Not once in the last two weeks leading up to the launch, did I consider just how palpable or moving, without wanting to sound too clichéd, the Athol Fugard play I had chosen to review would be. The last encounter I had with Fugard, the grandfather of South African theatre; overly celebrated, if you ask me, was during my first year at university. The task back then was probably far more turgid and academic than the one I was now tasked with. I wouldn’t call it a review, no. I merely went with the intention of watching, like all the other ordinary people seated in the 100-or-so theatre space that was much smaller than I imagined. Then again, I’ve always had the sort of vivid imagination to over-imagine if you will.
But I wasn’t disappointed, if that’s what you’re thinking. In fact, I found the smaller venue to be quite an intimate setting, conducive to the sort of story about to unravel. A story that wasn’t only frugal in its nature, but that housed characters who were themselves frugal. When they weren’t depressed, afraid, or frustrated that is.
Nice one Mr. Odendaal, I thought in silent praise of the director’s attention to detail, in realising that in order to revive the qualities and elements of the story, originally penned in 1968, there would need to be less distraction and other such trivial things.
It’s the sort of plain, yet purposeful story that could only be received appropriately, I imagine, under the conditions of very little to no embellishments. A vision its director, Andre Odendaal takes and brings to life, without allowing any part of the story to be missed or lost.
The stage is on ground level, and when the actors emerge, there is no distance between them and the audience, especially those on the front row like myself; if I stretched my foot out any further, you could say I was infiltrating their space. Trespassing. A single light shines above a table on which a box of cigarettes, matchsticks, and an ashtray lay, and four chairs stand loosely around it, as if its last occupants were impatient children too eager to get outside. It’s a kitchen.
On the wall behind there hangs a long shelf adorned with paraphernalia most grandmothers would duly recognise; from the tins of biscuits and cereal, to the stack of cups and bowls glinting in the overhanging light. There’s even a deep basin with brass taps; the likes of which you would only turn in older homes these days.
Nearby a closed pot stands on one of those truck-looking stoves, seminally adding to the “brewing” of whichever drama will inevitably unfold in the next hour and a half.
Kitchens, I think, have always been apt spaces for confrontation. It’s a theory I heard somewhere a while back, and after some time began to pay heed to. It’s a communal space, where food and coffee is made, meaning that it’s likely to attract people even if they weren’t there to be productive. It gets down in the kitchen.
Four characters, namely; Milly, Don, Shorty and Sissy share an apartment together in Braamfontein. Milly, the dissatisfied and recently out-of-love female (your woman scorned) is the central protagonist, who seems to have opened up her loft to boarders, most likely with the intention of fiscal gain and clandestinely, some company. Don (Carel Nel) on the other hand is a dissatisfied and pedantic neurotic, whose lanky frame and yawning sense of fashion surmount to that of a stereotypical geek. Odendaal plays intelligently on this mechanism in Don’s character, during such scenes like the one in which Don charmingly declares that Sissy, who just asked him to look away as she toyed with her stockings, is coming on to him. In all her matriarchal splendour, Milly responds to his delusions and the flaws in his character are exposed.
An alleged ‘scientist’, he also meddles in the reading of other personalities, most notably Shorty’s, whom apart from being a good boxer, is a complete pushover. No doubt a theme in this psychological portrayal of human existence and the banality of everyday life, Athol Fugard plays around with this, using witty dialogue that sometimes results in humour, to underline the way people perceive, and ultimately respond to one another.
It must be added what prowess must have been needed, especially by the lead actress, Anna Mart Van Der Merwe, whose execution of the role of Milly- the tired or (re)tired landlady, if you will, was done with careful precision and exactness. From her accent to her antics, everything about her delivery suggests that she is indeed not only a natural at what she does, but that she does what she does with profound attention to detail. A sheer actress. Very observant and focused in her portrayal of a sad and lonely woman who has come to rely on her lodgers to distract her from her own misgivings and overbearing nostalgia. And even though there are constant attempts to quell her yearnings and uplift her spirits, like the symbolic scene during which she partakes in a play-fight with Shorty who is played by Francois Jacobs, wearing his red boxing gloves, what always emerges is a near-strong woman (near being the operative word) who is outright defeated and oblivious to the rush and feel of life. She is wholly envious and very temperamental, guided by the little girl within her, it is ultimately valour and experience that abet Van Der Merwe’s theatrical feat with bringing to life Fugard’s quasi-disturbed matriarch.
People Are Living There is a poignant case study of life as seen through the eyes of four people amalgamated by chance in an orgy of bitter resentment, pessimism, fatigue, and frustration as they tackle with the prospect of fading away without ever being remembered. A pleasant and thought-provoking experience, that could make one question both instinct and motive. A palpable and heart-warming piece that emerges as a love story, if correctly understood, with a lesson about reality and how prepared one should be for whichever obstacles may lie in one’s wake.
Like Shorty whose daft persona and simpleness in character could never have been enough to prepare him for life with Sissy, whose own misfortunes have led her down a path of indecision where her notion of the future is confined to being with a man like Shorty whom she clearly doesn’t genuinely love, but dotes on for financial and social gain.
Although her role is small and her stage presence is limited to quick walk-ins, Dania Gelderblom in all her grace and charismatic dissatisfaction adds to the play’s subsistence with the theme of nostalgia, and embodies or personifies the psyche on which Milly’s setbacks are formed. Hence, she is almost a direct remodelling (or a younger version) of the now 50 year old Milly, who more than just wants to overcome the quietude of the prison cell-cum-flat she shares with a considerably younger trio of mismatched people, also wants to be loved. Unconditionally so. And on the day of her 50th birthday, the event around which the plot revolves, the need for difference or change rather, beyond waiting for life to happen might be a recipe for excitement. Called on in Milly’s own words:
“There must be something we can do! Make a noise! Make them stop in the street, make them say: People are Living There”,
The usurped dreamer will live it up in a cacophony of ‘madness’, with surprising results. I found it funny, but also charming, and damning enough to recommend for theatre lovers, especially those who resonate well with realist productions.
People Are Living There
Written by Athol Fugard
Directed by: Andre Odendaal
Anna Mart Van Der Merwe
People Are Living There is still showing at the renowned Market Theatre, in Newtown Johannesburg and will run until the 24 May 2015. Show times are 20h00 for 20h15 Tuesdays to Thursdays, and 15h00 on Sundays.
For specials, ticket prices, and information on the show click here or call Computicket on 083 915 8000.
words by: @RaeezJacobs
Images supplied courtesy of Coudyzer