The worst thing about school is not the lessons or the discipline or exams or the homework or even the early morning peak traffic rat-race. The worst thing is being surrounded by your peers for seven hours a day.
There are the fortunate few who manage to hook into a great group of supportive friends but on the whole, it appears school, high school in particular, is a daily gauntlet of unwritten and continually shifting social rules.
Massing a collection of maladroit adolescents struggling to deal with unfamiliar hormonal commands in a society blaring mixed signals and then placing them under the additional stresses of alternating boredom and performance anxiety with minimal supervision sounds like an situation that wouldn’t pass muster under the Geneva Convention for the treatment of prisoners of war. Yet we blithely herd our sons and daughters into this scenario and force them to endure it for years.
But the politics of education is not the subject of You Suck (and other inescapable truths), a play written and acted by Klara van Wyk and designed and directed by Francesco Nassimbeni. Not overtly at any rate.Rather, You Suck examines the politics of being a teenage girl, a psychological trauma for which the public schooling system is partly to blame. Advertising and marketing (which itself rests on the politics of Capitalism) takes care of the rest.
Klara embodies the passive aggression of the insecure adolescent so well, WTFs and Whatevs vibrate around her like a force field as she slouches over her desk, chewing gum and scowling at us while practising her resting bitch face. Yet her sulky eye contact with latecomers and loud-laughers, combined with eye rolling and eyebrow-raising, draw us in even as she radiates indifference.
Then she speaks. An awfully flat Afrikaans assaults our ears and we begin to fall in love with Klara van Wyk, the girl whose mother insisted she move to an English high school in Grade 9 so she could learn the language of the world.
It might be like throwing your ear wif gravel chipped out of a Hello Kitty quarry but you cannot unselfconsciously speak like that and not be endearing. Even if it is for the wrong reasons.
Dressed by Richard de Jager in a wonderful Afrikaans-green short-sleeved frock with the high collar disconcertingly contrasting a short hem, together with yellow stockings and platform tekkies, our frizzy-haired ponytailed gum-chewing Klara candidly relates her ambition to be accepted into the cool group at school and her bafflement as to what the missing ingredient of cool could be.
She is superb in this role. We are the mirror in her bedroom to which she narrates her story as a means of perhaps making sense of this confusing world from which there is no escape. Yet we are more than her mirror, we are also her confidant on whom she is not afraid to pass the harsh judgement only an adolescent is capable of should we fail the test of cool.
Nassimbeni has done well to allow the space for off-the-cuff remarks to audience reactions, which van Wyk, also a Masters student at UCT, manages adroitly and in so doing reinstates the authenticity of her character.
There were a few minutes about halfway through the second scene, where I was not sure who was being pilloried, whether is was the character of Klara and her desperate desire for acceptance, or the school bullies who refused to see beyond her accent and Afrikaans upbringing. It was a fine line she was treading and I resented being made complicit in mocking the very character with whom I had developed empathy until I realised that of course I could choose what to laugh at, or whether to laugh at all. She places the response in our hands, which made me like her all the more.
Perhaps, despite the flawed schooling system, despite the incessant brand propaganda, despite the disturbing narcissism of a technology obsessed society, Klara, like a mouse small and unnoticed enough to slip through the blades of the thresher, might make it out okay despite being scarred by cruelty.
You Suck (and other inescapable truths) is at the Alexander Upstairs Theatre 31st August to 5th September at 7pm.
You Suck (and other inescapable truths) has been extended and will be performed at the Alexander Upstairs Theatre from 31 August until 5 September (it was orginally to only run until 22 August).
— Steve Kretzmann