BWW Review: Quirky YOU SUCK (AND OTHER INESCAPABLE TRUTHS) a Rosy-Wretched Comic Gem
Is high school is tougher than it used to be? Maybe I am becoming nostalgic, for it seems that teenagers today have it far harder than I ever did. Nonetheless, it matters not what one's high school experience was like when watching YOU SUCK (AND OTHER INESCAPABLE TRUTHS). This hilariously biting comedy from playwright-performer Klara van Wyk has audiences in stitches of laughter from start to finish as she delves into the depths what it means to be a school pupil in our turbulent times.
Prettina is an Afrikaans schoolgirl whose mother has transferred her to an English school, ostensibly to learn "the language of the world". She struggles to fit in with her new classmates. She has little time for the demands of the diluted Creative Arts curriculum forced upon all Grade 9 South African school pupils by the National Department of Basic Education. She has a star chart in her room that marks her progress towards achieving her goals. She is the kind of so-called "learner" that is probably turning her teachers' hair grey and who is likely the subject of endless sub-tweeting from the student body. She spends hours in her room, listening to music and reflecting on her life experiences. These are the testimonials the audience hears, hilarious rants that expose the lie of the high school experience promised to teenagers around the world in television shows like BEVERLY HILLS 90120 and DAWSON'S CREEK.
Van Wyk's writing in YOU SUCK (AND OTHER INESCAPABLE TRUTHS) is sassy and savvy, gloriously offbeat in the way it plays with ideas and situations that have become all too familiar in pop culture vocabulary. She sketches Prettina in the tradition of Sue Townsend's Adrian Mole, but fleshes out the character in a way that is far more satisfying. Both are unreliable narrators and both confidently misinterpret the cues they are given by their peers due to a rather unfortunate naiveté. In both iterations of the high school loner trope, their isolation is what hooks the reader or audience.
But despite this commonality, there is a fundamental difference that separates the two, and therein lies Van Wyk's brilliance as a writer in both text and performance, for parts of the show rely on spontaneity and improvisation. Whereas Adrian excludes himself based on an elevated sense of intellectuality, Prettina does everything she can to include herself based on an elevated sense of social currency. This enables the character, as a construct, to break free from the trappings of self-centred teenage vanity, something from which Adrian is never able to escape, rendering the character impotent in Townsend's later novels.
Prettina, on the other hand, is endearing: the audience roots for her in spite of inevitable failure. Whether she is learning to master the art of sexy hip-hop dancing or concocting a scheme to have a piercing done without her mother's permission, everyone in the house is on her side. The manner in which Van Wyk invests the audience in Prettina's experiences, both as a writer and a performer, is masterful and the results - organic comedy and genuine pathos - are quite something to experience.
The text of YOU SUCK (AND OTHER INESCAPABLE TRUTHS) is fully supported in both the direction and the design, by Francesco Nassimbeni and Richard De Jager respectively. Through their collaboration, the psychological and physical world that Prettina inhabits becomes a psychedelic wonderland.
Van Wyk's performance of Prettina is as idiosyncratic as the character itself. Despite the absurdity at the core of YOU SUCK (AND OTHER INESCAPABLE TRUTHS), Van Wyk's performance rings true in the grand tradition of clowning, embodying an age-old wisdom seen through child-like eyes. She invests Prettina with a vulnerability that sits in tension with an exuberance that allows her to stand up again each time she falls.
This very dichotomy may be the reason why YOU SUCK (AND OTHER INESCAPABLE TRUTHS) feels unfinished, a momentary lapse in an otherwise magnificent piece of theatre. Structurally, the piece lacks a final scene that brings the audience back into Prettina's everyday world following her extraordinary experiences. Perhaps this is partly a function of festival-syndrome, where sixty minutes has become an idealised running time for new South African plays and performance pieces, with many recent productions clocking in up to ten minutes short of even that mark. Whatever the reason, this 50-minute piece could add a dénouement without making the audience antsy.
YOU SUCK (AND OTHER INESCAPABLE TRUTHS) is one of the quirkiest shows making its way around stages in South Africa at the moment. Having had already had seasons in Cape Town and Johannesburg, the current season at the Alexander Bar precedes a trip to the National Arts Festival in July. It is not important where you see the production, but you should not hesitate to see it when it plays at a theatre in your vicinity. The show will remind you that no matter how long ago you graduated, the patterns you learned in your school-days are still present in your life, whether your memories are rosy or wretched. Perhaps what YOU SUCK (AND OTHER INESCAPABLE TRUTHS) ultimately reveals, though, is that the experience could only have been a rosy-wretched one and that we are all still making our own star charts in the hope that, one day, we too will find a place in the sun.
YOU SUCK (AND OTHER INESCAPABLE TRUTHS) will run until 12 May at the Alexander Bar, Café and Theatre, with performances taking place at 21:00. 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.