Nothing but the Truth

(Powerhouse Theatre)



“The truth is rarely pure and never simple,” wrote Oscar Wilde. In Nothing but the Truth, South Africa’s “Grandfather of the theatre”, John Kani, explores the impurities and complexities of familial dynamics, post that country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

In presenting the initial report of the TRC Archbishop Desmond Tutu said “It was a firm belief of the TRC that unless a society exposes itself to the truth, it could harbour no possibility of reconciliation, re-unification and trust.” Although occasionally “wordy”, Kani’s well structured script reveals that after 25 years of silence and secrets, its central family, under a veneer of post-apartheid normalcy, is in chronic need of all three.

As the play opens Sipho Makhaya (Kani) and his devoted daughter Thando (Moshidi Motshegwa) await two significant events. His prayed-for appointment at 63 as Chief Librarian and the arrival from England of his exiled-hero brother’s body for ritual burial beside their parents. If the funeral proceeds to plan it will ameliorate unspoken issues, while the appointment may provide a solitary burst of colour to a self-perceived grey life, hallmarked by things taken including his son’s life during the struggle.

To Sipho’s despair, his brother arrives not in a coffin but a cremation jar, placed catalytically centre stage. Kani (writer and actor) lets us laugh for a moment before the anguish and agony of family truth and reconciliation carries the play to its catharsis. Through Sipho’s reluctant revelations at the urgings and responses of Thando and his anglophiled niece Mandisa MacKay (Rosie Motene), it delivers a moving and revelationary journey at both its personal and political levels.

Janice Honeyman’s direction is secure and unobtrusive and after nights spent endeavouring to interpret the symbolic significance of some esoteric set designs, the simplicity and authenticity of Sarah Roberts’ “four room house in New Brighton, Port Elizabeth, South Africa 2000” was refreshing.

John Kani (the actor) confirms his status as a Master of his art and craft. He draws us gently and surely into the heart and soul of Sipho Makhaya and grants us access to our own unreconciled secrets and the taste of our own grey tears.

Ms Motshegwa complemented him in truth and sincerity but the complexities of competing cultures in Mandisa MacKay challenged the present range and craft skills of Rosy Motene.

One possible anomaly arose for me in the text. After the immediate impact of the production passed, I was left with a plot-point dilemma. While the chronology (and uncertainty) of Thando’s paternity was clear, I could not on reflection determine Sipho’s dead son’s position on the Makhaya family tree, nor why his paternity seemed never in issue. The significance to Sipho of this loss deserves greater clarity.

These minor matters aside, Kani’s play and performance take us into his heart’s experience and the experience of his heartland.

Directed by Janice Honeyman

Season (Wed-Sat) April 13–23

— Ron Finney
(Performance seen: Wed 13th April 2005)