BWW Review: Thunder Rumbles in Paul Slabolepszy's SUDDENLY THE STORM at the Baxter Theatre
The Market Theatre production of Paul Slabolepszy's SUDDENLY THE STORM is currently in the middle of its Cape Town season at the Baxter Theatre. Having opened just two days after the Naledi Theatre Awards presented the play and its production with awards for Best New South African Script, Best Set Design and Best Lighting Design, SUDDENLY THE STORM arrived in Cape Town with quite a pedigree, one compounded by the fact that this is the prolific Slabolepszy's first new play since 2009.
Slabolepszy, who is known for both his political and popular theatre works, from SATURDAY NIGHT AT THE PALACE and MOOI STREET MOVES to HEEL AGAINST THE HEAD and RUNNING RIOT, is recognised as a master of creating South African characters who speak in local dialects. With SUDDENLY THE STORM, he adds a compelling new trio to the scores of characters that populate his works, each of whom is as instantly recognisable and believable as Vince, September, Henry or Stix. Certainly, it is the characters - and the actors who bring them to life - that drive this piece, teasing its themes into complexities that are not entirely realised in its plot.
Set in the Far East Rand in 2016, the action of SUDDENLY THE STORM begins with the striking image of Dwayne Combrink arriving in his office-cum-workshop with a bloodied baseball bat. This is a play that is not shy of exploring the implied violence that touches the lives of its onstage characters, whether it concerns Dwayne's methods of debt collection, memories of the apartheid era that still haunt him, or current socio-economic situations like the taxi violence that claimed the life of his long-time friend, Jonas.
Dwayne's wife, Shanell, soon enters. Dolled up to the nines as she is, her studied innocence makes her announcement of a movie night with a girlfriend all but credible, a smokescreen for the affair she thinks she is having without Dwayne's suspicions. The uneasy dynamic of their marriage is soon evident. Each talks loudly at the other, but the silences - the lack of any real acknowledgement of their partner from either side - speak even louder. This is a play that is not shy of examining the damaging effects that a marriage can cause to people who are no longer invested in it.
A triptych of narrative twists conspires to push Dwayne and Shanell over the edge. Firstly, Jonas's death moves Dwayne most profoundly, something that Shanell cannot quite understand. Next, Dwayne discovers a rhino horn in Jonas's locker, which Shanell sees as their way out of the East Rand, bringing the two into even more heated conflict. Finally, another woman arrives on the scene. The forty-year-old Namhla Gumede appears to be self-possessed but carries a gun that has Dwayne's name inscribed on the bullets. This is a play that is not shy of exploiting secrets from the characters' past to give itself form and contrive moments of melodramatic revelation.
Indeed, it is the play's reliance on such moments that is its weakness, with the audience able to deduce much of what lies further down the path for these three characters. The narrative patterns that SUDDENLY THE STORM employs are archetypal: mysterious visitors with links to the past always stir things up with the information they represent.
But - turning for a second to a classic drama of the past - what makes the revelation of Nora's act of fraud work so well in A DOLL'S HOUSE? The fact that it is stated upfront, almost before the exposition is through, and that the action depends not on the revelation of her past secret, but on what it means for the other characters onstage and Nora herself were the secret to become common knowledge. Henrik Ibsen lets us overhear privileged information, and dramatic irony does (much of) the rest.
Playing without that sense of dramatic irony weakens the climax and resolution of SUDDENLY THE STORM, much as it did in John Kani's NOTHING BUT THE TRUTH. Both plays examine how the legacy of apartheid affects contemporary South African life, and both imply that reconciliation is an explicit, and automatic result of testimony, a foundation upon which the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was built. In Kani's play, a man's testimony about his wife's affair with his brother is enough to help him reconcile himself with his daughter and niece. In Slabolepszy's play, Dwayne and Namhla's testimonies about their relationship to Thabisa Sangweni is enough to reconcile their relationship with one another before the final curtain. Perhaps it is true that some individuals can reach this kind of understanding on a personal level, but with such a great deal of both academic and testimonial evidence in support of the view that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission - along with other bodies and processes - failed in its mandate to achieve restorative justice, this is a dangerous myth to perpetuate.
Given this context, the argument that SUDDENLY THE STORM is out of step with the reality of South Africa today may appear to be a straightforward one. But it is not, because of one simple truth: the continuing belief held by people such as those around which Slabolepszy builds his drama that the process of reparation and rehabilitation of South Africa is far more successful than it has been. The way that Dwayne's narrative gives the play its spine is also a striking reminder, albeit one broached only slightly in the play itself, of how difficult it is to decentralise white male narratives in the country. In that sense, SUDDENLY THE STORM is very much aligned with the reality of South Africa today.
One aspect of SUDDENLY THE STORM that gives the production a great deal of its heft is the performances. On the page, the distinct voice of each character is clear; in production, the company brings the roles vividly to life. Slabolpszy himself plays Dwayne, giving this East Rand Cowboy - as he is described in the script - many layers between that robust exterior and the absolute vulnerability he keeps hidden deep within him.
Charmaine Weir-Smith is wonderfully awful as Shanell, playing a woman who is constructed to be unlikable, her casual racism being the worst of her sins. She and Slabolpszy play well off each other in creating the dynamic of their marriage, and in these scenes, Weir-Smith tempers Shanell's strident exterior with layers of subtext that helps to tell the other side of her story, which she finally translates into words in the penultimate scene of the play.
As Namhla, Renate Stuurman plays a role that is relatively passive in driving the action of the play until its final scene. She is a brilliant foil, especially for Shanell, and Stuurman delivers her reactions in their memorable scene together perfectly. It is a pity that the climax of the play denies Namhla the agency she could have had, as one can see Stuurman gearing herself up for an emotional payoff that the character never gets.
SUDDENLY THE STORM is directed with immense care by Bobby Heaney, whose eye for detail penetrates every level of the piece, from the feedback he offered to Slabolepszy at the time when this play was a two-hander called GUARDING MRS GUMEDE, through the stage business he has created with the company that add hugely to their characterisation as well as to the development of the overall rhythm of the production, to the intricacies that he has (in line with the text) demanded be realised in the design of the play's set, costumes, lighting and sound.
Greg King's set design is magnificent, not only because Dwayne's office-cum-workshop is so beautifully realised in exquisite detail, but also because of how successfully the life of the offstage spaces is implied. The passage leading off into the Combink's house is masterful in itself, supporting and even communicating some of the things we learn about the way that Dwayne and Shanell live. Having running water onstage adds to the verisimilitude of the whole affair, but the detail that seals the deal is the leak in the roof that materialises along with the storm. King's work here is a triumph. His costume design similarly captures the three characters, although there are times when Shanell's outfits threaten to over-egg the pudding.
Wesley France's lighting design is so skilful that it goes almost unnoticed, but his work pushes the action forward, helping to shift the rhythms of the action as it develops. Ntuthuko Mbuyazi's sound design uses music by instantly recognisable artists such as Johnny Clegg and the Soweto Gospel Choir to link the scenes, along with a range of sound effects, including a security gate that claps shut as loudly the breaking thunder that punctuates the titular storm.
SUDDENLY THE STORM is the latest in a tradition of high-profile plays that have reflected on the issue of post-apartheid reconciliation in the quarter-century since South Africa began transitioning from apartheid to democracy, joining the ranks of pieces like the aforementioned NOTHING BUT THE TRUTH and Athol Fugard's PLAYLAND. The dramatically satisfying and cathartic trap of resolution that so often catches these plays in its grasp lies in wait here too, but SUDDENLY THE STORM ultimately deals with the issue in greater complexity than some of its forebears. So many people in South Africa do not know where we are in the journey towards the future of our country. SUDDENLY THE STORM captures us in that moment of uncertainty. The thunder is rumbling, but lightning has not struck yet.
SUDDENLY THE STORM runs at the Baxter Flipside until 8 July at 19:30 nightly, with a matinee performance on 8 July at 14:00. Tickets range in price from R130 - R160 and can be booked online through Computicket, by phone on 0861 915 8000, or in person at any Shoprite or Checkers outlet. The show carries an age restriction of 16 years.