By Lara Foot Newton
With Mncedisi Shabangu and Kholeka Qwabe
South Africa has always been a country full of pain, and some of its most powerful statements have been made through the medium of theatre. During the period of apartheid, black South African playwrights told us, often in harrowing detail, of the atrocities committed against their people by a cruel and deeply racist regime, but even the most political of plays worked through personal stories. By forcing audiences to confront the individual ramifications of abstract policies, the stories became real, and eventually helped to change attitudes.
Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose – the more things change, the more they remain the same. When South Africa gained its freedom over a decade ago, the world hoped that things might be better, but the violence continues, the only difference being that it seems to operate now more on a personal than an official level.
The job of the political playwright has to continue, therefore, but white and black theatre artists in South Africa are working together to confront problems that are fundamentally human rather than simply racist. And so it is with Tshepang, a harrowing dramatised monologue about the most unspeakable of crimes, the rape of a baby, and the consequences for the society in which it happens.
It’s based on a true story, that of a nine-month-old baby girl raped in 2001, but it’s also twenty thousand stories, the estimated number of child rapes every years in South Africa.
But not until the last 15 minutes of the play do we know what “the bad thing” is, the seminal moment on which everything is based. This is when the township changed, when people’s lives took a new turning, when the little South African village became the focus of media attention, and when the society began to fall apart.
Like the best drama, it’s told with absolute simplicity. Simon is the only character who speaks, and his long monologue swings between anger and loving care. The set has a kind of sculptural simplicity – a pile of white sand where a voiceless woman scrubs the floor obsessively with her bare hands; a village made of toy wooden houses; totem-like wooden sculptures Simon makes of the creatures who people his world; and a bare iron bedstead.
The woman is Ruth, played with devastating understatement by Kholeka Qwabe, who for much of the action has a toy bed strapped to her back. She lives with Simon now, although not in an intimate relationship, because it was her baby with another man who was raped and mutilated – and Simon’s re-telling of this incident, which he demonstrates with a broom handle and a loaf of white bread, left the audience chilled and speechless with horror.
There’s much more to the story than this, for there’s also little Alfred, who was beaten so brutally by his mother with a broom so that half his bones were shattered and he was taken away from her and put into care. It is he, we finally learn, not the six men originally accused, who raped the baby, but this is not offered as an excuse for his behaviour, for in this brutal world there is no redemption, no relief, and no hope, just the knowledge that life is like this.
How ironic, then, that the name of the real baby whose suffering inspired this play and gave it its title, means Hope. If the play is, as the playwright insists, a “South African story of hope”, then we can do nothing but weep, and the silence and stillness of the audience as they left the theatre were a demonstration of the power of the story.
But it wasn’t just the story, unrelentingly grim as it is. It was the genius of the actor who plays Simon, Mncedisi Shabangu, that brought to the surface feelings that in the hands of a lesser actor could have been left undisturbed. Unpretentious, even untheatrical in the usual sense, this performance gave us a man who could cope and not cope, who could love and hate at the same time, who was uncomprehending yet could see the horror that lay behind the horror, who remained a Christian but knew that the Sunday School teachers were wrong, and that Jesus wasn’t going to fix anything. If Jesus couldn’t save himself, what use was he to the human race, and so Simon creates another doll to add to his carved Mary and Joseph, a little sister for Jesus who did not have to suffer and so was a more potent symbol.
There are no words to describe the intensity and sheer power of Shabangu’s performance, and although it tore me apart emotionally, I shall never cease to be grateful that I was able to see it.
One baby raped is dreadful, but twenty thousand a year in one country alone – as T S Eliot says, “After such knowledge, what forgiveness?” All we can do is repeat Alan Paton’s words of sixty years ago – “Cry, the beloved country”.
Footnote: Like so many wonderful shows at the Brisbane Powerhouse, Tshepang had only a short run of four nights, so by the time this review is posted it will have moved on. If you regret having missed it, may I urge you to keep an eye on the programming for the Powerhouse, so that you won’t be disappointed in the future. The Powerhouse is perhaps the most important cultural treasure that Brisbane has, bringing us works that prove, to those who need such evidence, that live theatre has something to offer that the screen can never hope to emulate. Their website is www.brisbanepowerhouse.org. Music, theatre and visual art – you won’t find more exciting and eclectic offerings anywhere in this city.
Directed by Lara Foot Newton
Lighting by Wesley France, scenography by Gerhard Marx < BR>
Duration: 85 minutes, no interval