Helen of Troyeville: Words get in the way

Gina Schmukler, directed by Lesedi Job, plays in Mike van Graan’s Helen of Troyeville.

Being locked up in your own bathroom while robbers ransack your house is a common South African nightmare, a white South African nightmare in particular.

Not that black South Africans don’t get robbed, it’s just that despite a burgeoning black middle class, the majority of citizens don’t have bathrooms one can get locked in, well, not the sort portrayed in Helen of Troyeville.

Given our crime statistics, it’s a realistic fear, and our Helen, portrayed by Gina Schmukler, finds herself in exactly this situation, trapped in a very literal set and, being a privileged white liberal, proceeds to batter herself, and us, with her racial angst and the guilt of being part of a generation that kept apartheid going to the bitter end.

There’s a trace of the ‘I’m not a racist but’ in the play, as in, ‘I’m not a racist but I’m locked in my own bathroom and face the possibility of being raped or killed by two black men to whom I was nothing but kind’, as well as a lot of damning her own generation for being the architects of a situation for which vengeance in one form or another was guaranteed.

There is also occasional damning the men for ransacking her house, countered with bleeding heart justifications for their deeds (they never had fathers because they were part of the migrant labour system, they’re desperate rather than criminal, their families were torn apart by systemic poverty). It’s the kind of heart wringing any sympathetic, sensitive person would go through. It’s the conflict between empathy and self-preservation.

Helen is sketched as a likeable person. We want to like her. She’s politically aware, loves her dogs and her grandchildren, cares about other people, and the loss of her husband and son have helped soften her to the grief of others. Yet, hard as Schmukler tries, I never got a sense of this character. It was all words, words, words telling me what I should be feeling and thinking.

It was very poetic at times. Too poetic actually (no-one talking to themself refers to death as the Reaper) and the script by the multiple award-winning Mike van Graan was like one of those flyscreens you find on the door of Karoo kitchens; the gauze obscures a clear view inside and unless it is unlatched from the inside, you can’t get in and enjoy your meal. Hence despite Schmukler’s best efforts and capable direction by Lesedi Job, I remained feeling like a fly being prevented from getting in and enjoying the pie. Perhaps Shmukler feels the same way.

Helen of Troyeville is on at the National Arts Festival until July 8. Book here.

Director: Lesedi Job
Written By: Mike van Graan
Featured Artists: Gina Schmukler
Company: Mike van Graan

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