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Bribe, steal, use your rent: see Happy Endings

Deborah Seddon

Happy Endings are Extra
Written by Ashraf Johaardien
Directed and designed by Neville Engelbrecht
With Rory Acton-Burnell, Paul Harris and Lynita Crofford
Grahamstown National Arts Festival, Rhodes Box
8 to 9 July 2004.

This mature, considered, and highly enjoyable play is set in Cape Town and explores the relationship between Chris, a young rent-boy (Acton-Burnell), Gabriel, a bisexual man (Harris), and Chantelle his fiancée (Crofford). Based on a true story that has entered the urban legend area, it deftly toys with its audience, confounding expectations, and allowing the viewer to be both compromised and affected by the desires and the sharp, confounding shifts in perspective and emotion that the play evokes.

The design is well-suited to the material: a simple set presents the unfolding scenario by means of well-choreographed snapshots into the lives of the three characters. As the flashbulb clicks and the two-second black-outs splice one scene with the next we enter a world where the monotone of the missionary position in well-kept Cape Town suburbs is interrupted by the dazzling, unsleeping world of massage parlours, boys for rent and sex for cash. As the city sleeps, the queens in all their finery dance on Green Point roads, heads bob in the dark ocean, mouths kiss on the sand. They are, as Gabriel puts it, just enjoying their right to be there.

Gabriel is an ordinary, everyday man, involved with Chantelle and acting as a father figure to her two daughters. He also, as he explains, likes to pay for sex. He enjoys handing over his money. He likes the total freedom of the exchange, the choice of asking and paying extra “for this or for that” and knowing he’ll get it. He thinks when he says his vows with Chantelle he might give up his rent-boys, but he is unsure. He needs them to be happy, and if he is unhappy, he will leave his relationship. Thus Chantelle pretends she is unmoved by the encounters he tells her openly and patiently about.

But the simplicity of these monetary exchanges is complicated by his encounter with the young rent-boy Chris at a party. They have met before, but Gabriel remembers nothing. Chris relates how Gabriel, dressed as Osama bin Laden at Cape Town’s Mother City Queer Project Party, had treated Chris’s American Queen Liberty to his first kiss, at 16. They had gone down to the beach, had swum, and slept. Then Gabriel had returned to his girlfriend.

“My first kiss,” Chris tells Gabriel, “so romantic, it beat my first fuck by a mile.”

Gabriel needs to hear this: “He wanted to be swept off his feet,” Chris tells the audience, and as the story unfolds, we are drawn into his knowing awareness of his sexual and emotional power over the lover who pays to have him.

“I can make Gabriel fall,” Chris states, and fall he does – for Chris, and into the trap Chris sets for him. Despite their open relationship, Chantelle and Gabriel’s engagement is threatened by his developing love for the young man. Then, by chance, an unwitting discovery turns all the relationships on their head.

The script is crafted in a way that allows Gabriel’s fall to be, in many senses, that of the audience at large. The writing and staging titillates, thus implicating the audience in the story. Chris lies on a white leather couch in his underwear, the stage lights playing on his smooth, shaved skin. He is eating from a bowl of cherries balanced in his crotch. But when the young rent-boy’s identity is suddenly revealed, the mood shifts and the erotic tenor of paid-for satisfaction and anonymity becomes a dangerously-charged emotional intimacy of unutterable yearning, anger, damage and love.

For the audience too, this perfect, desirable body, which we paid to see, is suddenly – we are made to understand – totally something and someone else.

The play’s use of bathos is sheer brilliance. At a crucial moment the script allows – indeed actively encourages – the audience to laugh at the absurd, daytime soap twist of its plot. It’s a judicious and well-timed release of tension and disbelief. And it pays off, for unlike other productions at the festival this year, the playwright does not assume that his audience will remain with him and be completely convinced at all times by what they witness on the stage. In permitting the audience’s guffaw of derision, he smartly takes us off our guard.

The final scenes are thus raw, powerful, and yet strangely self-aware in their depiction of the fluidity of human emotion, the overlapping of roles in human desire. Chris is a boy whose life is marked by the absence of the man that he has quietly and relentlessly found. He has trapped and revenged himself on another by knowingly exploiting his fantasies ? the absences in Gabriel’s own life. He becomes Daddy’s little angel, the dressed-up cross-cropped schoolboy, and the vulnerable child. Yet he is still the same rent-boy.

“This is not a movie,” he reminds us – he does not wish to be saved: “I’m not Julia Roberts.”

To say any more would be to ruin the impact of the play for future audiences. This I would not wish to do. This is the best play I have seen at this festival – a brave, funny, erotic, and honest work that deserves to be seen.


 

LitNet: 16 Julie 2004

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