The opening performance in Stellenbosch of Marlene van Niekerk’s play, Die Kortstondige Raklewe van Anastasia W (13 April 2011) was a rare event. A shocker of note, to be more exact.
The Stellenbosch audience – by no means parochial or entirely conservative, and including many of Van Niekerk’s devotees, including myself – sat mesmerised as this ‘play’ (‘play’ in the deepest sense) came relentlessly at them, a baroque assault of forms, idioms, wordplay, lyricism, operatic tragic-comic interludes, Brechtian theatrical alienation, and ripping symbolic violence of a kind I have seldom witnessed in more than thirty years of watching ‘serious’ theatre.
A friend of mine, an old Joburg Market Theatre consort of the 1980s, remarked to me afterwards that it took him back to the days when Marat Sade was performed at The Market in those heady times of theatre as protest, theatre as a shout, a scream in a wilderness of bug-eyed complacency and social osteoporosis.
And that was also the talk before and after the play last night in Stellenbosch: this is the ‘new’ protest theatre. These reports apparently emanate from the heart of the Van Niekerk artistic camp: yes, people are saying in Stellenbosch, it is meant to be a return to protest theatre. And the protest is so violently, abusively, corrosively effective, that many people apparently walked out in disgust – shock and horror – at other performances, elsewhere in the country, of Die Kortstondige Raklewe.
Although my progressive Stellenbosch friends were asking the question out loud, after the performance, why anyone would do that – walk out – they didn’t see what was so ‘bad’, you had to admit that Van Niekerk’s play was a bestial and brutal, if brilliant assault on the senses. The senses moral, aesthetic, philosophical and physical.
It was a hard play to sit through. Typical of Van Niekerk’s work, it was artistically indulgent, in the best sense of the term, and it was overdone, also in the best sense of the word, overdone in its genius, its Van Niekerkian bloody riot of creativity.
There was so much wordplay and allusion (philosophical, classical, literary, demotic, street-style) flying about in the disturbed air, flaying the audience, that I doubt whether the toehoorders picked up even a quarter of it as it was belted out in the articulations of actors’ accentuated, exaggerated enunciations and a whackingly loud sound system.
This is all to the play’s ultimate credit. If you really want to mine this work, like an old-fashioned true-grit literary critic (a dying breed at university campuses), you will have to revisit the songs and lyrics again and again, do some very close reading and listening, with the aid of the CD and songbook that come with the ticket when you go in. Then you might begin to find the deeper structures of meaning of which the performance, in its clinical execution, is symptomatic.
The play represents anything but naturalistic theatre. It is more like vaudeville, cabaret, black comedy, theatre of the absurd and Brechtian alienation (including violation, abjection, surrender, emasculation) all wrapped together like a sickly sweet koeksister. Not easy to swallow, to be sure, to be sure. But brilliantly acted, beautifully sung, tragic-comically rendered in a superb direction by Marthinus Basson.
The play takes place in a funeral parlour, and its central conceit is a social-class heerskappy based on necrophilia – the decadent, incestuously privileged (mainly white) economic lords feeding – vamping – off the dying social body, a stinking social corpse, actually, as is attested to by the litany of news clippings that litter the stage like confetti, detailing the murders, rapes, sodomising and brutalising of children.
Children. That is where the knife of a sicker-than-sick Oedipal social drive goes in. Oh, suffer the children. The corpse, raped and murdered, of the child Anastasia W, who indeed had a short ‘shelf-life’, is central in this play – its raggedy body a collapsed tissue of the country’s vrot ‘revolution’.
It’s so bad that the actors play soccer with the corpse’s severed head – Anastasia’s head, a black child’s severed head, in a gruesome play on the World Cup seemingly redeeming the killing field that South Africa had become by 2010 when the soccer world visited and the stink of death was swept under the carpet while everyone held their noses.
Apart from the social ruling elite, the play also takes in the political heerskappy, the ministers met nekke soos varke (or ‘vetnekministers’ as Van Niekerk calls them in her translation of a Mandelstam poem elsewhere on this site) – they are equally vampiric, fucking the land, and the innocent dead, for their pleasures of consumption. And what’s happened to the ANC Woman’s League? someone asks during the play – Van Niekerk’s answer is, they’re in Paris, catching up on the ‘good life’.
The struggle ethic, Van Niekerk implies, the struggle for human decency in South Africa, is literally being fucked up the arse. I shall leave the more responsibly theatrical review of this play to Petrus du Preez, the appointed critic for the night. All I will say, in closing, is: you simply have to see this play.