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