Hilda Cronje performs in Ebola, in Grahamstown on 30 June 2016, at the National Arts Festival. Photo: CuePix/Aaliyah Tshabalala
Hilda Cronje is a captivatingly beautiful actress who performs quite compellingly. We know this from seeing her in Mies Julie. In this piece, which she also researched, co-wrote and the physical aspects of which she choreographed, one feels her ownership of the work in her performance, which adds an edge and urgency to her acting which is already inherently edgy and urgent.
A moment lost: I wished the clinically dispassionate medical duo had taken off her nude undies when they put on the character’s nappy instead of putting it on over them, as that would have visually added to her terrible vulnerability from then on. The coyness of keeping them on in that moment felt unnecessary given the staged virus-ravaged viscerality of her deadly sickness.
Defining the piece as Physical Theatre seems a misnomer – Equus is a drama text despite the Expressionistic interpretation of horses – and this is Cronje’s play. She owns it. In performance, she holds the written text with unerring clarity, and the physical text is a well-integrated part of it. She is the captivating storyteller of this particular Heart of Darkness.
The moon is a “dead” thing rising and moving over a dying continent, but a “miracle” is to be found in feeling, and redemption to be found in human compassion and the dedication of good people.
But here’s the thing: Doctors Without Borders are fighting against viruses without borders, trying to save lives against the onslaught of insidiously fatal disease in Africa (here specifically in Sierra Leone.)
Africa looms large in the overwhelming magnitude of its horrors. The play is uncomfortable: white, European doctor has Africa in her blood, comes to Africa – with much energy, commitment and the best intentions – to save children, into a context of inhumane lack. Savaged by recent wars, with scant if no infrastructure, the situation in which clinics operate is desperate. Can touching moments of human tenderness, and spoken images of cultural vibrancy, ameliorate the reality of this horror? Children dying, children orphaned, women trafficked, gorillas hunted for bush meat? The Ebola virus having initially been transmitted to humans from wild animals, the moment in the narrative where the idealistic doctor is offered the hand of a gorilla at the market is a doubly cruel irony.
As the character herself says, there is no place for sentiment, and, for me, where the tension lies in this piece, no place for romantic notions of Africa, or of trying to do good in it either. I therefore found the last image of hands, the hand of a child and of the woman who decides to devote her life to saving them, a tad sentimental. However, the piece, I think, intends to speak to the heart in the darkness, rather than of the darkness itself. And I find a tension in that: the darkness is just too huge!
Cronje is intensely focused, the piece is intensely watchable. My grappling with the piece is conceptual. Is redemption, the heart, really possible when Africa itself is the virus? And, if one does then focus to the darkness and horror, and the play does not, but, perhaps, I thought, it should, given our particular debates around Colonial sentiments, can white people say this? It’s complicated.
— Sheena Stannard