If there is any value in theatre, in art, beyond the distraction of entertainment, it is its ability to stretch our imaginations to consider experiences other than our own and that of our circle of relationships.
Spend a few hours listening to talk radio and the fact that we desperately need to develop our collective imaginations, and by extension our empathy for those with whom we share this planet, is all too apparent.
Pick any one of the numerous horrific cases of rape and murder, so common that many of them are mere whimpers buried in the inner pages of our newspapers rather than the outraged banner headlines they should be. Just two weeks ago 18-year-old Lekita Moore was gang raped, tortured and killed in Valhalla Park. The list of her injuries included broken legs, stab wounds and mutilation of her genitals. Take Anene Booysens, raped and left to die, apparently disembowelled, in Bredasdorp on 2 February 2013. Or the case of Johan Kotzé, dubbed the ‘Modimolle Monster’, who raped, kidnapped and tried to murder his ex-wife Ina Bonette in July 2012.
In trying, and understandably mostly failing, to digest these brutal acts of violence, we call the perpetrators, as is the case with Kotzé, ‘monsters’, ‘filth’, ‘animals’. Yet while the acts committed by the rapists, torturers and murderers are monstrous, they themselves are not monsters. Sadly, they are all too human.
If we look at the characteristics of a species, a chameleon, say. On that list we’d put down that they are able to change colour to blend in with their surroundings, they have eyes that rotate independently, they move slowly, live in shrubbery and rarely descend to the ground, and so on. A similar objective description of humans would include that they commit violent acts against each other for a large variety of contemptible reasons. Also that they are loyal to the point of choosing to die or suffer pain for another, have the capacity to love deeply, that they both abuse their young and spend lives of selfless devotion to them. As humans, we are capable of doing all of the most horrendous and wonderful things our species has ever done. Performing vivisection on another human, without anaesthetic, is something I, and you, are capable of doing. Just like members of Japans Unit 731 did during World War II. Likewise I, and you, are capable of selfless love, of nurturing children, of enduring hardships for a greater cause. What we choose is an individual matter but put me, or you, in a certain situation for sufficient length of time and we might end up making choices and doing things we never thought possible.
This is why Dangled, adapted from Nikolai Gogol’s Diary of a Madman by Louis Viljoen is such a hard-hitting play. It doesn’t proselytise, it offers us the other side of the story without making excuses or attempting to elicit sympathy.
The less impressed might accuse it of being a vicarious trot through a twisted mind but I believe Rob van Vuuren holds that at bay. As our madman, our heinous villian, he is a genius casting choice. Rob is well-known for his comedy and autobiographic storytelling that invites us into his experiences to laugh with him. And so many of us like him before the play even begins. It is an affection he completely overturns through fantastic performance. Within a stark square in a stark set, he harnesses his considerable expressive physicality to infuse the dense text with emotion that reaches out to us, which is an aspect often lacking in Louis Viljoen’s work. Admittedly, Dangled, being a monologue, does limit Louis’ penchant for Mamet speak.
Unfortunately Rob’s head is shaved for this run at the Cape Town Fringe, which makes him look slightly sinister, rather like John Malkovitch, whereas his usual Tin-Tinish blonde locks would be more endearing, making the revelation more shocking. Still, Rob is able to creep across our notions of propriety and present his mad, violent, disturbing character as human. As uncomfortable as that may be, it is an important notion, and one that many playwrights, novelists and artists have attempted to communicate across the centuries.
For if we continue to hide behind the labels we attach to those who commit heinous acts, we fail to look them in the eye and deal with what led them to that point. We fail to realise the liklihood that if we had spent our life in their shoes, we might have ended up doing the same thing, or worse. That recognition is the first step to rooting out the cause of rape culture, of senseless violence, of malicious cruelty. The horror of realising our own complicity forces us to take cognizance of the society we have created which moulds minds capable of committing such acts.
In the absence of congenital psychological illness, a boy is not born a rapist and a murderer. He is raised as such, through mental and physical abuse, degradation, alcoholism, drug abuse, and example.
This is not to say rapists and murderers should not be punished. Far from it, but their motivation, their humanity, needs recognition and understanding so that we can better understand how to become a species for which descriptors such as rape, torture and murder are noted as rare exceptions not daily reality.
Dangled is on at the Cape Town Fringe until 8 October. Details and booking here.