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
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Drive my car

MissDaisy

BACKSEAT driver: Hoke Colburn (John Kani) and Miss Daisy (Sandra Prinsloo). Photograph courtesy Brooklyn Theatre.

THE ACHIEVEMENT OF theatrical perfection is very rare. And when it happens, you have to grab it with both hands, and make a point of seeing it, whatever it takes. The Afrikaans rendition of the 1989 American story of an elderly white woman and her black driver seems so seamlessly South African, it’s difficult to force your mind around remembering the Jessica Tandy, Morgan Freeman Academy Award-winning version of this work, as you sit and watch South Africa’s unequivocal best doing greatness.

This is simply what you get in the brief season of the work under Christiaan Olwagen’s directorial hand, and with no less than Sandra Prinsloo and John Kani in the respective leads. It is a supremely beautifully crafted work, from top to toe – from the manner in which the costumes fit the context, to the manner in which the performers fill the skins of their characters, to the ingenious understanding of a car as a stage within a theatre, and an audio-visual component that is spot on.

In short, this is as good as it gets. A gentle and empathetic paean to the horror and indignity of ageing, against the changing forces at play in contemporary history and politics, the story is about an elderly Afrikaans woman (Prinsloo) and her son Boolie (Jacques Bessenger). It is his difficult job to gently prise his ageing mum’s hands from the steering wheel of her car and face the implications that this will have on her life and her sense of self.

Enter Hoke Colburn (Kani), a black man who can drive and needs the job. He might not have been formally educated, but he’s completely savvy as to the crooked way of the world – the story takes place in the grim crux of apartheid – and armed thus, without anything on his side, he takes the old lady’s backchat with mostly a pinch of salt and a developed understanding. A story unfolds. Not quite a love story, but an essay about love. It’s also a gentle yet gritty foray about Springbok Radio and learning to read in a cemetery. It’s about the silence that comes of dementia and the quiet dignity of being able to call oneself someone’s best friend.

While the cell phone reference early on in the work does feel slightly anachronistic, the work flows with an easy fluidity – but there is so much more. To see Kani performing in a role that is about the tough discriminatory energies of apartheid, and to see him doing it in Afrikaans, of all languages, lends a deep and resonant understanding of what true performance skill and dignity is all about. His Hoke leaps through politics and time. His Hoke is a man ageing too, who looks death in the eye with a touch of laughter and a lot of soul. His Hoke speaks Afrikaans like a local and he will make you weep with his sense of brave vulnerability. Prinsloo’s Miss Daisy is profoundly brittle and immersed in the egotistical bravado that comes of age. She encapsulates that sense of an old woman that makes you recoil from her and love her, simultaneously. In short, she’s the feisty mum who is the repository of innocent racist values that infused an ideology.

And yes, it is uncomfortable: it reveals all the ugliness of bias couched in wisdom and context. It’s predictable in its structure, but resonant in its articulation of values. Without pussyfooting in political rhetoric or attempting to be politically correct, it casts some magic in the world. In short, seeing the Afrikaans rendition of Driving Miss Daisy is the best reason to be in Pretoria, right now.

  • So Ry Miss Daisy is written by Alfred Uhry and translated into Afrikaans by Saartjie Botha. It is directed by Christiaan Olwagen and features creative input by Rocco Pool (set), Wolf Britz (lighting) and Birrie Le Roux (costumes). It is performed by Jacques Bessenger, John Kani and Sandra Prinsloo at the Brooklyn Theatre, Menlo Park, Pretoria, until August 19. Visit brooklyntheatre.co.za or call 012 460 6033.

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