BWW Reviews: Resonant FISHERS OF HOPE (TAWARET) a Step in the Right Direction for the Baxter
With FISHERS OF HOPE (TAWARET), the Baxter launches a series of productions that reflect the theatre's identity as a home for progressive South African theatre. The uneven DEATH OF A COLONIALIST and one or two other productions notwithstanding, 2014 has felt a little thin on the ground at this revered institution, but now audiences can engage with DESIRE UNDER THE ELMS, with OSCAR AND THE PINK LADY and ...MISKIEN following hot on its heels. But first, there is FISHERS OF HOPE, acclaimed South African writer-director Lara Foot's new play, which deals with the specific trials and tribulations of the fishing community of western Kenya, telling a story that holds a great deal of resonance for us here in South Africa, without being drowned out by our own socio-political history and situation.
FISHERS OF HOPE (TAWARET) starts off with a welcome from Njawu, a tour guide who will serve as both a narrator and character within the play. He takes us into a land that has freed itself from the shackles of socio-political colonialism by the British, only to face socio-economic colonialism by the Chinese fifty years later, where inedible alien fish species have obliterated the indigenous aquatic population and where what was once an industry and a life force can now barely support basic subsistence. John, one of the fishermen who try to scrape out a living under these circumstances, finds himself even further compromised when he is attacked by a hippopotamus and is left with a serious, life-threatening leg injury. His wife, Ruth, believes they could survive if John let her go out fishing with an NGO who empowers women by teaching them how to fish so that they can put food on their meagre tables. John - like all men in this community, it seems - cannot accept the idea of women fishing, even if it means - as Ruth's brother, Niara, believes - that Ruth has to resort to prostitution to support her family, which includes Peter, her nephew who has resorted to selective mutism after witnessing the hippopotamus attack on John.
On paper, the narrative seems quite dense, but Foot communicates the story she is telling to the audience in a way that is straightforward, without ever compromising its complexity. The history of colonialism on this continent has allowed a complicated hybrid mythology to emerge, in which Christian ideas merge with traditional religious imagery. The former is reflected in aspects of FISHERS OF HOPE (TAWARET) such as the use of biblical names as well as in the use of religious icons on stage. , John and Peter were two fishermen who became followers of Jesus, while Ruth is an Old Testament figure who has a particular resonance with her namesake in her role as a hopeful rehabilitator. The latter is presented overtly in the play's subtitle, which refers to a deity derived from Egyptian mythology that took the form of a hippopotamus, while also featuring human, feline and reptilian traits. A fearsome, but protective goddess, there is a deep irony in the catalyst of the action in FISHERS OF HOPE being an attack by the animal embodiment of the deity - and it is that kind of layered intricacy that is the biggest strength of FISHERS OF HOPE (TAWARET) on stage.
Practically, there are some points of execution that are less successful, particularly in the use of spoken language as a medium for communication in the play. There are some conversational turns of phrase that feel foreign to the characters' tongues, almost as though Foot has colonised her characters with her own diction, while the last scenes of the play are dominated by male monologues that obscure Ruth's agency in the plot and tend to tell the audience things that they need to be shown. The tone of some of Njawu's narration, which contextualises the action and distances the audience from it, needed to use of humour in a drier, more sardonic fashion. The liveliness of its delivery - used to counteract the tragedy of the narrative itself - sometimes made it difficult to deepen one's emotional engagement with the play.
FISHERS OF HOPE (TAWARET) is brought to life by some excellent performances. There is a tight sense of ensemble between the actors, which include Mncedisi Shabangu as Njawu, Phillip Tipo Tindisa as John, Lesedi Job as Ruth, Phillip Dikotla as Niara and Shaun Oelf as Peter. Shabangu plays Njawu as affable tour guide with a capacity for emotional insight underneath his forthright exterior. As John, Tindisa treads a careful path, never making a villain out of a construct that could so easily be reduced to one. Job's Ruth is grounded and controlled; she communicates the sense that so much lies beneath what she presents to her family, just like the water that ebbs and flows in the lake that plays such a central role in her lives. Diklota makes for a passionate Niara, although there are times when his delivery of the character's passion overwhelms his articulation. With only a couple of lines to deliver, Oelf's performance is delivered primarily through movement choreographed by Grant van Ster. Together the pair has developed a physical language that pushes the piece further into its lyrical style, and Oelf's range in delivering his word-steps is impressive.
Patrick Curtis's design for FISHERS OF HOPE (TAWARET) is a masterwork. He has created a landscape that captures the arid beauty of the play's setting, with a dock extending over the rippling edge of an actual lake. Upstage, a series of suspended fishing nets, upon which Nina Swart's videography is projected, plays against the stark realism the main set, as does the fragmented depiction of John and Ruth's house on one side of the stage. Curtis has created a world that waits to be inhabited as the audience fills the house, and when the play starts, his scenic design plays no small part in the success of FISHERS OF HOPE's taxonomy of engagement. The soundscape, created by the Carnell Collective, and augmented by live musician Nceba Gongxeka, also helps the audience to dive into the world of the play, working against the narrative distancing techniques to which the play returns throughout its running time.
Divorced from our specific South African context, FISHERS OF HOPE (TAWARET) felt like a fresh breath of air, both for Foot as a playwright and for local theatre in general. Sometimes holding the looking glass up to close to ourselves only obscures or distorts what we should be seeing about the realities that surround us. The argument presented by Foot, that hope and those who can transform that ineffable emotion into meaningful action need to be shifted from liminal spaces into central ones, is all the more powerful coming from a wider, Pan-African perspective.
A great deal has been said recently about the role of South African theatre as a medium for protest and criticism - particularly by playwrights like Mike van Graan, who overtly play into those traditions - and the lack of contemporary South African theatre to embrace that particular movement from our theatre history. While it certainly deals with issues that deserve that kind of attention, FISHERS OF HOPE (TAWARET) moves beyond that easily over-simplified objective and presents a piece of theatre that offers more than that, a step out of the context that might inspire someone to shift their own attitudes and actions. To my mind, that is a great deal more valuable than merely restating what we already know to be wrong, but that which we might feel is hopelessly difficult to mend.
FISHERS OF HOPE (TAWARET) runs until 2 August at 19:30, excepting 24 to 26 July. There is a matinee on Saturday 19 July at 2pm. School's performances are at 11am. Ticket prices range from R110 (preview and matinees) to R120 (Monday to Thursday) and R140 over weekends. Schools block bookings are R50. Booking is through Computicket on 0861 915 8000, online at www.computicket.com or at any Shoprite Checkers outlet. For discounted block bookings, charities, schools, corporate bookings and fundraisers, contact Sharon Ward on 021 680 3962 or firstname.lastname@example.org or Carmen Kearns on 021 680 3993 or email@example.com.