Kellerman breathes life into otherwise dank piece
Presented by the Rhodes University Centenary Committee, Grahamstown National Arts Festival, Baxter Theatre, and First Physical Theatre
Breathing In is set in the final years of the South African War but, as the programme notes, this phantasmal play "could be any war at any time". This is certainly true, and it's not at all that clear, even by the close of the play, why that specific war was chosen as a setting. The widespread human cost and suffering of this conflict frames the surreal and intensely private story detailing the lethal co-dependence between a mother and daughter who are fated never to sleep, to travel by night, and to seek the breath of dying men as their only source of continued life together.
The emotionally manipulative mother, who draws attention to her every minor pain as she pulls those around her into a horror of her own creation, is deftly portrayed in all her infuriating self-absorption by Antoinette Kellerman. Kellerman's fine performance should be credited in drawing the audience into what might otherwise be a shaky premise for a production.
The play lasts a self-indulgent two and a half hours. During this time, the audience in the Rhodes Box theatre are almost smoked out. We too are holed up in a dank, badly-ventilated shed deep in the veld, where the older woman tends to a wounded Boer general and to her daughter, a young woman strapped into a chair in order to prevent her from falling asleep. Sleep would bring death, we are told, a loss for which the mother herself, it is revealed, would be ultimately responsible.
The entry of a young soldier with a message for his wounded general is the catalyst that allows the telling of the mother's strange story and her enticing of the soldier into an emotional commitment to her sickly young daughter that will finally result in his destruction. The tale hints at men's fear of women - turning and playing with stereotypes and expectations. It demonstrates the intimacies required for betrayal and emotional coercion.
There are moments of brilliance, of intensity and horror. The discomfort of the audience with the dank, suffocating interior (about which I overheard a fair number of complaints at interval) is certainly intentional. The language is often successfully poetic, but at other times the lines fall flat, evoking misplaced laughter from the audience.
The strongest moments in Breathing In are those in which Kellerman's presence alone commands the stage, her narrative of death and betrayal told in the smoky candlelight.
Nevertheless, the play is lacking almost completely in historical sense, and any resonance that might have been derived from the wider social consequences of the long and bitter South African War is an opportunity missed by this production. The play functions firmly within a tradition of private horror - this is Ibsen's Doll's House transported to the veld - so that despite its strong cast, and attention to detail, there is little here that has not been seen before.
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