The Old Man and the Sea: Sailing safe waters

James Cairns reveals himself as a master of mime in The Old Man and the Sea.

Machismo is so passe. Activities such as bullfighting, drinking, arm wrestling, fishing are no longer to be revered, or be written about except in terms of irony or disapproval. It’s only natural. There has been too much blood and killing, conquest and destruction in a world teetering on the edge of annihilation. Too much of patriarchal capitalism raping the Earth’s natural resources for the last two centuries. Thus Hemingway, or at least what he is perceived to represent, is history. To admit being a fan is to risk being branded conservative, right wing, a throwback. Nurture, holism, empathy and understanding are what are needed to pull us back from the brink, off the rapacious path of climate chaos and on to the possibility of a future, not killing things.

Yet The Old Man and the Sea remains a classic tale. Proof: it is now on stage at The Fugard, having played in Jo’burg and the National Arts Festival (twice), and is popular. Perhaps because it is not about catching a magnificent fish. The fish is merely an allegorical device to contemplate man facing death. He so happens to be a man. Because Hemingway. An unusual man with no discernable moral blemish. A “strange man”, of his own accord, grappling with a “strange fish”. A means to tell a story about strength, fortitude, intelligence, endurance, all borne stoically. Masculinity without the toxicity.

It plumbs deep into the psyche; man exposed to the elements and pitted to the death, because, given certain situations, that’s how things work. Mammal against mammal, both having to use everything they have. And then the sharks come.

These moments where, after 84 days without a catch, Santiago faces his mortality and James Cairns reveals himself a master of mime, are when the play comes to life, when the goosebumps are raised. But they are few, and Santiago’s terrible discovery that life is a pyrhic victory, is turned away from us, lost to black.

This adaptation casts its lines in shallower waters, rowing above the black depths of the Gulf Stream rather than allowing itself to be towed beyond sight of land.

But if we cut this anchor, take Hemingway out the picture and think of the play more as The Story about the Fish, then it is a wonderful outing, heightened by mere glimpses into darker currents. The acting is stellar, the characters engaging, the set evocative, the story entertaining, perhaps even intriguing. The original music by Sue Grealy is brilliant, scoring the atmosphere like weather.

Everyone involved is professional through and through. They are theatremakers of high order and their performance is impeccable.

But, personally, I would have liked it to have hooked a big fish other than the box office. However, it’s not about me. In and of itself, if Hemingway is cast aside – which he is actually, there are three additional characters who never appeared in the book – it is a great play. And if anyone deserves to reel in the the box office for creating a wonderful evening at the theatre, it is these theatremakers. Cairn’s superb miming, Jaques de Silva’s strut, and Taryn Bennett’s sass are worthy of watching, and rewarding.

That said, there remains a nagging feeling that if it wants to do this, to play the lighter notes, it could benefit from unshackling itself from the book almost altogether, a move which would release expectations of Cuba and allow it to consider a local context. A fishing village such as Paternoster, perhaps. Struis Baai, Lamberts. That could be fun. Might harm international touring prospects though. There’s always a damn compromise.

The Old Man and the Sea plays at The Fugard theatre until 24 August. Book online at

Performers: James Cairns, Taryn Bennett, Jaques de Silva.

Direction and design: Jenine Collocott

Adaptation: Nick Warren, with Jenine Collocott

Original music: Sue Grealy.

Producer: Contagious Theatre

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