The subject of the Vagina Monologues came up around the pre-fest dinner table peopled by wonderful Rhodes intellectuals and feminists. The discussion went this way and that with various turns of hilarity but the upshot was that whatever the merits or faults of the Vagina Monologues, all pre-feminist western theatre is essentially penis monologues; work written by men for men within a patriarchal paradigm.
Well, if you’re looking for a play that is not a penis monologue, Karoo Moose is where you’ll find it. Should the topic of what constitutes South African theatre raise its hoary head, Karoo Moose also serves as a great example of homegrown work that incorporates age-old traditions of storytelling, movement and music that emanate from this southern portion of the continent as dust rises from a hot road, or ethereal vapour from the sun striking the highveld winter frost.
Written and directed by this year’s featured artists, Lara Foot Newton, in 2007, it unearths the all-too-hidden reality of violence perpetuated against children in forgotten sun-scorched back country dorps where silence grows like a cancer within sullen alcohol-soaked men and settles like a disease over women burdened with the brutality of deprivation. Many things can get lost in this vast landscape, innocence among them. Here, children do not remain children for very long. Neither does wealth offer protection from violation that stems from within the household, it seems the vrot is in all the blood, drawn up from the past like roots draw moisture from the earth.
Revived nine years after its premier at the ABSA Aardklop festival with the original cast, Karoo Moose is not a word or a move less relevant now than it was then. We wish this wasn’t so, that our country, our people, would be able to look at it as a past topic, a blot of shame that has been purged by compassion, care and a commitment to embracing our shared humanity over the intervening years.
The staging is equally relevant, a relevance the positivity of which we can embrace. Patrick Curtis’s floor cloth and back cloth in the red brown gravels of the Karoo, beneath cruel hanging witdoorings is simple and effective, the chaotic mishmash of disparate objects that each get picked up to serve as imaginative props are strewn around the stage like garbage strewn on the edge of platteland townships where the houses resemble rows of broken teeth.
The characters are second skins for these actors, I wanted to punch them and console them in turn, the switches between, for instance, a menacing drunk to an innocent girlchild seamlessly denoted by a simple prop and instant change in body language and tone. Although strewn with props, they are the most basic of objects – a cabbage, a net, a box, a drum – their use is rarely literal. Through a sublime magic they are imbued with meaning that transcends their everyday realism to become transformed objects in tune with the transformation of a no-place that becomes our-place. A place in which you sob, you laugh, you are horrified and you are delighted and you discover why it deserves its place in the canon of South African theatre.
There is only one show left, at 2pm tomorrow. See programme notes and bookings here.