Brandon Auret, Molefi Monaisa and the other cast members of The President’s Man read about the death threats against public protector Thuli Madonsela in their play script two weeks before the news broke in the media.
Well, in a sense. In Mpumelelo Paul Grootboom’s new political thriller, it’s a principled senior prosecutor (not the public protector) who fears for her life after launching a probe into a deadly corruption imbroglio that reaches right to the top. But the similarity struck uncomfortably close to the bone for the players.
Such is the depth of political malfeasance in the country, the actors say, that the art that’s being played out on stage inevitably ends up reflecting life as it is in SA, whether intentional or not. Sadly, no gift of prescience is required.
The President’s Man is a chilling parable about political rot, murder, cover-ups and the tangled webs that the elite weave to consolidate their grip on power. It’s loosely based on the monumental fall from grace of former police commissioner Jackie Selebi, and how he was protected by those in power while consorting with known gangsters.
The names have been changed and the story has been embellished and painted in bolder brushstrokes for dramatic effect. It is imprinted with Grootboom’s signature flair for visceral (and often bloody) ensemble drama, but with more dialogue and less sex and violence than, say, two of his best-known works, Cards and Relativity: Township Stories.
Lately he’s been venturing more into political territory, as with his Thabo Mbeki satire Rhetorical. The President’s Man continues this thread as a damning indictment on the culture of cronyism. It’s currently showing at the State Theatre in Pretoria until June 25 — and was funded with state money, believe it or not.
But Grootboom is not too worried about the political fallout. This is the former Standard Bank Young Artist’s last in-house production for the theatre, which he has just left after 14 years to join independent television production hot shop Bomb, but the State Theatre has in any case staged politically sensitive content in recent years without any come-backs.
“I have been scared of doing it because of its politics — that they’d say I’m bashing the government,” he admits. “But censorship hasn’t happened here yet [in the democratic era], and personally I don’t think they [the politicians] take theatre seriously. So this is no harm, and I think that’s why they allow it. And I was emboldened by our CEO [Sibongiseni Mkhize] saying that we should do these stories that are self-critiquing of the current order, for things to be better.”
The Selebi cautionary tale had interested Grootboom for several years, and he considered applying to adapt journalist Adriaan Basson’s book, Finish and Klaar, for the stage. However, he eventually decided to steer slightly away from the Selebi story and write his own script, incorporating another idea that had been percolating, about a corrupt president — with names changed to protect the not-so-innocent.
So, in The President’s Man, we meet Alfred Kutu (Monaisa, known for his role in Skeem Saam), the seemingly untouchable police chief who is up to his eyeballs in illicit dealings. When a whistle-blower presents a dossier to the prosecuting authority, he scurries to his partner in crime, a Greek underworld boss (Auret —District 9, Elysium, Chappie), to “fix” things. And that he does — with devastating consequences.
Last Sunday’s matinee was crammed with schoolchildren — some apparently from primary schools — watching a play that teems with swearing, explicit violence and sexual suggestiveness. They seemed to enjoy it, even swarming the stage and posing for selfies afterwards. To suit the young audience, only the first act of the three-hour play was performed, leaving many of the narrative threads unresolved. It ended with the agonising death of one of the good guys — hardly the message one would want juveniles to leave a theatre with.
The writer/director agrees that the play should have a 16 age restriction, and is keen for the play to tour the country and possibly internationally, particularly to Germany.
Grootboom speaks measuredly, but thinks deeply. Often referred to as the “Township Tarantino” for his uncompromising (and graphic) depictions of violence, he doesn’t shy away from society’s dark and ugly faces.
William Faulkner wrote about how writers sometimes have to “kill your darlings” — your scenes, your characters, that you have so lovingly developed — for the sake of the reader or viewer. Grootboom rails against it.
He has often come under fire for the length of his plays — routinely three hours — which he acknowledges as a “weakness”, but he is reluctant to change his signature style for the sake of short attention spans.
“People say: ‘Why do you first establish a family before you kill it?’ The way I see it is that when a guy decides to kill one person, other people get affected by a blind decision. The great negative of that is the play becomes long.”
He’s interested in character development and motivation, not cardboard cut-outs. “That’s something I’ve loved in novels — you can go in depth into something, even if it’s meaningless. That’s why I’ve struggled [writing for] TV,” reveals the writer of series such as Isibaya. “I get told: ‘Don’t do that’ because TV is time-dependent.”
Even though the play has opened, he’s changed the ending, but is deliberating whether to change it back. At the core is whether the protagonist — the wayward top cop — should die. “If he dies, perhaps there’s some resolution,” he muses.
“[Though the play may seem bleak], personally I think that a work that can expose a person like that offers hope. I was given advice that he’s too terrible not to die; that he should die ... so people will feel like justice has been done.
“The character in the play is worse than real-life Selebi, and a place that can allow someone like that is doomed. But personally I think a place that can expose someone like that is hopeful. Even now, there’s robust dissent in the country and I think that’s positive, being in an environment that exposes and doesn’t let things lie under the carpet.”
Actors Auret and Monaisa have a more cynical take. Says Monaisa: “The same people who brought democracy into the country are the ones who are acting against it, and protecting each other. The struggle was about equal rights and helping the majority to be empowered, but you can’t do that if public officials are corrupt.”
Auret, not known for mincing his words, adds: “This is a culture that’s accepted: leaders living a life of luxury that the youth look up to, thinking that’s what they need to do [to succeed in life]: get in government and do what government does — become a criminal.
“As for the people who laugh when people are shot and stabbed [in the play] — this is their reality.”
He’s feeling particularly bitter because he feels his vote means nothing, yet he is starting to feel personally affected by “the politics of corruption”. The SABC, he claims, has been flighting repeats of work he has featured in but has failed to pay him the residuals (royalties) he is owed.
In the light of such practices, he believes there is a place for a modern form of protest theatre: “Political theatre served as a voice for years, allowing the masses to look at themselves. This play shows that corruption is not just about money — it’s about lives. Taxpayers need to watch this play. It’s an awakening.”
Monaisa agrees: “Plays like this one serve to wake people up. This is the reality we live in — this play is a mirror.”
This week, State Theatre CEO Sibongiseni Mkhize promised to attend to concerns raised about the play's age restriction and the fact that groups of young schoolchildren are being booked to see it.