Occasionally, patients on the surgeon’s table experience an accidental awareness while under general anesthetic. They are able to feel the slicing of the scalpel, but, paralysed by muscle relaxant, are unable to move or cry out. Perhaps mercifully, the amnesiac effects of anesthesia wipes away this memory. It’s as if it never happened. The conscious mind erases the trauma, but what of the subconscious? For those moments, that painful present, every cut, every tear, every stitch is felt. A nightmare quickly forgotten. Where do those moment of awareness reside? Are they truly forgotten, or merely smothered, pushed into the depths of the mind, to rise up in dreams and misunderstood fears?
Like a drug that seeps through the body on the blood’s tide, the question of forgetting as a means to deal with the trauma of the past seeps through NewFoundLand, injected by the gently piercing needle of writer and director Neil Coppen’s medical metaphor.
Jacques (played with suitable reserve by Jacques Bessenger) is struggling to provide for himself the numbness and amnesia he provides his patients, desperately trying to eviscerate the past, wrestling with the guilt bequeathed by his patriarchal Afrikaaner culture.
Conjuring an aneasthetist in a script dealing with the desire to forget the sins of the past may seem a conspicuous choice, but NewFoundLand is a sublime play in all respects, from its theme to its masterful lighting, its segueing transitions and surreal imagery. The work is a dream. But dreams have their moments of obscurity; this one came in a line delivered between Jacques and his mother, Hettie (magnificently acted by Elize Cawood) which would illuminate exactly what our protagonist suffered at the hand of his dominee father. While I’d love to understand just what it was that turned him so inward, what form the abuse took is not crucial knowledge. All pain is alike – it hurts.
Although Jacques was difficult to access, his character is admittedly aloof, solipsist and arrogant. Marvin-Lee Beukes as the inventive pharmacist Mitchell who bears the brunt of Jacques’s bitterness, and Kopano Maroga as Sizwe, together with Cawood’s presence, more than flesh out the hollowness of his personality.
The past NewFoundLand deals with is of a personal nature, Coppen does not make any overt attempt to cover the broad sweep of particular brutality that has ploughed across our nation, but the notion of culture is subtly interrogated, casting a light on colonial perceptions, prodding us to consider our sins, without resorting to the pulpit. He uses Sizwe, with whom we can’t help but fall in love, to nudge Jacques, and us, to fuller consciousness. He urges us to embrace all of life and its myriad joys and miseries.
Sizwe is a charming antidote to Jacques’s emotional torpor, a scalpel cutting through his fog of determined self repression. Ntombi Gasa, who is often cast as the shamanic figure, delivers a moving performance as Sizwe’s ancestor, calling him to swim into the ocean of universal consciousness, but it was Cawood who called forth a sea of tears, her love for her departing son pouring off her like waves.
These near faultless performances combined with ingenious lighting, a fascinating script and surreal design make NewFoundLand a masterpiece, a dream from which I rose unwillingly.
NewFoundLand (Buite Land), has shows at the National Arts Festival today (7 July) at 14:00 and 18:00, and tomorrow (Sun) at 11:00. Book here.
Jacques – Jacques Bessenger
Sizwe – Kopano Maroga
Mitchell – Marvin-Lee Beukes
Hettie – Elize Cawood
Grace – Mpume Mthombeni
Mercy / Ancestor – Ntombi Gasa
Patient – Musa Shozi
Writer & Director: Neil Coppen
Choreography: Kopano Maroga and Ntombi Gasa
Design: Vaughn Sadie and Neil Coppen
Costume Design: Jemma Kahn
Lighting Design: Tina le Roux
Sound Design: Tristan Horton
Set & prop construction: Wendy Henstock
Production Assistant:Victoria Graaf-Raw
Assistant Stage Manager: Musa Shozi
Production & Stage Manager: Soné Theron
Producer: Kunste Onbeperk in association with NATI and the FeesteForum