BWW Review: Viljoen Places Observers and the Media In Camera in Philosophical THE EULOGISTS at The Fugard
It is, perhaps, ironic that most works of art that revolve around death deal with its effect on the living. Ironic, yes, but not surprising. Even though our planet orbits the sun, it is our lives on earth over which we obsess. And in our obsessions, we build ourselves into the gods of our own mythologies. What we forget is that hubris walks hand-in-hand with nemesis, and Louis Viljoen shines a spotlight on this particularly damning walk of shame in his latest play, THE EULOGISTS.
THE EULOGISTS plays out on the eve of the death of a great statesman. The statesman is unnamed in the play, but the parallels to the death of Nelson Mandela in 2013, as well as the long wait and the media frenzy that preceded his passing, are clear. Holed up in the small town where everyone has gathered for the event, Audrey is meant to be working on a new preface for the second edition of her book about her previous experiences with the man, When I Spoke to Him, He Spoke to Me. Zee, who is sharing her room, appears to be working with her, but it is clear that he is also working on something else. When Harris, a correspondent for an American radio station, is thrown into the mix, Viljoen orchestrates a shakedown in which it becomes apparent that devil does not always look after his own.
Viljoen's writing in THE EULOGISTS takes on an existentialist quality that is not unlike that rendered by Jean-Paul Sartre in HUIS CLOS. His placement of the media into a context where they appear in camera is one of the delightful contradictions that permeates the entire body of his work. But while the play delivers some hard socio-political truths that are difficult to hear and which are quite breath-taking in the moment of performance, it is hard to put one's finger on THE EULOGISTS. It is not as visceral as THE PERVERT LAURA, as provocative as THE EMISSARY, or as cutthroat as THE KINGMAKERS. On the other hand, it is more overtly philosophical than all of them. Maybe the distance between what transpires on stage and one's gut lies within the tenor of the style itself.
In directing THE EULOGISTS, frequent Viljoen collaborator Greg Karvellas responds to the compact nature of the piece. It was once fashionable to talk about finding the "spine" of the play when considering the role of the director in staging a production; Karvellas knits his work together with sinew. His choices here are strong but flexible, allowing the actors room to play off each other. Indeed, the actors - Emily Child in particular - play no small part in translating Viljoen's words into the unsettling physical reality that Karvellas envisions for it.
As Audrey, Child crafts a performance that once again assimilates the various aspects of Viljoen's idiosyncratic writing style into the representation of a fascinating human being. She plays Audrey with an intellectual acuity that cuts straight through the haze of self-pity, loss, inadequacy and everything else that keeps her trapped in this guest house at a time when everyone else keeps vigil on the front lines. What sets her apart from Pierre Malherbe and Kiroshan Naidoo, is her ease in working with Viljoen's text, which often masquerades as something far more naturalistic than it is. Her way around his heightened approach, his carefully crafted rhythms and his deeply conflicted characters speaks to the experience she has gathered playing in CHAMP, THE PERVERT LAURA and THE EMISSARY. One is reminded of how, say, Yvonne Bryceland illuminated Athol Fugard's work or of Billie Whitelaw's quarter-century collaboration with Samuel Beckett. In contemporary South African theatre, Child and Viljoen have the makings of such a legendary association.
Malherbe, as Harris, favours the character's disingenuous veneer over everything else, possibly in response to how obviously Harris serves as a detonator in activating the conflict that is brewing between Audrey and Naidoo's Zee. But there is a greater swing in the text itself between Harris's cynicism, a façade similar to Audrey's shrewdness, and his demons. Malherbe's performance recognises this without embodying it fully, leaving room for a more layered reading of the role to emerge.
Naidoo plays Zee with all of the idealism that one would expect from a young journalist on the verge of a big scoop. The early hesitance that Naidoo infuses into Zee mirrors the actor's own tentative first appearance in the play; both soon makes way for someone who can stand his ground. Naidoo comes into his own in the later scenes when Zee is forced to articulate that for which he stands.
The scenic and lighting designs for THE EULOGISTS, by Rocco Pool and Kieran McGregor respectively, achieve a remarkable blend of verisimilitude and poetry. Pool uses a moody palette to transform a typically trying-too-hard guest house into an arena that emphasises not only the characters' conflicts but also their desperation. McGregor's lighting further enhances the mise en scène, shaping a world that we not only recognise from lived experience, but which also reminds us that our memories of those experiences are shaped by many other aspects too - expectations either fulfilled or disappointed, agendas we hoped to play out, and scores of unnamed biases. Similarly, the costume design by Widaad Albertus works well to further sketch out the characters for the audience.
THE EULOGISTS is a good play, with some excellent moments. The difficulty that I had with the piece was that while it left me with a great deal to think about, I left the auditorium feeling dispassionate about what the play had to say - and, as mentioned above, the play articulates some ideas that cut quite deeply. Considered alongside Viljoen's other works, THE EULOGISTS has not lingered in my mind in the way that many of his previous plays have done and still do, in some cases years after having seen them. How I wish that it did.
THE EULOGISTS will run at the Fugard Studio Theatre from until 24 June 2017, on Tuesdays through Saturdays at 20:00 with a 16:00 matinee performance on Saturdays. Tickets range in price from R120 to R160 and can be booked 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's box office by calling 021 461 4554. THE EULOGISTS carries an age restriction of 16.