Between sisters

Beautiful thing

Briony Horwitz and Jazzara Jaslin.

Of all relationships, the one between sisters is the deepest and most complex. I read this somewhere, but have no way of knowing whether it is true.

Certainly female friends of mine who have a sister (and in one case I am fortunate to be friends with both sisters) appear to have a strange codependency with their sibling that I have never experienced among brothers. Brothers either love each other and have uncomplicated fun in each others company, or hate each other and simply avoid one another, even at family gatherings. And being men, they don’t talk about one another much either. There’s none of this love-hate stuff going on.

I’ve read of sisters in childhood beating the shit out of one another and then dressing each other’s wounds with the tenderest of care. In adulthood teeth and fingernails are replaced with words.

I have learnt not to join in the criticism when a sister is bitching about her sibling. Sympathy needs to be doled out in monotone. “Mmmm”, “aha” and “sorry” is about the sum total of secure vocabulary. Should you make the error of adding to the litany of sins being tallied up, your female friend may turn on you with unexpected venom. It’s acceptable for her to complain about her sister not doing her share of taking care of their dad, her poor parenting skills, or poor choice of husband, but you add your criticism at your peril.

Every Beautiful Thing, written by Jon Keevy, who I presume either has sisters he has observed keenly, or is friends with a few, delivers an insightful script acted with aplomb by Briony Horwitz as Susan and Jazzara Jaslin as Katelyn. Horwitz has proved her ability on stage, and does so again here as the older, responsible but emotionally repressed sister, whose sense of envy is heightened by the fact she was adopted.

Jaslin makes her debut professional performance here, having recently graduated from UCT, and despite spending the entire play in bed, has a presence on stage that would qualify a sister’s envy.

Tara Notcutt’s direction is deft, as usual, allowing the silences in their conversation to fill to the brim with all the things we’re not sure how to say, until they spill over with whatever was floating on the top, leaving the depths to remain hidden in plain sight like undissolved salt in a clear glass.

Every Beautiful Thing is a wonderfully nuanced play, there is a classic story arc of building tension, climax and resolution but at the same time there is the distinct impression what we see part of a continuous pattern. Although this day is more dramatic than usual, the interplay of emotion would be the same no matter what the background of events, only the intensity changes.

I did not come to this conclusion easily though, it took me awhile to get over the mawkish and in my opinion entirely unnecessary opening scene which so obviously exists to ‘set the scene’. It casts a ghastly pall over an otherwise very good, possibly excellent play. Susan’s adoption is arguably also superfluous.

What won me over despite the sentimental nonsense at the beginning, was the silence. Rarely does a play use the lack of speech or action – too often deemed undesirable on stage – to such perfect effect, portraying the emotional conflict, the struggle to find the right words, the battle between wanting to wound and heal we so often feel when our love for someone places us in an intractable position.

Every Beautiful Thing is on at the Alexander Theatre until 23 May, thereafter it goes to the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown. Book at www.alexanderbar.co.za.

— Steve Kretzmann