Blonde Poison: Same place, another time

Fiona Ramsay in Blonde PoisonHow nice people do despicably cruel things is the question of our time here in troubled South Africa, and Fiona Ramsay’s phenomenal performance in Blonde Poison goes back a ways to find an answer.

In Nazi Germany.

Her delivery is seamless, her pace and pitch perfect, her Jewish-German accent an open door catapulting us  70 years back into an apparently otherworld of the Gestapo.

Yet, we have blood ties to this piece. We are neither innocent nor unscathed.

The play note says South African playwright Gail Louw, now based in the UK, has penned a script about real-life Stella Goldschlag, a hot middle-class Jewish German who lived on the run in war-torn Berlin.

The note says she was betrayed, beaten and tortured to the point that when offered a chance of saving herself and her parents from the death camps, she became a reviled “greifer” or “catcher”, pointing out Jews from her community, earning her the infamous title “Blonde Poison”.

In SA terms, a greifer would have translated into an impimpi.

The script explores the character of this apparent monster and states that through Goldschlag’s story we, the audience, come to confront our own humanity, ethics and morality.

This is an extraordinary piece of solo theatre and Ramsay (who happens to be the daughter of legendary SA anti-apartheid journalist and former Rand Daily Mail editor Raymond Louw) and director Janna Ramos-Violante, have gifted us with theatre which gets gets inside the chest, grabs hold of emotion, and leaves us shattered.

How is this story, being told here at in The Hangar venue only metres away from my old journ school, also our story?

Apartheid was inspired by Nazism, and legislated into reality by Hendrik Verwoerd. The system reached deep down into our psyche.

I will never forget Sergeant Khatz closing my solid detention cell door in Louis Le Grange Square in the winter of 1986 while proudly proclaiming: “I am a Nazi!”

Closing that metal door was part of the branch’s strategy of keeping detainees in the dark for 23 hours and 30 minutes every day with half an hour to run around and shower in a tiny courtyard.

He had tried to claim: “I am only doing my job”.

“That’s what they said at Nuremberg.”

The door swung open and he proceeded to lecture me on Hitler’s misunderstood finer qualities. LOL.

Today’s premier of Blonde Poison was packed out and I wondered how this story resonated with these viewers, many of them old-ish umlungus like me, who sat in riveted, pensive silence.

This was not a jolly hockeysticks Hitler-has-only-got-one-testical play spawned by post-war British sensibility.

This was about people who happened to be Jewish trying to stay alive in the face of the total onslaught of an insanely hateful, racist, murderous regime.

Can we compare apartheid South Africa to racist Nazi Germany, our security branch to the gestapo?

Certainly, our “special” branch were efficient, invasive, and brutal and they ran a network of informers, a number of whom cracked and turned under torture. The ANC underground network was actively infiltrated by informers, with tragic consequences.

I recall, as a young reporter, standing on the edge of a flattened zinc shack in Red Location in PE in 87 after a shootout with MK soldiers ended when the cops ran the place flat with their casspir. This was after a comrade had been turned during torture.

There was still blood on the ground.

We don’t like to be reminded about this recent past, but there are many, many untold stories about South Africans caught in the same crushing life-or-death dilemma.

We live in a complicated, murky epoch, but when systematic cruelty comes knocking, regardless of its shiny treacherous suit of promises and propaganda, those of us who lived through apartheid, when we see it, we know it.

Blonde Poison speaks to us across time about these unspoken stories of trauma.

This is its critical relevance and brilliance and it’s no wonder that its rendition had Ramsay holding back the sobs as she left the stage amid a thunderous standing ovation.

* Blonde Poison is on at The Hangar today on Tuesday at 1pm, Wednesday at 7pm and Thursday at 1pm.


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