South African writer Reza de Wet’s play African Gothic is rarely staged outside of her native country and at that times it’s not hard to understand why. The award-winning play is at times a distinctly difficult thing to experience, but this is more of a recommendation than a caution.
Originally written in Afrikaans, the play follows the lives of orphaned siblings Sussie and Frikkie, who inhabit a dilapidated farm in a dry and isolated area of rural South Africa. The once trim family home is now going to rack and ruin, and due to severe drought the crops are yielding little produce. Yet the pair, accompanied only by their black maid Alina, seem content leading a feral and alarmingly infantile lifestyle, unthreatened by the conventions of civilised society.
Their peace is shattered by the arrival of an officious urban lawyer, seeking to finalise a distant aunt’s will. Suddenly, the siblings are forced to confront the ideologies of an outsider, and defend the misery of their existence. As the play unravels, it reveals increasingly disturbing facts about the true nature of Sussie and Frikkie’s relationship, and their mental states. Their psychotic and borderline incestuous behaviour is relentlessly unsettling, leaving one unsure as to where to place one’s sympathies.
Although there are occasional moments of dark humour, the play is traumatic and disturbing throughout; the overwhelming feeling is not unlike the one you get when visiting a hospital’s psychiatric ward. However, as the narrative develops, an appreciation of the genius of Reza de Wet’s writing begins to take over from the initial feeling of revulsion towards the events on stage. The narrative is sculpted to allow multiple layers of interpretation, and works both on a literal and metaphorical level. Its overarching theme is that of the legacy of oppression, and how post-apartheid South Africa, and indeed the rest of the continent, is imprisoned by the rituals of its ancestral colonial oppressors. Through the lives of these tragically damaged characters, de Wet paints a poignant portrait of Africa’s wounded heart, and coaxes audiences to explore new perspectives.
Considering how uncomfortable the play is to watch, the cast of four do a formidable job portraying their respective characters. Naomi Wirthner, who plays Alina, makes her directorial debut with this work, and manages to combine both roles seamlessly. The central performances by Jane Gwilliams as Sussie and Gary Wright as Frikkie are undeniably strong, to the extent that one tries to avoid making eye-contact with them as they dart around the small stage. As might be expected for an English production, the South African accents waver somewhat, with the exception of Wright, who attended Rhodes University in South Africa with the playwright.
The play is being staged at the Arcola by The Barebones Project, a recently formed company committed to staging unornamented theatre on a low budget. Most of the props are borrowed or recycled, with the intention of giving the production a raw, stripped-back effect. Somewhat appropriately, the studio is unbearably hot, adding to the pressured atmosphere of the play. There is an overwhelming feeling of being trapped inside the scorched dust-bowl of a farm, as the audience begin to get some sense of the ‘mind-forged manacles’ which immure the central protagonists.
The production will appeal to theatre-goers who value an intellectually stimulating evening over one of mere entertainment, but it rewards those who are willing to endure and engage with it. The play undoubtedly requires a period of digesting, but upon reflection the complexity and nuance of the writing reveal themselves. Just be prepared to suffer for your art.