The Frontiersmen: Slick as fresh blood, rough as dry mortar

Considering the proliferation of cheaply built faux Tuscan security clusters that have sprung up like a field of gargantuan mortar mushrooms in Johannesburg north, and their warped Cape Dutch equivalents creeping into Cape Town, The Frontiersmen may be right on the mark.

Estate agents have a bad rep but their sins look like charity in the face of the diabolic manipulation practised by their big brother property developers, those creators of lifeless gated zones that are the true harbingers of the zombie apocalypse.

Writer Louis Viljoen will have you choking on your artisanal chorizo so smugly bought from that hip stall at the Biscuit Mill and turn the cashmere sweater you bought at a new Woodstock designer store into a hair shirt as he exposes the heinous methods employed to turn land into cash through gentrification.

No amount of human suffering is beyond the pale for developers Shane (Mark Elderkin) and Uri (Nicholas Pauling), in fact rape, murder, robbery and alcoholism are actively encouraged in order to push prices down so they can snap land up and build their sterile currency machine, and be lauded for improving the neighbourhood in the bargain.
The dogs of unfettered capitalism is what they are. Malevolent, licentious, lewd, brimful of corruption, greed and lust. It’s remarkable they don’t kill each other, it’s only their mutual desire for wealth that keeps them from ripping each other’s throats out like the curs they are.

In short, you’re not going to like these characters. This isn’t a pleasant evening out.
It’s a damn good play though. While I love his Shakespearean turns of phrase, I don’t always agree with what I deem to be the often unnecessary foul language and obsession with dick that is prevalent in Louis Viljoen’s scripts. It can detract rather than enrich, but the brevity of his plots and lack of extraneous characters and action is superb. His plays are focussed, menacing, darkly malevolent and so tight you fear the theatre will implode. Just the hooker at the bar scene seemed a bit contrived, simply a vehicle to spill out just how evil these people are.

Sentiment is stripped, there’s no place for any of our positive human attributes here, and I wonder if Viljoen isn’t trying too hard to be a theatrical version of Quentin Tarantino’s evil younger brother. ┬áPauling tells a story though, of how they went downstairs to the bar during a break in rehearsals recently and happened to overhear a conversation between a couple of property developers. Their conversation, he said, was frightenly similar to their script, just less eloquent. So perhaps Viljoen is merely reflecting a very, very scary reality.

Greg Karvellas’s directing mirrors this tautness, cutting superfluity with a butcher knife. There are a few inconsistencies that started niggling as I later thought about the play. The blood-stained overalls. If they had put them on before committing their foul deed, their victim would have known what was coming. According to the dialogue during Shane and Uri’s subsequent meltdown, this is not the case. So given the fight this pillar of the community put up, their suits are remarkably untorn, unstained, and our protagonists are remarkably unbruised. It’s a small thing, doesn’t detract from the work as you watch it, but does intrude later when putting the pieces back together.

I wasn’t quite convinced about Elderkin’s acting either. Given what he reveals, he’s not menacing enough. Pauling is convincing, but then he arguably has the easier role.
Yet given the overall standard of the work, which had me tense and cringing for the full hour, these criticisms are almost petulant, and the warning the play delivers is worth heeding. Especially if you ever see a group of suited property developers scoping out your neighbourly neighbourhood.

— Steve Kretzmann

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