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Cry, the Beloved Country — a classic which speaks to audiences today

Deborah Seddon

At the Monument Theatre, Grahamstown, at the National Arts Festival

Adapted for the stage from Alan Paton’s eponymous novel by Roy Sargeant

Directed by Heinrich Reisenhofer.

It is a quieter scene in Grahamstown for the National Arts Festival this year, with crowds slowly picking up as the days pass, but the quality of many of the productions is encouraging.

One such production brings an old story to life at the Monument Theatre. 2003 marks the centenary of Alan Paton’s birth and brings to Grahamstown the first stage adaptation of his most famous novel Cry, the Beloved Country. The play, written by Roy Sargeant and directed by Heinrich Reisenhofer, offers both those familiar with the text and those completely new to the story a vibrant emotional staging of the classic tale. Staging decisions and the introduction of a new character recognise and comment on the novel’s status as a classic text of South African fiction.

The play opens with a young white schoolboy (Johan Vermaak) sitting on the stage with an open book. He is then joined by an older man (David Muller in the part of James Jarvis) who recites the famous opening passage of the novel — drawing the audience into the production. The imagery of the green valley of Ndotsheni in Natal is juxtaposed to a stage landscape of rock and brick, a broken wall and a lone street lamp, a space put to creative, atmospheric use in the play.

The schoolboy accompanies the action, appearing on stage as a silent observer as Stephen Kumalo (Joko Scott) journeys to Johannesburg seeking his son Absalom (Morena Medi) and uncovering, through his son’s individual story, the larger story of “the broken tribe”.

The adaptation stays close to the text throughout, capturing the rhythms and tone of Paton’s dialogue and commentary. Creative use of cast and props, Zulu song, background sound, music and video bring the novel alive on stage.

Joko Scott shines as the Rev Stephen Kumalo. Though he had only a few weeks to rehearse his part (he was initially cast as John Kumalo), Scott’s performance is excellent. His movements and speech as the old Zulu priest are never overdone. He convincingly conveys all the exhaustion and anxiety of the father’s quest — traversing the landscape of an unknown city on foot, bewildered and shocked by what the deprivation and violence of the township life have done to his family. Scott captures both Kumalo’s gentle strength and his despair at what he regards as his son’s evil. His role is supported by a strong cast, and compared with the film adaptation of the novel this production takes delight in the diverse sounds of authentic South African voices.

Through its imaginative handling of the issue of the crime for which Absalom will lose his life, the production answers any doubts as to the continued relevance of this classic text in the new South Africa. The mixed middle-class audience in the Settlers’ Monument auditorium are asked to play the part of the 1946 crowd at the public meeting which the young Arthur Jarvis addresses on the issue of crime before he is killed. The production does well to demonstrate that the arguments as to the causes and remedies for crime have lost none of their urgency. The break-in that results in Arthur Jarvis’s death appears like a nightmare — a black and white video projected onto the broken wall of the stage landscape. The ticking clocks of the suburban house become the heartbeats of frightened men; masked figures muttering in Zulu enter the house, Arthur at work at his desk is startled by a noise, walks down the stairs and is killed by Absalom’s gunshots.

The actors then take central stage, addressing and questioning the present-day audience with one of Paton’s key passages from the text. The “snake of fear” stalks South Africa. It is the price paid for racist policies and the inequities of education and living conditions. The “bondage of fear” will continue until more energy is put into combating deprivation and poverty and less into “putting more locks on the doors” and demanding increasingly violent measures to protect possessions.

The young white schoolboy observes the trial scene, a tableau that ranges the figures of white authority — lawyer, judge, and policemen — on one side of the stage with the families of the accused men on the other. The silent young watcher on the stage reminds us of the irony that the text itself was taught in schools even as the machinery of state kept apartheid in place.

Towards the end of the production the schoolboy takes the part of Arthur’s small son, the new generation, whose inquiring entry into the lives of the Zulu inhabitants on his grandfather’s farm brings Jarvis’s gifts of the life-giving milk and the water of the dam to transform the valley.

There is a danger with such productions that the theme of attainable salvation may become cloying. At moments the background music accompanying the scenes of the family’s reconciliation and the valley’s regeneration is intrusive, demanding a response that would be better left spontaneous. But the emotion of the audience at the play’s closure was palpable as the cast gathered for their final bow. The Monument Theatre crowd rose spontaneously to their feet, greeting the actors with a standing ovation, whoops, cheers and tears.

The play will be performed in Cape Town next week and will tour to Bloemfontein, Roodepoort, Hilton and Durban later this year.

boontoe / to the top

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