Jan is 13 years, seven months and seven days, when everything that he thought he was, gets irrevocably broken, and we’re taken slow motion through three defining days of his life. While never stooping to graphic description, the play is deftly written – its climaxes are alternatively  very subtle and terrifyingly sacramental – and it is performed with a sense of dignity that doesn’t prevent words and realities to tumble over one another breathlessly.

And while you feel incredulous that a 13-year-old boy would have the ability, the temerity, the words, the presence of mind to look his molester in the eye and make a bargain with him, you will such a turn of events into life.

The work is arguably bruised by at least two parallel narratives that are happening at the same time as Groenewald’s performance. There’s a videoed sequence that is played by way of a set. Rather than only illustrating the text, it heaves and clashes, loops upon itself and presents a jumbled mix of values, including tarot cards, a CGI-designed boy chasing a kite and scenes in a hospital context. At first, they resonate powerfully with the words, and there’s a heart stopping moment which brings a church and a post office into an overwhelming clash of values, but as soon as they loop and present their narrative again, your attention fights to hold onto Groenewald’s words and not be swept into the rhythm of the projected story.

Similarly with the music. There’s a bit of Vivaldi and other composers, piped into this play’s digital presentation. At times, you catch yourself being swept away by the phrases and nuances in the music, forcing you to lose your hold on Groenewald’s words, or to consciously hold so tightly to them that the act of watching becomes stilted.

But the play is an important one: touching the uncomfortable place that Sarah Blecher’s riveting recent film Dis Ek, Anna (reviewed here) evokes, which threatens to rip the guts out of the strict moral behaviour of Afrikaans society, the work is both a fable and a horror story. It’s subtlety and its frankness keeps it overwhelmingly human.

  • Pruimboom is written and performed by Jan Groenewald and directed by Erik Holm. It performs at Foxwood Theatre in Houghton, on January 23 and 24. Call 011 486 0935.
  • Pruimboom is one thing. But the energy in the audience, quite another. Read this piece.