A naked Wessel Pretorius sits squashed into a tiny metal bathtub and sits there staring into space as the audience shuffle in. When the lights go down, he begins talking – and talking – seeming only to draw breath a few times in the entire hour. This barrage of words, when combined with the strong physicality of the piece, makes for an experience which is intensely visceral.
Presented as part of the South African showcase at Assembly, what eventually emerges is a little like an introspective Tristram Shandy, incorporating cultural and national influences into a self-narrated autobiography with a relatively unfettered structure. Characters from the protagonist’s family emerge from the thick mist of literary allusions and personal exegesis. Pretorius has been criticised for not better defining the various family members in the piece, but as everything we know about them is mediated through the prism of the precocious younger son, this approach seems more than fitting. Undone requires the audience to search for the people behind the impersonations with which the protagonist presents us.
It’s hard to be specific about the main character’s psychology, because he also subjects himself to this process. Yet it is possible to glean from this fluctuating monologue an idea of his alienation, his desire for various kinds of intoxication, a sense that the world presses in on him and culture both aids his escape from and ensnares him further in corporeality; there’s a strong sense that he is caught between hyper-real political change and the strong social codes of the past, and is powerless to do much more than exist. He is a latter-day everyman, a global barometer of fucked up youth.
Watching him wash himself in his little iron tub and don his father’s clothes allows what the character represents to be juxtaposed with a kind of personal frailty that to my mind perfectly counterbalanced the sheer weight of Pretorius’s words.
Undone isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea: it’s a tiring, demanding and heavily literate behemoth of an hour that requires something approaching complete surrender from the get-go. In other words, it’s the kind of show that asks a lot from its audience. The rewards, however, are definitely worth the effort. When I saw it, the audience was perfectly enraptured by the whole thing; when it ended, they responded with what felt like jubilation. This combination of charged contemporaneity, intense physicality and beautiful writing is a rare thing, and shouldn’t be missed.