Amy Louise Wilson as the human, Iman Isaacs as the rhino, Richard September as the dog and Siya Sikawuti as the panther play in Joanna Evans’s Four Small Gods. Photo: Jesse Kramer
July was the earth’s hottest month on record, according to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who believe 2015 will be the hottest year on record.
Cyclone Chapala is set to be strongest cyclone on record in the Arabian Sea and a fire is raging along the 5000km length of Indonesia.
In short, while we focus on issues such as student fees and access to education and the EFF effing up Parliament and checking white privilege, the very environment which sustains our existence and enables us to protest corruption, and misuse state funds, and feel righteous about our sensitivity to anyone who has been trod on by patriarchy and capitalism, and defend our accumulation of wealth, is turning on us after decades of abuse.
So while access to education and government corruption and the fight to reduce inequality are undoubtably worthwhile causes to fight, there is a bigger, overarching issue that we for the most part ignore, or simply don’t want to think about because it is such a monstrous problem.
The wholesale destruction of our environment and the consequences thereof has been an issue making its way into theatre over past few years, although I’ve yet to see it being made into really good theatre.
It’s heartening to see environmental catastrophe tackled in Four Small Gods, written and directed by Joanna Evans, but unfortunately the play didn’t improve on the rather mediocre performances on the theme that have crossed my path.
Which is a great pity because we need great plays that tackle environmental destruction and its innumerable facets and consequences and complications, plays which will leave audiences reeling as they leap to their feet in applause and urge friends family and colleagues to get their tickets to see it while they can.
Actually we don’t. All we need is water, food, shelter and company. Which, with the possible exception of company, is going to be in short supply in a relatively short space of time. It’s not as if art or theatre is going to change that. But it would be nice.
And it’s not as if I believe theatre should impart a message, but I do believe contemporary theatre, and art in general, should occasionally reflect contemporary concerns.
Four Small Gods, for which Evans won the Imbewu Trust’s 2014 ScriBE Scriptwriting Competition, does reflect the rather neglected concern of global warming, but might look better on the page than the stage.
It starts promisingly with Matthew King acting as godlike narrator describing a flooded world, although Biblical predictions that the world will end in fire rather than flood seem more likely, as he translates angelic Nandipha Tavares Calburn’s missive to us. This is an enchanting scene, King reading Calburn’s thoughts as she stands expressionless before him, before us. Although deadpan, it is prophetic yet tender, serious yet lightly comic, all these feelings exaggerated by the halo of fairy lights they wear imbuing them with the character of angels or some sort of spirit beings who place us, the audience, as corpses on the bottom of the now boundless ocean. We, the formerly living as observers of Earth’s last drama.
But between this scene and the very last movement that reasserts our observer status is a sea of tedium as our four small gods: a panther, a rhino, a human and a dog, float with the knowledge that they are the last living beings on earth, and struggle with the hope that they are not.
It is Life of Pi without the special effects or fascinating backstory. Jon Keevy does make an effort to alleviate the flatness of the essentially featureless journey we have to endure by making pretty with strip lighting inside the cumbersome set constructed of pallets, ladders and those large wooden frames onto which cables are rolled but they have little function beyond decoration. More prosaically, it is unlikely the last boat on earth would have electricity to power lights, although being sticky about realism in a work with talking animals would be silly, I admit.
But while fantastical settings are perfectly acceptable, motivation still needs to be rooted in the reality of the characters or else become pure whimsy. Here motivation and whimsy get mixed up as we see the menacing panther – who is able to influence the other characters’ actions simply by being the most fearsome of the four – confiding to the human who has been elected leader, that he has not teeth nor claws, is tamed and essentially harmless. Yet there is nothing in the plot that provides motivation for him to reveal this secret while in most other instances the characters’ actions are borne out of realistic motivations within the setting they inhabit.
This incongruity, combined with the eye-rollingly bad jokes the characters trade to pass the time, a sweetness cloying to the characters’ personalities and a set that, while ingeniously shifted at points in the play to create three different viewpoints, constantly threatened to break or fall apart, created a performance that was more endured than enjoyed.
Neither I nor the two other people who watched the play with me connected to the characters, with the possible exception of Iman Isaacs as the rhino, likely more a fault of the script and direction than the performances, and by the end of it, we didn’t care what happened to them. Whether they found land or all drowned.
Unfortunately, this lack of immediate concern mimics what most people feel about global warming because, like this play, it is too distant, uncertain and boring.
On stage, it might be useful if the issue was made as immediate as science says it actually is, make it personal and direct. Rather than feeling caught in a burning forest or a superstorm, or even threatened by rising rivers, I felt as disconnected as a fish-eaten corpse watching a raft drift across a drowned world.
Four Small Gods plays at the Magnet Theatre in Observatory, Cape Town, until 10 November. See here for programme notes and bookings.
— Steve Kretzmann