Thom Pain (based on nothing), Klein Libertas Theatre, 2 March 2012, US Woordfees, Stellenbosch
Thom Pain’s play, "based on nothing", is not really based on nothing – this is clearly a paradox as nothing can be based on nothing.
Pain’s stream-of-consciousness about the greater meaning of life fills up the 70 minutes without any hesitation at all, although the experience often felt strained and trying to me. It’s an existentialist thing. The protagonist questions his very existence as a true and real human being, while displaying hints of absurdity and irony in his actions and speech.
The venue for this play is one which recalls memories of drunken nights spent singing along to Die Antwoord’s foul-mouthed, zef slang, swaying back and forth to the bass-filled beats of Niskerone or, on other occasions, bumping along with a stoned crowd jamming to the wonderful musical outfit that is Goldfish.
On this cool Friday night, however, I found myself surrounded by a different crowd completely; older couples with sensible shoes, reading glasses and no intention whatsoever of getting drunk or vomiting on the grass.
The crowd settled into the Klein Libertas theatre, a wonderful old establishment, with a sense of easy expectation. I made sure that I had enough cider to last me through what could possibly be a very boring few hours.
As the lights dimmed, the audience quietened down to a few scattered whispers, until the theatre was completely dark. A few seconds of silence later, heavy footsteps carried across the stage until they settled in the centre. Lights still off, a man with a European accent begins to speak. His ramblings do not stick in my memory, although I recall him mentioning in a comically ironic tone how “happy he is to see us all again” and “what a lovely looking audience we are”. These lines felt forced, and the crowd responded with suitably artificial laughter.
As the man continued to speak, the lights slowly brightened until they shone spot-on the protagonist, an overweight, balding, yet still ginger-haired, man. This was Albert Pretorius, playing the confused Thom Pain, written by playwright Will Eno.
Thom’s presence immediately aroused a sort of annoyance in me. He seemed like the irritating type I would have looked straight past in a social meeting. The play starts with the story of a young boy, dressed in cowboy clothing, shoeless and drawing pictures in a puddle. What I thought to be your “average sweet story of a normal childhood” progressed into a morbid tale, complete with disfigurations and disorders, plus a favourite dog which was soon tossed into electrical wires, suffering a traumatic death. As his self-absorbed ramblings stretched out and returned to their starting notions, the tales became longer and more frustrating.
Thom Pain shares his life with us, progressing through his various stages of development, all of which end at a critical moment. The character speaks clearly, with well thought-out lines and clever chirps, almost speaking and then interrupting himself as new thoughts enter and erase the older ones.
He asks the audience whether we remember the moment when our childhood ended, a moment I barely managed to recall at all. Pain matures as his narrative progresses, the one-man play taking on a more sexual note as he begins to speak of a woman and his experiences with her. I tried to shut the idea of this large awkward man making love to a woman out of my mind, but all the while he continued to make hints about his sexual experiences. Phrases such as “I was inside her” have stuck in my mind, despite my attempts to erase them.
I found the play tiresome, as my sense of expectation built up more and more, only to be deflated by some ironic, clever or annoying story told, yet again, by Pain. A general sense of waiting haunted the place. I was almost expecting dancers in glitzy outfits to emerge from the backdrop, their singing and dancing possibly adding some colour to the show. But this failed to happen, although a young woman in a very short dress was pulled up onstage, where she stood, rather uncomfortably, for about eight minutes, until Pain released her. The large man then continued to dominate the space.
Pain added a different dimension to the mix, drawing the audience in with the promise of a raffle, some sort of nudge at the human desire to get something for nothing. He moved into the audience, walking around looking for someone to pull into the game. This aroused the feeling of a magic show, the magician casting his alluring eyes onto a flinching audience. As he exclaimed that there would be no raffle, my frustration rose and I began hoping the show would end soon now.
Not all was doom and gloom, however. This dark comedy had some high-quality moments. It almost felt like I was sitting in a tavern in Grahamstown, watching one of the productions at the National Arts Festival. The protagonist was brilliant, his lines good, and he carried his character with ease. Although I’m still battling to make sense of the production, I found it eye-opening. Dwelling in the dark comfort of a theatre, watching a mortal fretting about the meaning of life, was rather amusing in the end. When the play drew to a close, I felt a distinct sense of relief, like I’d been released from an obscure, tense hold.