Liezl de Kock as Sussie and Zak Hendrickz as Frikkie in Reza de Wet’s African Gothic. Photo: Jan Potgieter
It took a few hours to emerge from the deep hole African Gothic threw us into, to swim out of the black subterranean river where unseen things slither across our feet, burrow beneath our skin and worm into our mind.
We were pulled in the moment Liezl de Kock as Sussie and Zak Hendrickz as Frikkie stir beneath their filthy bed covers, and held under beyond the bitter end.
Acting is surely the most precarious art form: an edifice is constructed which must be inhabited, imbued with emotion and motive to sustain an illusion and make us forget we are sitting together and watching a lie. One false move, one slipped line, one misplaced or mistimed expression undermines the entire structure and we can no longer forget we are sitting in a theatre. Unlike in music or dance where the wrong note or gesture can be followed and lost in the flow of sound or movement, or film where the scene can be shot again, for theatre to sustain its form every moment has to perfectly placed. The rarity of this being achieved is what makes it so valuable, and the hope of being one of the few lucky enough to witness this beauty draws us back again and again.
It was a beauty we witnessed last night. Whether that perfection will be achieved tonight is unknown, but fortunately, the abilities of this cast which includes Mpho Osei-Tutu as Mr Grové and Olive Strachan as Alina, make it a distinct possibility.
Part of the success is achieved in the casting. Zak’s lean bulk, his long, almost simian, muscled arms and hunched shoulders give his body a hulking presence, a threat his boyish blondness belies. A body not only capable of violence but seeming to contain it. In contrast, Mpho as the lawyer who blunders into the quicksand of insanity that is the barren farm on which Frikkie and Sussie live, is almost comic. His trustworthy face is full of good intentions, his figure that of a man accustomed to the comforts of civilisation.
Liezl has the countenance for childish play, yet in a moment can transfigure into a rigid disciplinarian matriarch with features seemingly designed for the very purpose of staring down at you with stern disapproval from an oval frame in the sitting room.
And Olive, de Wet’s Alina, is a mask from which nothing can be fathomed. She possesses a face behind which all emotions, from exuberance to the most persecuting grief, disappear. This may seem the antithesis of what is required of an actor but Alina is de Wet’s genius. She is the still water that covers all misdeeds, the enigma who enables the descent into madness. She is the second mother, nurturing her charges and covering their sins in a blanket of malevolent care beneath which the outside world will never peer. She says almost nothing, is often not present in the scenes, yet her presence pervades the work. Often as a shadow cast by the light of the kitchen stove, and sometimes as a soundtrack, her knife hitting the chopping board from behind the parchment window as she makes cutting vegetables an act of violence, while Sussie and Frikkie enact events from their cursed childhood.
The air of degradation is palpable. Soil – the worms’ element – saturates every corner, covers Sussie and Frikkie’s skin. They sleep in it, eat in it, fuck in it. The underwear they live in is stained with dirt, puss, semen and blood. Bodily fluids mark their sheets, their pillows. The very act of imagining living in such filth leaves greasy finger marks on our minds.
The only niggling criticism is of the set, half of which is constructed from broken and rotten timber comprising the main room situated on the diagonal, signifying the dilapidated farm house. Attached to form an adjoining room, the one containing the hole which is our protagonists’ obsession, is a modern geometric trapezoid, its interior lined with reflective sheeting. Its shape is balanced by a large cross on the opposite side nailed against a door behind which secrets fester. It’s a strange combination, but it’s not that it doesn’t work. Of more import is the broken, rotting timber walls are supported by metal frames which, because the boards are made to have holes and gaps, we can see. The clean lines of the frames outside this room are at odds with the idea that the farm beyond is as degraded as the house, and the minds of its occupants. The aesthetic is not carried all the way through but is offset by lighting that evokes night and the soft illumination of paraffin lamps.
And it certainly does not get in the way of Alby Michaels’s impeccable direction which pushes the suspense to a harrowing edge and allows this version, which received a deserved standing ovation, to add the latest paragraph to the history of South African theatre. We could almost feel Reza de Wet’s breath in the wings.
African Gothic is on again tonight (Sat 7 July) at 8 and tomorrow at 11am and 3pm. Book HERE.
Director: Alby Michaels
Written By: Reza de Wet
Featured Artists: Sussie Cilliers – Liezl de Kok, Frikkie Cilliers – Zak Hendricks, Mr Grové – Mpho Osei-Tutu,
Alina – Olive Strachan
Lighting design: Oliver Hauser
Set design: 2017 2cnd year FADA students mentored by Sarah Roberts
Costume and props: 2017 2cnd year FADA students mentored by Jo Glanville
Company: UJ Arts & Culture Faculty of Art