White Men With Weapons

(Brisbane Powerhouse)


By Greig Coetzee

Professional production, the Actors Cooperative

Cast: Greig Coetzee

Another stunner/shocker to come out of modern South Africa, but this time from the point of view of a white Afrikaans soldier who finally saw the light about apartheid.

Well, that’s the premise on which this series of characterisations is based, and although in a way they tell us nothing we didn’t know before, it’s the sheer audacity and endurance of Greig Coetzee, the writer/performer of White men with Weapons , that makes this a masterpiece.

The 13 vignettes of different army types are based on his real-life experience as a conscripted left-wing activist in the South African Defence Force. “A mix of psychopaths, cowards, philosophers, killers, breadwinners, thieves, walking wounded and ordinary Joes trying to get through it in one piece,” he calls them, and he portrays them brilliantly, from the feeble Anglican chaplain to the guys on a drunken binge who burn their black rape victim alive – “well, what were we supposed to do?”.

Plenty of laughter, but plenty of horror too, and probably the most astute character is the autobiographical one, who explains at the end that life in South Africa isn’t all black and white (metaphorically as well as literally), but there are ambiguities and complexities that outsiders can never understand fully – and that goes for attitudes to the army as well.

The play is set in the barracks of the South African Defence Force (SADF) in 1990, just before the release of Nelson Mandela and the subsequent lifting of the ban on the ANC. Coetzee’s punch-drunk soldiers, of both Afrikaans and English descent, are about to be shocked out of their privileged racist existence where anything goes, and they’ll be left obsolete and directionless.

Coetzee’s performance is a real tour de force, as he swings from the frustrations of making a bed good enough fore the sergeant’s inspection through the drug-crazed Durban Rambo to the foul-mouthed corporal. For 85 minutes he keeps this up non-stop, seemingly never pausing even to draw breath, tumbling from one role into another with never a slip-up. Each of the characters is established in a phrase, and we are never left wondering who each man is. It really is an award-winning performance, and one that not many actors in the world could pull off with such panache. BR>
Coetzee enlists aspects of his own experience in characters like the “rifle-less rifleman”, the conscientious objector forced to join up but allowed to stay true to his conscience. This has hilarious results, as when he carries not a rifle, but a table, into the field and unfolds it so that the corporal can stand in front of it to issue his instructions – yet another variation on the notorious “dig-a-hole-and-then-fill-it-in” mentality of any army. BR>
We assume – although it hardly matters – that the high-camp cook is an imaginary character, but he adds another dimension to this multi-layered collection, and reminds us that life in the army isn’t very much different from life in prison, but also allows Coetzee to demonstrate his incredible ability to change character with a few words of dialect or a different accent. BR>
Thee play has deservedly won more than 17 major awards, toured South Africa, appeared in New York, Belgium, Holland, Perth and Singapore, and it’s on in Brisbane until the end of the week. BR>
You’ve missed Tshepang, so don’t miss this, another superb offering from South Africa at the Brisbane Powerhouse. Tightly controlled, impeccably performed, funny and heart-stopping by turn, it’s another show not to be missed. BR>
Directed by Garth Anderson

Playing until Saturday 8 October 2005, Tuesday – Saturday at 7.30pm, matinee Saturday 8 October at 2pm

Duration: 85 minutes, no interval

— Alison Cotes
(Performance seen: Thu 29th September 2005)