Review: Poetic and Powerful SILLAGE an Extraordinary Theatrical Experience

By: May. 16, 2016
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Rebecca Makin-Taylor and Michele Belnap in
rehearsal for SILLAGE, which opened last week

The land that became South Africa was once unspoilt. The sweat of colonialism, urbanisation and apartheid had, by the 1990s, left this country smelling putrid. Then reconciliation was in the air. Its scent was seductive. Its salespeople ensured everyone, despite scepticism, that it would cover up the stench of bodies that had fallen and the inequality that remained. More than two decades later, we are left with the sillage of reconciliation. It is true: the scent lingers like that of perfume but as it wafts away, the smell of a body inhabited space returns. This is what SILLAGE asks of audiences: to recognise that what was left behind did not disappear and that the work needed to clear the air is difficult. That Penny Youngleson's new play accomplishes its enlightenment through a domestic scenario without ever becoming didactic or patronising is extraordinary enough; that it does so by using a powerful, unique and pliable central metaphor makes it all the more remarkable.

SILLAGE dramatises the relationship between a mother and daughter, separated by geography, life experience, socio-political perceptions and the generation gap. When the mother invites the daughter to help pack up the house for an impending move, the ostensibly straightforward transaction of packing up a house in preparation for a move becomes a war, the spoils of which are material, emotional and ideological. Whether or not mother and daughter can find a truce, if not neutral ground, when it comes to the challenges of dismantling the legacy of apartheid and the systemic white privilege, is the stuff of the play.

Youngleson's writing in SILLAGE washes over one like poetry. The words are beautifully crafted. They are chosen selectively and laden with meaning. The spoken text guides the audience to a deep engagement with the subject matter on a personal and societal level, interacting with a full range of physical languages that tease out what could, in less masterful hands, become mundane or heavy-handed. Instead, the subject matter of SILLAGE becomes as distressingly ambivalent as it is in reality, taking on board a complexity that many South African so-called theatre for reconciliation plays discard in favour of a climactic plot structure that works towards a tidy resolution. As in FULL STOPS ON YOUR FACE and NAT, Youngleson offers no such comfort. To do so would be disingenuous. She leaves the audience with questions, leaving us to negotiate our own conflicting head- and heart-spaces with, perhaps, the knowledge that we are not alone in this journey and that the work, somehow, has to be done.

Logo artwork for SILLAGE

As a character study that distils so much of the current debate around the disruption of whiteness into a pair of allegorical figures, the success or failure SILLAGE in performance rests on the shoulders of the actors that bring it to life. Michele Belknap and Rebecca Makin-Taylor make a formidable team. Words, movement, gesture, facial expression and thought flow between them and out into the audience in a seamless, multi-layered interaction. They demonstrate that the influence people wield over others can create sillage too even as they inhabit characters that are as fully fleshed out as they are symbolic. Finding the sweet spot that balances these apparently contradictory modes of performance is no mean feat, but Belknap and Makin-Taylor are up to the task.

Youngleson's design palette for the set, costumes and lighting of SILLAGE is in whites and creams, contrasting starkly the black box that is the Alexander Bar's Upstairs Theatre. White chairs, a table and the actors themselves seem to be suspended in space, waiting to be discovered. For the audience, it is not unlike stumbling into fragments of memory, a sillage of thoughts that the play shapes into what was once represented by the objects left in evidence. The twin costumes for mother and daughter are inspired, an echo across generations in which the distortions are as telling as the similarities.

SILLAGE is a very subtle piece of theatre. It is a play that is about the rupturing of something that is already broken, but which presents the façade of being whole. It is a performance of one generation speaking, only to be misunderstood by the other. It is - with apologies to Bertolt Brecht, who measured the success of art by the latter alone - both a mirror and a hammer, and all the more compelling for that. Its sillage will remain with you long after the lights fade to black.

SILLAGE runs at the Alexander Bar's Upstairs Theatre until 21 May, at 19:00 nightly. Tickets cost R80-R90 and can be booked online at the Alexander Bar website or purchased at the bar. For telephone bookings and enquiries, call 021 300 1652. Alexander Bar & Café is situated at 76 Strand Street in the Cape Town city centre and can be followed on Facebook and Twitter.