Jenna Dunster delivers a deft, sensitive performance.
THE cruelty of god, stone and the Kowie Railway Company is finely explored in Peter Terry’s dramatisation of the April 22 1911 Blaauwkrantz bridge disaster.
The train was carrying a load of quaried stone from Bathurst to Grahamstown for the construction of the Anglican cathedral of St Michael and St George, which Terry, in his piece, Immortal, suggests there is blood in some of the stone in this venerated and transformed church.
There was a poignant historical connection to the work when scores of Diocesan School for Girls (DSG) junior schoolgirls attended the premier in honour of DSG pupil Hope Brereton, one of the 29 people who died in the disaster.
The girls in their long brown coats, sat absolutely still throughout.
This is a human tale, told through the voice of seven-year-old Hazel Smith, who lost four family members when the coupling of an “unregulated” truck, one of five carrying stone and pineapples, snapped. The impact caused the truck to jump the rails, and literally leap off the bridge.
It plummetted 60m to the bottom of the gorge dragging with it four full passenger coaches and a guard van.
Without spoiling the story line, Smith, trapped high up in the struts, had an unspeakable experience. But there were angels too that day, with climbing skills.
Jenna Dunster gives a captivating performance as she takes the audience on an exciting family adventure on the train to Port Alfred for a sea-side holiday and which she masterfully builds to the return trip disaster.
It is a carefully researched work and Terry has done well to contextualise the Smith family’s story within a history of conquest and dispossession.
The Battle of Egazini is referenced, and the accident is set in a period of post-frontier war peace and economic growth along the Port Alfred, Bathurst, Grahamstown axis.
Specifically, the Kowie Railway Company which in 1883 spanned the British-designed and constructed steel bridge across the gorge.
The bridge was billed as soaring triumph of colonial engineering but, in fact, it was rudely built above two sacred pools where Xhosa people would pay respects to the ancestors by floating gifts across the water and holding rites.
The company’s response to the tragedy was cold and self-protective. (Subs: spoiler alert), and white society’s treatment of the Smith orphans utterly reprehensible.
Smith emerged out of her teenage years, married, had a good family life and had seven children. She had a peaceful death in her 60s, but she was haunted throughout by her horrific experience high up on the bridge.
Ultimately, it is the church which comes under scrutiny in the piece, and the theological question of immortality is raised.
Is God in the stone?
This will undoubtedly cause much discussion, especially at DSG, which is a devoutly Anglican institution.
Chris Weare’s direction is sensitive, the staging is beautifully crafted, and the of sound and lighting give the work an ominous immediacy.
Immortal shows at The Hangar tomorrow at 1pm, Saturday at 12.30pm and Sunday at 12.30pm and 5.30pm.