Sharpen the carving knife

MiceChildren’s tales and rhymes, far from depicting the innocent carefree world we long for, use metaphor and symbolism to introduce the reality that exists beyond the cosseted clime of the nursery. They act as a means of preparing the child for what awaits without scaring the living bejeezus out of them.

Three Blind Mice is this. A sequel to the superb Three Little Pigs, the same collaboration between Tara Notcutt as director and James Cairns, Albert Pretorius and Rob van Vuuren performing, provide an allegorical reflection of the unbelievably violent and corrupt society in which we live.

But there was nothing metaphorical about the play’s opening soundscape. The breaking glass, the splintering wood, the sickening thud of a hard object – such as an axe – repeatedly striking mangled flesh.

There was a moment in the dark in which I was detached from it. Then I tried to be detached. Then I could keep it at bay no longer: the inescapable fact that I live in South Africa. There is a very real chance sounds such as those may herald the end of my life, or the life of someone I love. Instinct kicked in. I wanted to flee, to be as far away from those sounds, or the possibility of them, as possible. Yet I reined it in, remained seated, prepared to face that fear.

Two of the trio who then stood before us as the lights came on appeared to be struggling with very similar fear. Albert and Jamess looked as if they did not want to be there. I have watched James perform at many, many festivals, acting in multiple shows, stretched like gladwrap across scores of performances, drugged with exhaustion yet every time coming alive under the stage lights as if he was able to draw the very energy from their filaments. Not this time. He was backing away from us as if we were wielding the carving knife. Albert, a performer cut from the same cloth, was barely there, bled out already. Only Rob had his energy dialed right up as if he was desperately running to save his own tail. If we wanted to name these mice we could call them depressive, recessive and excessive.

The reason, I’d hazard, is they simply were not rehearsed enough. They’re open about this. It’s no secret. They skidded into this work on the seat of their pants. It was the same with Three Little Pigs. The ink on the script was still wet when they opened. The difference was that premiere was electric. You could sense the tension the moment you walked into the theatre, and that tension was translated into an unforgettable performance. Only performers of this calibre could pull that off. But this time around they knew: when you’ve come up sixes on the first of three rolls of the dice, your chances diminish. They were apprehensive this second time around. They didn’t trust themselves, they weren’t trusting the work.

Which is a pity because it is a very good work and with some tweaking they will create a play equal to Three Little Pigs, or even better. Granted, plays are dynamic. They shift, they settle, they find the best groove for the myriad elements of which they are made, I just don’t think we should’ve been watching what was essentially a preview at their debut on the Main though.

Having said that, in giving half a performance, these guys are still better than many actors giving their all.

They’ve got a great script. It centres on the horrifying state of the justice system in which the more cheese you have the easier your ride becomes. Referencing Dewani, Pistorius, the Van Breda family murder as well as the plague of other familial and spousal murders in South Africa, it encompasses the gnawing rats of politics and corruption in tow. It cleaves through contemporary society with a sharp and accurate edge wielded by an executioner with a sick sense of humour.

While the script and ability to perform on instinct alone if necessary saved their bacon, the lighting was working against them. Switching between numerous characterisations, throughout the play the trio return to facing us, seated in a row before footlights throwing an appalling disparity of luminance upon them. Rob in the middle was in the hotspot while James and Albert fell into the shadows, underscoring the misperception that this is a Rob van Vuuren show. Despite some flashes of brilliance, Neil Coppen’s egregrious use of colour seemed, with one or two exceptions, to offer no other function than provide spectacle over substance.

The sparse set of wooden pallet and benches enables one of the finest moments in the play but the decision to not only have pallets on the floor but also suspended above the actors may arguably provide a sense of confinement (our three blind mice are serving time) but is equally an element which creates lighting challenges which don’t seem to be resolved.

Given the combination of problems, most of them self-created, that obstructed this play at its debut, it is remarkable that what we saw was actually worth seeing. For it was worth seeing and will only get better once the carving knife is sharpened.

— Steve Kretzmann

Programme notes here.

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