Theatre of the Mind - Reflections on Mike van Graan's Mixed Metaphors
MOMENTUM, State Theatre, Pretoria
With his third full-scale production in less than two years, Mike Van Graan is becoming one of the most prolific contemporary playwrights. With Mixed Metaphors he continues to explore his particular brand of politically engaged theatre, whilst astonishing with his displays of versatility. The show combines poetry, music and documentary footage (as well as a variety of media platforms) with hard-hitting critical debate concerning an array of issues, including the state of arts criticism and the corruption of political power in South Africa today. But there is also a story amidst the spectacle, which revolves around the lives of two young women. One is a performance poet, the other an arts journalist.
On the one hand, Lerato January is a passionate performance poet whose political pieces rage against a range of injustices – government corruption; the complacency of former comrades; the abuse of women; Aids; poverty; unemployment. She questions why these "struggles" do not rouse the revolutionary passions of former comrades in the same way that the fight against apartheid did and questions, for example, why the fact that 800 people a month are dying of Aids (which is far more than those who died at Sharpeville) does not provoke a reaction from the same politicians who were supposedly in the trenches fighting for human dignity and freedom from oppression. Lerato feels that their generation has been sold out by the "struggle" generation of '76.
On the other hand, Cindy Peterson (who initially reviews and then interviews Lerato) criticises her fiery rhetoric and claims that Lerato is stuck in the past. Cindy wants nothing more than to enjoy the pleasures and freedoms allowed by a new consumerist dispensation which has been made possible by the advent of democracy. What was the point of struggling for freedom if she can't enjoy it now that she has it?
The tension in this opposition – between a group and individual consciousness – provides fertile ground for debates concerning conflicts now arising in the (increasingly less) new dispensation, as well as wonderful opportunities for humour. (For example, when Cindy asks Lerato why she hasn't written any celebratory poems about the New SA she replies: "I'm an artist, not the SABC.")
And yet, the energy and focus of the play were sometimes split uneasily between a narrative drive and a rhetorical dialectic. At times it seemed as though the narrative had been tagged on in order to make the play more dramatic, and some of the developments along the narrative arc seemed a little bit too coincidental. I enjoyed the tension of the discourses more than the plot as such. I felt that sometimes the narrative thread wasn't always necessary, since the cerebral battle between these two women is really where Van Graan's writing comes into its own. The verbal and conceptual acrobatics pulls one's thoughts this way and that, presenting many sides of each argument, unearthing many pertinent issues at stake, and makes for a stimulating mental exercise on its own. Perhaps I also preferred the intellectual to the emotional elements in the play because of the choices made by its director, Jaco Bouwer.
When Clare Stopford directed Green Man Flashing (Van Graan's hit play from 2004) she at first found the play too cerebral and told the writer that he needed to make it more visceral. Stopford didn't simply want to discuss rape – she wanted to portray the terrible emotional trauma associated with it. Consequently she decided to forefront the rape scene and built the emotional tension around a jarringly raw depiction of the painful aftermath a horrifying experience. But it seems as though Jaco Bouwer has taken a different route. With Mixed Metaphors he has, instead, emphasised the intellectual, thoughtful, rhetorical aspects of the play. As already mentioned, I felt that sometimes the narrative (which involves a creditable character development, crisis, resolution and so on) was almost unnecessary. The increasing popularity of physical theatre has often silenced the good old-fashioned intellectual theatre of ideas, so it was refreshing to see a play so unashamedly set in a head space rather than reaching for the guts.
Jaco Bouwer's supple use of a range of media – sms, documentary footage, offstage scenes caught on video, internet chat-rooms, television interviews – was always entirely appropriate, and every intervention pulled one into a different form of experience. Whenever the dialogue threatened to lag, one was pulled into another mode, which kept one's attention attuned to the events on stage. The stark setting, which consisted of simple, plain pine boards and chairs, seemed at first to be restrictive, since the acting area was limited to only a few metres; and yet it was also liberating, in that it permitted a great versatility in terms of the media footage – it provided a blank page for Bouwer to play with.
There was a very clever use of backdrops which were sometimes realistic, sometimes abstract, sometimes absurd. (I enjoyed the extreme close-up of a Coca-Cola logo taken from an angle which made it look as though it was spelling "ka-c".) Bouwer's sharp attention to detail and evocative staging show him to be not only a true protégé of Marthinus Basson, but a director who has, over the course of the past few years, created his own characteristic style.
Speaking of the technical aspects of the show, the soundtrack was absolutely superb and went a long way towards carrying the energy of the piece. Grant Spreadbury deserves a mention for compiling a compelling collection, which should be put on the market as soon as possible.
Something I noticed at Mixed Metaphors was that rare phenomenon, a truly multiracial audience. The shows I saw last year at the State Theatre seemed very divided. For example, in i mike what i like, we were the only whiteys in the house, besides a clutch of confused Swedish backpackers who'd somehow wandered in off the streets, clutching nervously at their day-packs. The same situation prevailed at Paul Grootboom's unbelievably moving and utterly devastating Relativity: Township Stories. On the other hand, Lara Foot-Newton's Here and Now and the last two Fugards drew mostly a white crowd.
So it was good to see that the mix at the Momentum last night was pretty even – although I did notice that the whites in the audience were laughing a good deal more than the blacks. Perhaps this is because the play is so very critical of the old comrades and the new government. I do hope it doesn't give the whiteys too many opportunities to point fingers, and that it doesn't provoke a defensive reaction from black patrons. Thank God Van Graan is neither, and at least his new play seems to have created a common meeting place where critical debates can be not only entertained, but entertaining.
So much recent South African theatre is suffused with violence, and yet, there seems to be very little true tragedy about. Throughout Mixed Metaphors, in amidst the wordplay, jokes and irony, between the mental and verbal jousting, there is a sense of a country suffused in violence. Besides the usual litany of woes (unemployment, poverty, crime, etc) there are also horrifying representations of rage – gang warfare, torture and abuse. But there were very few tears, there was very little sorrow.
It made me wonder: When was the last truly great South African tragedy? I wonder if we've become so inured to violence and suffering that we can't quite deal with it on an emotional and spiritual level and so tend to sublimate our feelings into either anger or irony.
A few days ago I met a charming Shakespearean actor, Robert Lucskay, who's recently finished a season at the Globe. He'd been in South Africa for only a week and had an interesting take on two plays he saw last weekend. Both plays approached themes redolent with misery, and yet (he felt) the expression of that pain never fully surfaced. He said it was as though the pain kept being incited, but before it could emerge, it would be driven down again, or passed over.
We were wondering about this, and I suggested that perhaps because South Africans are confronted by brutality in a very visible, objective, material manner, we don't have the luxury of the quiet, subtle European reflection on our personal "inner" anxieties. So perhaps we hide our fear with a nervous laughter, with flippant jokes, and never quite delve into the subtler shades of feeling brewing below the surface. Perhaps our responses to tragedy draw us together in a defensive laughter, rather than individuating us as in the grand stories of personal suffering expressed by your Ibsens, Bergmans and Buchners.
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