THEATRE: Laughing at harsh realities helps
Land Acts relates the story of a diseased country, as it keeps the audience laughing and willing to face the music, writes Diane de Beer
The unholy trinity of writer Mike van Graan, director Rob van Vuuren and actor Daniel Mpilo Richards are at it again. They have found a way to tell stories with ease about a diseased country and have the audience laughing their heads off while willingly facing the music.
That’s no mean feat but Van Graan, won the 2018 Edita and Ira Morris Hiroshima Foundation for Peace and Culture prize, a biannual international award recognising those who foster dialogue, understanding and peace in conflict areas. He was also awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Pretoria earlier in 2018 and has been peddling these political wares for a long time and has honed his skills in a way that is perfectly palatable.
It all begins with the playwright, who from Pay Back the Curry to State Fracture and now in Land Acts, the third in this alternative history lesson, has street smarts but also knowledge and insight into the shenanigans of politicians who live in the belief that they can pull off the impossible in plain sight. He has found a way to formulate this heady yet heavy going message while fully engaging the audience in a rollercoaster ride.
That’s where the fun starts, with the writing. That’s before checking into the content — simply the writing itself. Van Graan is having fun as he reaches from soccer games with political parties playing the field to Shakespeare as he runs through the titles, characters and phrases easy to pick out and giggle about. He lashes out at land grabs as he gets stuck into the Aboriginal issues down under while dealing with the results of colonialism that simply won’t go away — anywhere and everywhere you look. It might seem too far away but the similarities as we all recognise are glaring.
And yet it’s easier to pick up on the wrongs of others, he seems to say, as he shoots a straight arrow at the American cowboy who sings a looter’s lament in which he has the demand: "You shall not take what I’ve taken from you."
It is the third in the series and it can run forever in the world we live in today. Van Graan himself concedes: "I’m not writing, I’m editing."
But there is more to it than that. Even though there is a formula that runs through the series, the result isn’t formulaic. Van Graan is wise and he takes care with writing that is as wily as it is witty. He has always been the self-appointed town crier. He felt the need to broadcast the message and down the years he has found different ways to conduct and consummate that calling. All you have to do is listen, smile and then mull over and take the distressing truths on board.
Fortunately, Richards simplifies that process. Part of the magic has been the discovery of this performer. He takes the material and has fun with it at breakneck speed, which means from the start he must be word perfect, with a performance that’s seamless. None of the work can be visible and he has to be light-footed yet painfully exact with his execution for everything to work. He plays with every nuance that is required, both to entertain and to underline the gravitas of this material.
He has masses of talent, which is cleverly displayed, from his musical abilities to his way with accents and innuendo, which perfectly capture a look required to tell the story. On car guards, who are part of everyone’s life, the story is easy to tell and while both writer and performer want you to laugh, they also need you to squirm as Richards reminds his audience to tip the car guard when they leave.
It’s that kind of show. As South Africans there’s nothing we don’t recognise in this familiar landscape. But it has been painted in colours that boldly slap us on the shoulder before punching us in the gut.
And to complete the circle, Van Vuuren’s touch is unmissable as he manipulates and massages the skills of a performer who is flagrantly funny or poignant with purpose, when he concludes with a reworked version á la Van Graan of John Lennon’s searing Imagine.
Land Acts is at Sandton’s Auto & General Theatre on the Square until July 29.