BWW Review: Theatrerocket's DIE REUK VAN APPELS is Unforgettable, First Rate South African Theatre at The Fugard Studio
In many ways, it comes as something of a surprise that DIE REUK VAN APPELS has not made its way to the stage until now. Mark Behr's uniquely South African debut novel won multiple awards in the 1990s, its searingly honest observations about how the sins of South African fathers are visited upon their sons leaving an indelible impression in the minds of its readers. Perhaps the universe was waiting for this perfect confluence of the source material, production company, playwright, director and actor before it gave us the theatre piece that is currently on stage at The Fugard Studio, having already toured the country to wide acclaim. Theatrerocket's presentation of DIE REUK VAN APPELS is top class South African theatre, not only a reminder of our painful collective past but also a recognition of our current collective pain.
Johann Smith's adaptation of DIE REUK VAN APPELS stays close to Behr's novel, presenting 11-year-old protagonist Marnus Erasmus's memories of the summer of 1973 as a series of observational stories. Interspersed among these tales are monologues set some 15 years ahead of that time, three months after the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale, which Nelson Mandela once called 'a turning point for the liberation of our continent and my people'.
It is in these introspective moments - time stolen while Marnus, now a soldier fighting in the South African Border War, waits for orders to move out - that the man tries to make sense of his experiences as a boy, including his relationship with his father, the visit of an army general from Chile, his erstwhile friendship with Frikkie Delport, and the meaning of the smell of apples. The question is whether, at this moment of political liberation, he can find personal liberation from the ghosts of his part and make sense of the man that he has become.
Lara Bye masterfully directs Gideon Lombard in performing DIE REUK VAN APPELS. She moulds this harrowing narrative into a piece of theatre that elicits a physical reaction from its audience, her choices collaborating with Lombard's to create a piece of theatre that subtly works its way into your consciousness and then, into your soul.
Lombard's performance as Marnus is a triumph. He uses every last reserve of wit, emotion and technique to tell this story. He is never contrived. His work is so intensely truthful that, almost before you know it, you are there with him in Angola trying to puzzle out everything that happened in the South Africa of his childhood. Lombard's work here is the best kind of acting: not only does he embody someone else's spirit, he also takes you along with him. I think that the reason why people find watching DIE REUK VAN APPELS so visceral is that, somehow, Lombard manages to shift our consciousness along with his. This kind of magical empathy lies beyond talent, beyond training, beyond anything explicable. It is what lies at the heart of the theatrical ritual, that ineffable thing that has made performance essential to our existence since the dawn of time.
The visual and aural world DIE REUK VAN APPELS is as carefully created as any other element of its production. The set is beautifully simple, a floor cloth and a chair with an army jacket suspended mid-air, the shadow of Marnus's father, who was the youngest major-general in the South African Defence Force, always hanging over him. The piece is beautifully lit by Kosie Smit; everything on stage seems to live more vitally under his effective design. In addition to performing the play, Lombard has designed soundscape for the production, his work here takes one even deeper into the universe created on stage.
It almost seems inadequate - reductive, even - to name DIE REUK VAN APPELS the best piece of theatre I have seen all year. It is great work of art. It left me heartbroken. It left me speechless. It left me full of emptiness, for a moment, and then it left me able to make better sense of who I am, of who we were as a nation decades ago and of who we are today. And of course, it only accomplishes all that because it does not leave you. Once seen, DIE REUK VAN APPELS is unforgettable.
DIE REUK VAN APPELS, which is performed in Afrikaans with English surtitles, runs at the Fugard Studio Theatre until 11 November on Tuesdays through Saturdays at 20:00 with a 16:00 matinee performance on Saturdays. Tickets for previews and Tuesdays cost R130, Wednesdays R155, and Thursday to Saturdays R165. Bookings can be made online through Computicket, by phone on 0861 915 8000, or in person at any Shoprite Checkers outlet. Bookings can also be made at the Fugard Theatre box office on 021 461 4554. The production carries an age restriction of 16 for sex, nudity, strong language, violence and prejudice.