BWW Reviews: Evocative SALT Lingers After the Lights Dim at the NAF
Although it is in early theatrical work of a young professional theatre-maker, SALT arrived at the National Arts Festival with one of the most difficult yokes for a new piece of theatre to bear: the burden of great expectations. Perhaps this is not true for every audience member who makes his or her way down to the Cape Town Edge venue, but anyone who has witnessed the blooming careers of the young ensemble that brings SALT to vivid life at the Princess Alice Hall will know precisely what I mean. Written and directed by Wynne Bredenkamp, who had a hand in bringing the award-winning BEHIND EVERY YAWN THERE IS A SILENT SHOUT to the student platform last year, SALT features a cast consisting of Emma Kotze, David Viviers and Daniel Richards, whose performances in student and, following graduation for some, professional productions also promised great things.
SALT deals with reality in a deftly post-modern fashion, using physical theatre to destabilise what could be a fairly straightforward narrative about a doctor treating a patient who has been lying in a hazy fog of medication for several years. Thomas, the doctor, opens the play at a hearing, swearing to tell the truth about Aya and what happened to her while she was in his care. As events unfold, we learn that Aya lives in a world of multiple realities, one in her psychiatric ward and one at the bottom of the sea, where she sees her otherwise invisible brother, Raiyu, who cautions her against opening herself up to the doctor. As Aya learns to trust Thomas and begins to reveal what has happened in her past, the audience is plunged into a world of theatrical reality, imagination, schizophrenia and delusion, where competing narratives clash within Aya's mind.
Memory (loss), the shifting relationship between the past and the present, and what one leaves behind as a spiritual-imaginative being as one moves forward in a physical-material realm are three themes that present themselves clearly in Bredenkamp's script. In crafting her narrative, she has transformed these ideas so that they resonate with the audience in a way that shifts the abstract into a deeply moving experience.
As a director, she finds the ideal emotional trigger point in her writing to achieve this kind of engagement. It is a small moment, where an orange darts around the stage and compels the audience to believe that any of the multiple versions of reality presented on stage could indeed be true, but that perhaps to consider any one of them as "the whole truth and nothing but the truth" might be reductive. From then on, things become unsettling as emotions churn in one's belly, just like the sea that serves as such an important symbol in the play. That Bredenkamp manages to keep things churning right up until the final moment is a testament to her artistry.
The cast, each of whom use different acting and performance techniques in bringing their respective fragments of narrative to life, is uniformly excellent. As Thomas and Theo, a character from Aya's memory who surfaces during her therapy, David Viviers works in a style that is possibly best described as a kind of lyrical realism, the audience's entry point into the world of the play. Both characters have a sincerity and integrity to them that can be tough for an audience to believe, but Viviers plays his roles with an endearing sympathy that works for what needs to be done.
Emma Kotze proves to be a versatile performer. Her acting as Aya is grounded and layered and when the piece calls on her to be physical when portraying her younger self, she proves to be agile and surprisingly strong. The contrasts she achieves as she develops from one character to another, with accompanying shifts in the language Bredenkamp uses to characterise her, are at times astoundingly profound. As Raiyu, the most abstract of the three characters, Daniel Richards comes across first as a pervasive and intrusive presence and then as a real threat - even when he appears as by invitation or in the role of protector. It is difficult to create that kind of ambiguity without watering down one's specificity in each respective interpretation of a role, but Richards finds the right journey through it. Working even more with his physicality than Kotze does, his relatively fewer words really count when he speaks.
Completing the performance and extending the sense of multiple realities on the stage, the design of SALT is evocative, a few multi-functional pieces of furniture lit in low lighting states that play over the set like waves of water. The soundscape, part of which is created by a live didgeridoo played on stage by Richards, also helps to establish the mood and atmosphere.
SALT is an incredibly satisfying theatrical experience, the emergence of a new voice within the South African theatre landscape. Bredenkamp has created the kind of theatre that helps to reveal one to oneself, pushing one to rediscover things about the truths of one's own existence. It is a haunting journey and one lives in the mind and the heart for some time after the lights fade to black on the final images of the play.
SALT is currently in the middle of a run at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, playing at the Princess Alive Hall as a part of the Cape Town Edge. The show runs at 11:30 daily until the end of the festival and tickets can be booked on the National Arts Festival website.