BWW Review: Beautifully profound, HEMELRUIM is a Soul-stirring Journey through the Heavens and Humanity
The stage of The Fugard's Studio Theatre is a black space filled with light bulbs, those trendy statement pieces with the funky filaments that one sees all over the place these days. They represent at once something completely in step with the times and something vintage. Two worlds defined by our perception of time exist simultaneously, and we consequently find ourselves existing in yet another reality - in fact, many alternate realities represented by the number of people in the auditorium, each experiencing a unique and multifaceted narrative, namely our present experience(s) of that seamless blending of design influences. So begins HEMELRUIM, the Afrikaans translation of Nick Payne's CONSTELLATIONS, which is created in this form on this stage through the theatrical mastery of Nico Scheepers.
In CONSTELLATIONS, Payne plays with all the most basic elements of contemporary romance as it has been depicted over the last century or so on stage and screen. As Mariaan, a cosmologist, and Roelof, a beekeeper, live out their experiences on stage, it is difficult not to describe the narrative of the play in the sexist jargon that has become associated with this genre - boy meets girl, boy gets girl, boy loses girl and so on. Payne's writing also connects several tropes that characterise the genre: a soulful straight man meets cute with a manic pixie dream girl, and after they fight their obvious attraction to one another, they realise that they a perfect match and co-exist until a third-act revelation brings about the final challenge they have to face.
What keeps a familiar tale from becoming pedestrian and indeed transforms it into something far greater is Payne's appropriation of concepts from physics such as string theory and the idea of the multiverse to make us reconsider what we think we know about romance, love and relationships. Each sentence, reaction or thought that emerges from Mariaan and Roelof's exchanges reveals a new parallel universe. Some appear to overlap, while others are isolated. In one, Mariaan and Roelof's relationship never starts. In others, it ends abruptly. Still others see the pair in situations they never imagined. All of them are internally consistent.
Payne's multiple manipulations of his characters on the page are superbly handled by Scheepers on the stage. He manoeuvres Tinarie van Wyk Loots and Paul du Toit through the space and around each other like planets orbiting several stars simultaneously. When they pause for a moment, the force of nature takes over, causing a scene to play out on stage in several ways.
And what a force of nature this pair of actors is. Van Wyk Loots is endlessly resourceful, switching effortlessly between the gauche humour to which Mariaan often resorts and the emotional depths that the character uses her tomfoolery to disguise. Her performance lays bare the most intimate aspects of being human. It is wonderful to watch, and difficult, for what she does cuts so deep.
Du Toit, no stranger to dealing with shifting models of gender on stage, offers a range of Roelofs - all straight, which is what the text demands, but depicting a rather refreshing range of masculinities that perhaps exceeds even the multiplicities implied by the script. Often used by Payne as a foil for Mariaan, Roelof is in danger of becoming only that kind of dramatic construct, but Du Toit makes him as vital to the proceedings as Mariaan.
Scheepers, whose exquisite direction and design have already been mentioned here, is also responsible for the translation and music. The translation is sensitively done, precisely capturing the cadence of Payne's writing. The music, which works with the lighting to guide everyone through the multiverse, echoes through the theatre like a melodious heartbeat. Every aspect of this production is meticulously executed to bring its audience into a singular experience of ever-changing multiple realities.
HEMELRUIM is a deeply personal and moving piece of theatre. When the lights finally dim to black, one feels as though something has landed deep within one's soul. The weight of every decision we have - as the play puts it - 'ever and never made' is an incredible burden, but the idea that we already know all the joy and pain there is to know is as liberating as it is difficult to hold. HEMELRUIM is as beautiful as it is profound, like everything we wish on those nights when, alone, we gaze upon the stars.
HEMELRUIM will run at the Fugard Studio Theatre, from 25 April to 13 May on Tuesdays through Saturdays at 20:00 nightly, with a 16:00 matinee performance on Saturdays. The production is in Afrikaans, with English subtitles. The Fugard Theatre is situated in the heart of District Six, on the corner of Harrington and Caledon Streets, Cape Town. Tickets cost R130 - R165 and can be booked online through Computicket, by phone on 0861 915 8000, or in person at any Shoprite Checkers outlet. Bookings can also be made at the Fugard Theatre box office on 021 461 4554.