Theatre Review: A brutally honest look at life and loss
The nature of this challenging play triggers intense experiences for the audience, cast and production crew, writes Kgomotso Moncho-Maripane
Death is a symbol of endings and beginnings. It is also a strong theme running through a series of plays at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg.
Now on is British playwright Zinnie Harris’s newest work, Meet Me at Dawn, starring veteran television and stage actresses Pamela Nomvete and Natasha Sutherland, directed by Lesedi Job. It is a thought experiment on the anguish that comes with death.
Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, on at the Market Theatre until April 1, is Didion’s reflection on the death of her husband and their only child. In January Nomvete directed the Mike van Graan play Another One’s Bread, which uses death as a vehicle for issues around food and feeding schemes.
For the leading ladies of Meet Me at Dawn, death as a cultural theme is a symbol for the shifts that are taking place right now.
"This is something we discussed at the beginning of rehearsals -that we are on a dawn of a whole lot of new ideas. Old paradigms of thinking are shifting," says Sutherland. "People are questioning, and effective hashtag campaigns are on the rise. For beginnings to take place, there have to be endings, intertwined. Loss resonates on so many levels."
Nomvete says this is "an amazing time" in SA. The transformation people have been waiting for is finally emerging.
We are on a dawn of a whole lot of new ideas. Old paradigms of thinking are shifting
"I do think it’s because of the younger generation, who are taking issues on.
"They’ve understood that somebody has got to take the country forward and they are saying no to the old and bringing in the new," she says.
Meet Me at Dawn premiered at the Traverse Theatre at the Edinburgh International Festival in August 2017. It explores grief and the madness of thought that can occur when you lose someone to death.
Harris draws from the Orpheus and Eurydice myth to display people’s desperation for more time with their loved ones if given a chance.
The play is set on a beach where two women find themselves washed up after a boating accident.
"When James Ngcobo gave me the play to read he said it’s like a female version of Waiting For Godot, which is surreal.
"But this play goes somewhere, whereas in Waiting for Godot they are stuck," Sutherland says.
In essence, the play is an ode to love from which other subtexts flow. That the love is between an interracial lesbian couple won’t be lost on South African audiences, although that is not the focal point. Love and loss are, and that resonates with every human.
The words and their rhythm — the incomplete utterances and half thoughts at the beginning and whole sentences at the end — give the play its fragmented and surreal quality.
In this dreamlike state things are dead and alive at the same time. Projections of people’s fears and desires are on display, creating parallels between the real and the fantasy, sometimes in a loop.
Sutherland says the text is "thought poetry in motion".
"Thought can ramble. And the playwright has really explored the workings of a mind," Nomvete adds.
While thought is fleeting, death and grief centre it in the play. The characters’ processes of reasoning take them from the geographical to the psychological and then to the emotional.
The production is staged intimately in the Mannie Manim Theatre to mirror the intimacy, sensitivity and personal nature of loss. The comedy, absurdity and emotion of the play are in close view.
In its climax the play gets brutally honest while still allowing the words to sing. The calming sounds of Bobby McFerrin are beautifully and subtly used to counteract the effects.
Nomvete and Sutherland present a seamless chemistry and allow the words to shine in their performance. Their English accents are also organic — almost an afterthought.
Nomvete lived in the UK for years before returning to SA in 1994. She lived again in the UK from 2007 to 2014.
The play is challenging because of its experimental approach and the successful devotion to it.
But it is also because death and grief are challenging to experience – whether you’re waiting for someone to die or whether they die suddenly. It’s triggering too because of the resonance of this theme. An audience member walked out in the middle of the play on opening night, overwhelmed with emotion.
Theatre making is a collaborative endeavour and Sutherland and Nomvete reveal that the crew for this production dealt with their personal stories of loss and grief during the making of this show.
"Our process was completely organic. I think it had to be because of the sensitive and personal nature of the play. It has brought up something for all of us, including our stage manager, Malebo Mokoto, who went through her own journey triggered by the contents of the play," Nomvete says.
Sutherland says she is big on storytelling and is setting up a website on which she tells women’s stories. "In the first few days of reading this play, seeing how it triggers universal concepts, the beautiful individual stories of four women came around the table," she says.
"The graciousness that women are prepared to share their stories with created this beautiful tapestry and safety from us to launch the next step."
For Nomvete. the only other meaningful experience she has had like this was with the HBO film Sometimes In April, in which all involved were deeply affected by the work and driven by its capacity to heal.
• Meet Me at Dawn is on at the Market Theatre until April 15.