The Emissary: Black mail

emmissaryLack of perspective can turn any situation into a crisis. Add a three-and-a-half year relationship, jealousy, desire and pathological narcissism and you have all the ingredients for a classic Louis Viljoen play.

That classic can be used as a descriptor for Viljoen, who is only in his early ’30s or something is testament to his already prodigious output as playwright. Or a concern that his work is becoming a touch formulaic.

Psychosis and obsession are hallmarks of his writing, his characters (and us along with them) caught in dark, untenable situations from which they cannot find an escape, emotions on edge, words and their convolutions the only means of keeping disaster at bay.

This works best when set within a broader theme; the corruption within property development in The Frontiersmen, or the nefarious political ambition in The Kingmakers.

He turns his lens on relationships (or, a relationship) in The Emissary but the lack of perspective, the closeted view, feels somewhat forced. For here, there is a simple way out: just walk away.

No-one is dead, no crime has been committed other than the moral one contained in the imagination of Andrew Laubscher’s character, who is the best friend of popular Patrick, the unseen person around whom the drama pivots. Patrick’s girlfriend, superbly played by Emily Child, evinces a tragic insecurity which makes Patrick the centre of her world. A world about to fall apart, mostly due to her morbid curiosity at Laubscher’s perverted desire, which is a measure of her own narcissism.

To say anymore would be to spoil the plot, which is a simple one, spun out sufficiently by Viljoen’s snappy, bitchy wordplay to hold our attention, hold the tension. But there’s a sense the verbal bare-knuckle battle, as entertaining as it is, comes at the expense of emotional expression. The text is so dense, so filthy and rapid, we cannot see through it to the black hearts from whence they pour.

Any sane person would have walked away from the conversation within the first five minutes. But then, if characters in theatre were sane, plays would be incredibly boring things to endure. The insanity needs to have some realistic base though, needs to pull on a sympathetic string, our own corresponding madness, or part thereof. The situation in The Emissary held insufficient personal or archetypal echo, leaving me mulling over whether there is simply not enough room in this theatrical form to illuminate the motivation behind these characters engaging, and remaining in, the dialogue we observe.

It is a great performance by Laubscher and Child nonetheless, unpleasantness oozes from Laubscher and Child appears to sweat distaste from every pore as they hack at each other on the simple set of couch and rug equally simply lit by two hanging lamps. My lack of conviction lies not with the acting but with the script, which I do think would make a gripping short story. The literary form, less dependent on the immediacy of dialogue, could provide some insight into exactly why these characters are so fucked up. Perhaps you’ll be able to figure out better than I.

The Emissary is on at the Cape Town Fringe until October 8. Booking and show info here.

— Steve Kretzmann

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