BWW Reviews: Viljoen's THE KINGMAKERS a Fascinating and Lightning Paced Character Study
THE KINGMAKERS is a new play from Louis Viljoen, the award-winning playwright who wrote CHAMP and THE FRONTIERSMEN, the latter of which will be returning to Capetonian stages when the Cape Town Fringe Festival is launched this year in September. In THE KINGMAKERS, Viljoen turns his hand to political satire, delving into the dark side of oppositional politics, where the word of the spin doctors is law and where secrets hold more weight than transparency. There seems to be some confusion as to whether the performance I attended was the opening night or the first in a series of previews; the press kit claims one, while social media avers the other. If the first night was indeed a first preview with the official opening to follow, then the production that audiences see during the next two weeks of the run might not be fully reflected in this column. This represents a legitimate development, because finding shifts in the material that are perhaps less obvious in the rehearsal room is one of the functions of a fruitful preview period. Nonetheless, in the name of full disclosure, my reflection only grapples with what I saw on the stage at the debut performance of the play.
Three characters dominate the action of THE KINGMAKERS. Arlow is an unscrupulous political strategist who sees the game of politics for what it is and is determined to play the game for all it is worth. His colleague, Daniel, appears to have more of a conscience, but whether that is a function of morality or fear is up for question. When the pair's latest scheme goes belly up, Arlow uses Daniel to recruit Amy, a self-serving spin doctor, to put in place a strategy that might save their careers. Without naming any parties, persons or events, mentions of an incident in which the police open fire on a group of miners provides a concrete anchor for the relevance of the piece as a commentary on contemporary South African politics.
While THE KINGMAKERS deals in no uncertain terms with the South African political landscape, Vijoen's play is a character study first and a political play second, which serves well not only the audience, but also the issues under attack. By keeping the target clear and the path of his arrows idiosyncratic, Viljoen finds a fascinating way into the subject matter he has tackled. What is also clear is Viljoen's exploration of the dramatic techniques he uses. As a writer-director, Viljoen places clear stylistic markers his work, the same way that Quentin Tarantino's auteurism defines the style of his films. A key characteristic of Viljoen's plays, for instance, is the way he treats profanity with the same reverence that a Shakespearean scholar would treat iambic pentameter. His usage of vulgarity as a linguistic technique - along with the sheer verbosity with which he endows his sharply delineated characters - helps to define the heightened worlds that he creates in his writing. While THE KINGMAKERS, like others in Viljoen's oeuvre, might look realistic and certainly deal with a reality that yields consequences to which we all become privy, his plays are anything but realist in style. Can such sharp satire ever really be?
Pierre Malherbe, Rebecca Makin-Taylor and Brendon Daniels bring to life the three characters that push forward the narrative of THE KINGMAKERS. Malherbe's take on Arlow is fascinating. He captures well the skin-changing snake of a character he is playing and I suspect his handling of the comedy will become better and better as the play runs in front of an audience. Makin-Taylor is terrifying as Amy. Amy is pragmatic, all about the business while Arlow is all about the game. Makin-Taylor has a keen understanding of that dynamic and of her relationships with the two men, and her delivery of Viljoen's dialogue is razor-sharp. Playing a character that operates as a kind of swing vote, Daniels has the most difficult role to portray and his scrambling for territory was perhaps not quite all within the scope of the drama. I would have liked to see him wrestling more within the narrative than with it.
Viljoen directs his own play so that the scenes fly by at the speed of lightning, pausing only for transitions in and out of scenes, where lights fade slowly to a soundtrack of bluesy soul ballads that sit in delicious tension with the scenes they divide. The design for this production is handled by Viljoen's frequent collaborator, Greg Karvellas, whose fragmented approach works well for the piece conceptually, although it could use a little more polish in its execution.
Despite having much in its favour, THE KINGMAKERS feels strangely unfinished. When the play was over, I felt that we had only reached an interval that preceded the next round of politicking and skulduggery. At that first performance, THE KINGMAKERS had not yet isolated a moment in which everything came together as something that was more than the sum of its parts. Perhaps that has shifted in a week of previews but, for money, THE KINGMAKERS needs more time to tease out its premise and I also think it needs a bigger cast to get where it wants to go. At 60 minutes, it fits perfectly within the normative festival running time and with its small cast, THE KINGMAKERS is made to tour. But here's the thing: THE KINGMAKERS has the potential to be explosive. It could be our own GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS. Louis Viljoen could be our own David Mamet - and even better than that, he'd be our own Louis Viljoen, a theatre maverick in his own right with a play that crystallises his unique voice as a contemporary South African theatre-maker.
THE KINGMAKERS runs until 13 September at the Alexander Bar and Café Upstairs Theatre in Strand Street. Tickets are available online at the Alexander Bar website or through 021 300 1088.