Secrets: The cast of Jungfrau is, from left, Jaques de Silva, Tracey-lee Oliver, Carla Classen and Ameera Patel. The play is based on a short story by Mary Watson. Picture: JAN POTGIETER
Secrets: The cast of Jungfrau is, from left, Jaques de Silva, Tracey-lee Oliver, Carla Classen and Ameera Patel. The play is based on a short story by Mary Watson. Picture: JAN POTGIETER

Mary Watson’s Caine Prize-winning short story, Jungfrau, has been adapted for stage by playwright and performer Ameera Patel, with Jade Bowers as director.

The play, commissioned by Germany’s Festival Theaterformen, debuted at its contemporary theatre showcase in June before opening at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown.

Included in Watson’s short story collection called Moss, Jungfrau is a skilfully written poetic piece of literature that uses graceful imagery through a child’s imagination to reveal disturbing family secrets.

Set in Redhill, Cape Town, before the forced removals, the text is cleverly suggestive. It weaves subtleties and leaves spaces in between for the reader to go back to, while giving insights into the familial and social relationships shaped by the politics of the time.

The word "jungfrau" is German for a young woman or virgin, and the title is based on one of the main characters, Virgin Jessica, who captures the adoration of the child from which the narrative unfolds.

Watson, born in Cape Town and now living in Ireland, is a seasoned academic with a PhD and two creative writing master’s degrees to her name. Her first master’s was obtained under novelist and professor Andre Brink at the University of Cape Town, and Jungfrau originated as part of this 2001 master’s thesis.

Motivations 

Watson is also the author of the psychological thriller The Cutting Room (2013) and the new young adult debut, The Wren Hunt.

Patel herself is a brilliant creative writer with a master’s degree from Wits University. Her first play, Whistle Stop, a charming whimsical love story steeped in physical theatre, won the Performing Arts Network of SA new writer’s award at the National Arts Festival in 2014. Her first novel, Outside the Lines, was long listed for the Barry Ronge Fiction Award.

Patel also plays Virgin Jessica and her strengths as a performer and a writer were certainly helpful in the process of the adaptation.

"It’s been a huge help because I like to think that I write for performance. Because theatre is so collaborative, I wanted to leave space for the director to direct and for the actors to find motivations. From an actor’s perspective, you get to sit in the minds of the different characters and the way that they come out. And that helped," says Patel.

"What also worked in our favour was that it is a short story I was adapting. And the form is so contained already that it is perfect for theatre. It’s beautifully metaphorical and poetic already that it translates so well on stage. Mary Watson writes with such subtlety and allows the images to ride on a different wave and I have kept that in the adaptation."

Watson’s beautiful writing plays well into the hands of Patel, who loves heightened text. Patel’s Whistle Stop is a witty script. She is also drawn to strong family narratives, particularly stories with a South African context.

Adaptations 

To make the words appealing in a theatrical setting, a heightened physical language has been incorporated into the play to complement its writing.

"This allows the language and the body to play on different planes to create a new language in between. This new language works specifically well when delving into family relationships, where because of the familiarity within a family there is so much that isn’t said, but is definitely understood. This lends itself to how things carry through in families, how you consciously or unconsciously pick up on your parents’ habits, and how traditions are handed down," Patel says.

Adaptations are not easy as the original ideas have to be balanced with new ones to do justice to the original work. Patel faced the same challenges.

"It was difficult at first because I have never been commissioned to write something where the impulse hadn’t come from me initially. It was overwhelming. But once I found my silence and my voice in Mary’s voice, I started to have fun with it," she says.

"It’s been great to be in the process as a performer too because whenever Jade, as the director, had additional notes on what to add to the script, I could feel it and had a better understanding because I’m in the piece as well," Patel says.

Jungfrau is on at the University of Johannesburg Con Cowan Theatre until July 22.