Antoinette Kellermann in Koningin Lear. Picture: SUPPLIED
Antoinette Kellermann in Koningin Lear. Picture: SUPPLIED

Director/designer Marthinus Basson and Belgian writer Tom Lanoye are a match made in theatre heaven. They’ve proved that with previous collaborations including Mamma Medea (translated by Antjie Krog) and Bloed en Rose (translated by Basson).

Combining the craft, cunning and creativity of these two to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Klein Karoo Arts Festival (KKNK) is genius.

This time Lanoye has reimagined Shakespeare’s King Lear with Krog (again) translating and Basson directing what seems like a dream cast. Koningin Lear stars Antoinette Kellermann as Elizabeth Lear who has reimagined her small inherited family business and built it into an international empire.

She is ageing with signs of dementia and announces that she wants to divide the business among her three sons, but each of them has to declare their love and loyalty to her. Her youngest and adored son refuses, and this unleashes a torrential family feud.

Many will recognise the bare bones of this tragic tale, but Lanoye being Lanoye, has tied this age-old and much revered play to issues most pressing of our time. It is described as an epic story that comments sharply on the business world where integrity and loyalty have disappeared, and greed has conquered everything and everyone in its wake.

The rest of the cast reads like a who’s who of Afrikaans theatre with Anna-Mart van der Merwe, Rolanda Marais, André Roothman, Neels van Jaarsveld, Wilhelm van der Walt, Edwin van der Walt and Matthew Stuurman, all on one stage, something to relish.

With all these tasty ingredients in one basket, it’s a feast that will be tough to resist for theatre lovers. And a fantastic gift for this 25th anniversary celebration.

It’s a tough one, though, says Basson, who was involved with three productions at the recent Woordfees — of which the massive MI(SA) was yet another creative mountain scaled successfully.

And this is the closest he will get to the one Shakespeare play he vowed never to direct. “I saw the perfect production as a very young man in Munich and I promised I would never mess with that memory,” he says. “I saw a proper catharsis on stage.”

As he talks about the production, every detail is still seared into his memory — from the performances to the production. “To experience heartache like that made me realise why theatre is great. That’s what we should be investing in.”

But Lanoye and a reimagining of the Lear story (rather than the real deal) was impossible to resist — with its focus on family, all tied together by blood. A bloody family feud is at the centre as the vagaries of power, an ageing matriarch sharing her bounty with her sons and many modern-day ills rear their heads, including avarice, anorexia, cunning, deviousness, anxiety … the list goes on. It’s soul food for both the players and those of us watching.

As often with festivals, time is a problem. “We have too little time to rehearse,” says the master of theatre. The play is also three hours long, not the ideal at a festival. Yet Basson junkies will know this is one not to miss. Like the Lear he saw that kept him spellbound, this can also be expected if things play out as they should.

In today’s world where the economy dictates to the arts, even spectacular productions seldom travel further despite all the riches attached to the production like this.

Among these riches is not only the Lanoye text but the Krog translation. Those of us who witnessed Mamma Medea 17 years ago can remember the poetry of her text. “She’s naughty at times,” notes Basson, but it’s a tough one because Afrikaans is cumbersome with rhythms, such a determining factor in Shakespeare’s language. Her translation is resilient, though, something he admires.

Because she and Lanoye have worked together before, she understands his writing and he allows her a free hand to interpret. All this leads to a strong SA-slanted Koningin Lear, which might even add a veiled soap element to this particular Shakespeare.

It is the world of BIG BUSINESS with TV screens dominating the room, Skype rather than cellphones is the communicating tool and on the agenda are markets that might implode, rampant social media and fake news.

When the eldest son has to swear undying love, he mentions acquisitions such as the Plettenberg Bay home, his horses, his Porsche Cayenne and a celebrated vintage wine, all he would relinquish for his mother. You can hardly go more South African than that.

But it is a hellish text to manage, especially for Kellermann, says Basson, who is delighted that she has all that down before they even start work. Yet his heart yearns for plays with 42 players rather than the seven they have, to make this one work.

None of which will detract from Koningin Lear with Basson at the helm. Even with the mass that he recently directed, he had to make do with the ad hoc rather than the main choir. “These were often people without work or very little work but they put their hearts into the singing,” he says. “It puts a slant on privilege. The joy in their performance was astounding and a lesson in what people are capable of doing.”

Basson usually refers to the current production as his last one. Fortunately for local theatre and audiences, he can’t help himself. Whether it is his own imagination that drives him, the opportunities he cannot resist, plays he cannot turn away from or performers he enjoys working with, he keeps coming back. And audiences applaud.

Like the King Lear that stole his heart because time stopped while the story was told, he does similar things when making theatre. It’s always in the detail — no matter how big or small. In the end it all comes together in a production that for Basson fans adds to the greatness of his oevre.

The KKNK runs from March 21 to 27 in Oudtshoorn.