The Gospel According to Jan Coetzee: Bles Thee!

Emma Kotze and David Viviers in The Gospel According to Jan Coetzee.

Matthew, Mark, Luke and Jan:  Jan Coetzee is born as the lamb of God — the prop that is used for his birth is an hysterically funny, wide-eyed sheep stool —  who is going to lead his Afrikaner flock into a national God-protected safe haven, defended from both British Imperialism and Die Swart Gavaar (and every other gevaar — Indian, Oriental …)

Set in the remote, Northern Cape farming land around the town of Prieska, which, according to Wikipedia, developed from a place to which farmers migrated when the pans were full after rain, Jan’s Dutch and then Afrikaner lineage goes back all the way to the arrival of the Dromedaris in Table Bay and he believes he has been born to bring salvation to the volk.

His mother is a ballerina-enamored woman who, after confessing her European distractions and being redeemed,  settles in the town for marriage, which, disobeying the strictures of Calvinism, she has consummated between the roots of a tree just before saying her vows, and an ancestral thread of artistry runs through the since-then reformed family, reignited by the albeit slightly deranged figure of the National Theatre Organisation-type caped, flamboyant figure of an itinerant actor who presents Shakespearian soliloquies reminiscent of a character in a Reza de Wet play.  He has become disenchanted by the racial austerity of the Afrikaners as he once loved an Indian woman who was relocated under segregationist laws.

The action takes place in flashbacks over the years from the early 1900s, including the Great Depression that, along with the devastation of drought, assaulted the agricultural located-ness of Afrikanerdom, up until the 1948 consolidation of Afrikaner political power in the National Party, who, horror-of-horrors, entertain a sovereign visit from that enemy of Afrikanerdom, the Queen of England.

This is indeed Reza de Wet’s theatrical territory, but, while there is resonance with setting, character and theme (Afrikaner identity, Calvinistic patriarchal repression, suppression of mysterious creative individualism and the Gothic imaginative psyche) her aesthetic style of atmospheric magical realism is here replaced by a theatrical tour de force that rollicks along apace, through rapidly changing narrative and imagistic fragments and moments involving a large number of props that are extremely well-handled by the three performers.  It is hard to tell who is having more fun, the audience or the actors!

The play is actually a rehearsal of scenes of a play, which could, in the wrong hands, easily be a cliché, though this dramatic structural device is certainly not so in The Island by Fugard, Kani and Ntshona, but whereas that play ends in the actual performance of the Trial of Antigone, here we are always watching a rehearsal.  There are subtle moments of meaningful eye glance exchanges between the two exasperated actors, Yvette and Alan (beautifully characterised by Emma Kotzé and David Viviers) behind the back of “writer-director” Schalk, admirably portrayed by Wessel Pretorius. The amusing irony is that Wessel Pretorius is not only the writer-director of the play under rehearsal that we are watching, but the writer-director of the show we are watching, which is an English translation of the original, Al Julle Volke.  This is altogether delightful, as nothing is taking itself too seriously while being masterfully executed.

Jan Coetzee, once deemed the prophet of salvation, is betrayed by his own people for becoming too radical in his inclusive Gospel that speaks to the freedom to doubt.

The play is a splendid antidote to Brett Bailey’s Samson, with Jan, once considered the redeemer, ending up in his passion, standing on a box, in white under jocks, with a tub of tomato sauce “blood” having been put on his head in the blackout by the actor, Alan.  But, instead of this image being significant of the terrible betrayal of Jan Coetzee, the rehearsal immediately ends and off the actor goes to wash himself.

There are many theatre in-jokes, but nothing exclusive or alienating of audience members, and the whole show is hysterically entertaining and damn funny.  I loved this Passion Play with a passion!  The script is brilliant, the show is en pointe and the acting is superb.

In the end, it’s the art that is the savior.  And with twelve of us in the audience, we are its disciples.  Which brings me to another point: where are the audiences?

Shows at The Edge, Princess Alice Hall, Friday 3pm, and Saturday 3pm.

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