Undone: The poetry of unhappiness

All families are dysfunctional to a greater or lesser degree. We’re all flawed, and can only hope our children will forgive us. Such forgiveness usually happens when they have children of their own.

The two brothers in Wessel Pretorius’s Undone are childless, and it seems they have not forgiven their hard, Calvinistic father and sensitive, literary mother, both of whom have died.

Originally written in what must be incredibly poetic Afrikaans as Ont, Pretorius’s text was translated into the most beautiful, flowing English by Hennie van Greunen (who unaccountably considers it important to inform us in the programme that he’s a Virgo), Undone often makes mention of the particularly Afrikaans peculiarity of unnaming members of one’s family. The elder brother is Ouboet, the younger becomes Kleinboet, while the father is Pa, He, or The.It is an odd practice, which serves to remove individuality from the characters, casting them into an archetypal role of father, mother, sister, brother. Pa, as He, becomes The Father, and is both expected and allowed to act accordingly. Similarly, Ouboet, holding not only the hierarchical birthplace but having it emphasised many times daily by use of it as his name, has the mantle of eldest son laid upon him from morning to night. No wonder rebellion is as much a part of (white) Afrikaaner culture as conservatism.

Playing all four family members, Pretorius exclusively makes use of these family positions. Not once do we hear an actual name put to a character, one of many techniques employed to unmake them and ensure they’re all ensconced in the family stew. This unmaking of individuality is also present right at the beginning of the play as Pretorius, lolling in a zinc bath naked sans for a pearl choker, recites an Afrikaans poem in which every noun is a diminutive, an effect that removes agency. Mamatjie has not the same stature in the world as mama, likewise boetetjie and papatjie. They are infantilised, their individuality unmade, undone.

The zinc bath is a lovely touch, reminiscent of the farm, and also suggestive of the family bathwater, everyone being washed in the dirt of the father. There are further Calvinist suggestions in baptism and the washing of sins.

Hardly surprising, the prefix ‘un’ runs throughout the rich text. A text one wants to hold and fondle and let seep into one’s senses, a desire thwarted by Pretorius forever rushing on. And here is where I found this much-praised play lacking, presenting me with an unwanted un: unmoved.

Oh, I loved it for it’s language and I loved it for it’s stark sensuality, but these are appreciations of the intellect. My emotions remained untouched. There may be personal reasons for this. I’m not Afrikaans – although being Afrikaans should not be a pre-requisite, for if it is, the play is arguably too parochial (although parochialism is arguably not necessarily a fault if it is intentional and for a specific purpose) – and perhaps my own family’s particular dysfunction is of a very different sort. The technical reasons: lack of variation in tone and pace, didn’t help either though.

While there is a slight change in emphasis and pitch as Pretorius moves to a different family member, it is not maintained and I think we may have had a hard time noting them if it weren’t for the visual clues, often wonderfully subtle and seamless, provided us.

For a lover of language, however, the text was so rich that, although as much as I would like to not have that sly, unobtrusive prefix apply to part of my experience of the play, I can live with it. I’ll accept I have more in common with the more detached sibling in this vrot foursome. — Steve Kretzmann

Undone is written, directed and performed by Wessel Pretorius, with design and lighting by Alfred Rietman.
It is on at Artscape Arena, as part of its Spring Drama Season, until 1 November.

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