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Bosman's prisoner justly well received

Deborah Seddon

Cold Stone Jug
By Stephen Gray and Barney Simon
Directed by Mncedisi Shabangu, Standard Bank Young Artist Award Winner
With Errol Ndotho as the young prisoner and Sello Motloung as the Writer
National Arts Festival, Grahamstown
Graeme College Hall
5 to 7 July 2004

When Herman Charles Bosman was 21 years old, he was sentenced to death for murder. The court rejected the plea that he had shot his stepbrother by accident and he entered prison a condemned man. His sentence was finally commuted by a Pretoria court to 10 years' hard labour, of which he served only five. During this time he wrote Cold Stone Jug, considered by many to be the founding text of South African prison writing.

This stage adaptation is a prison story - but one with a difference. While he's in jail, the young prisoner meets the men that will furnish him with a rich source of stories; it is from the wealth of characters who inhabit his world that the young man begins to recognise his own inherent need to write.

One of the strengths of the play is the actual telling: the writer appears on stage to reflect on the experiences of his younger self. The language of the play is strong: "My first love had eye-lashes like iron bars, her breast as cold and hard as a cement floor."

The young man enters life in prison and is placed with the condemned prisoners. He befriends the optimistic Stoffels, who inspires him with the hope that one day they will receive a stay of execution. Stoffels is never reprieved. As the prison falls silent he is taken to his death, an act made more horrible by the bureaucratic channels that sanction the hanging.

The young protagonist, referred to only by his number 1212B, has a great deal to learn. After the loss of his friend he himself is reprieved, and in honour of him he enacts Stoffels's intention to whoop with joy at the news "like the Red Indians at the bioscope". However, as he enters the harsh life of a labouring prisoner his days of toil are alleviated only by the camaraderie of his fellows, whose strength of character provides much of the humour of the play.

The protagonist negotiates the jealous ambitions of the different wardens, the sexual interest of the generous Pym, the loss of hope that drives his friend Parkings into madness, and the realisation after a visit from his mother that his wife Vera does not wish to see him again. His release finds him a changed man, but one who has learnt, sometimes by the bitter experiences of others, to walk the fine line that allows survival.

Cold Stone Jug is a vibrant, honest production alive with song, laughter, and the ordinary humanity which allows people to find a means to endure together even in the worst situations.

The play has a strong cast. The tale they tell with their dynamic presence is warm and funny in its understanding of human interactions, but also unflinching in depicting the insanity, violence and deprivation that threaten the life of a prisoner. It is an enjoyable and emotion-charged production: its value goes far beyond a means of providing insight into the early years and inspirations for Bosman's writings.

The stage transmutes Bosman's experiences in the 1920s to tell the tale of all South African convicts. The scene in which the young prisoner is taught how to crack rocks in the prison's stone yard has resonances of the experience of South Africa's most famous prisoner. If this production has anything to teach, it is to open a window on the lives of incarcerated men who are easily misunderstood or condemned as inhuman. The play was well received, with hearty laughter and noticeable appreciation on the part of the audience.

LitNet: 15 July 2004

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