BWW Reviews: An Allegory in the Making, CANNIBAL COUNTRY, Puts Privilege on the Menu at Alexander Bar's Upstairs Theatre

BWW Reviews: An Allegory in the Making, CANNIBAL COUNTRY, Puts Privilege on the Menu at Alexander Bar's Upstairs Theatre
Dustin Beck and Amelia Vernede will star in CANNIBAL COUNTRY

CANNIBAL COUNTRY, a new physical theatre drama written by UHM... co-writer, Alex McCarthy, made its bow at the Alexander Bar and Café's Upstairs Theatre this week. The timing is opportune, with protests at the University of Cape Town (UCT), of which McCarthy is a graduate, once again seeing emotions run high in both the mainstream and social media. There are calls, from a primarily white group of observers, for civil, peaceful and respectful protests from the students, whose lack of access to higher education, housing and fair treatment have gone unheard for too long. This appeal for a romanticised version of protest stems from two things. The first is the desire to disguise the brokenness of the system that has created these and other issues, either to make possible the dismissal of the people affected by them or to construct narratives that undermine the students search for social justice. The second, which is the more resonant in CANNIBAL COUNTRY, is the misunderstanding of the privilege that allows these same observers to remain detached from both the issues and the protests themselves.

The opening scene of CANNIBAL COUNTRY introduces Sideswipe - only his mother calls him by his real name, Gershwin - and a young woman the audience comes to know as the "cannibal queen". In anticipation of a new law legalising the consumption of one person by another, the "cannibal queen" - white and privileged - is hunting down Gershwin - coloured and disadvantaged, both historically and currently - in order to coerce him into taking part in a PR event that will help to destigmatise her cause, which has some insidious ties to the government itself.

It is apparent, even in this briefest of summaries, that McCarthy is trying to piece together a vast narrative in his play. There are many moments when CANNIBAL COUNTRY reaches for the scale of a saga not unlike those that play out in THE HUNGER GAMES or THE MAZE RUNNER. There is a sense of the whole affair playing out in a futuristic, and potentially dystopic, but recognisable setting. The youthful characters operate in the face of a governmental decree. And the protagonist - ostensibly Gershwin, but actually the "cannibal queen" embarks on a journey of self-discovery, coming to understand the nature of her privilege and making choices based on that discovery.

While his work is solid conceptually, McCarthy struggles to condense the scope of the story into the hour-long festival-ready format that has become the golden standard for too many new South African theatre pieces. The script presents a solid skeleton, but there is too little flesh on the bones yet. CANNIBAL COUNTRY needs more stage time to allow the audience grapple meaningfully with its immensely complex themes. By the time the play reaches its climax, it feels like the plot has only taken us as far as Katniss entering the arena, to the arrival of Teresa in the Glade.

McCarthy's writing also prioritises plot over character, with the numerous events that make up the former only allowing the latter to develop in the broadest sense. The "cannibal queen" for instance remains too much of a mysterious construct for the developments in her character to hit home, which Sideswipe's significance seems to wane following the excellent manner in which his character is established. The many supporting characters need to become greater foils for the two leads, and the sinister parliamentary committee that exists mostly behind the scenes in the play could also use a little elucidation. In fact, there are still an infinite number of ways in which McCarthy could develop this material; the point is that he has only scratched the surface.

McCarthy's production see two actors, Dustin Beck and Amelia Vernede, portray the multiple characters that inhabit the world of CANNIBAL COUNTRY. Beck works particularly well as Sideswipe, quickly endearing the character to the audience in his early scenes. He also provides an amusing turn as a fed-up young girl who is prepared to deliver Gershwin as a sacrificial lamb for the sake of peace in her community. Vernede's most memorable moments come as a young woman hiding from the cannibal queen on a mountainside, playing with a vulnerability that is the complete opposite of the façade with which she portrays the cannibal queen herself. Both are game for McCarthy's athletic staging of the tale, which could benefit with more focused choreography that builds up a more textured movement language, rather than just pushing the story forward from situation to situation and shifting the actors from character to character.

The simple stage design, with a ladder featured as a multi-purpose prop, could be further developed, but the stagecraft of CANNIBAL COUNTRY is enhanced through the creative use of a light that is manipulated by the actors, use to great effect in the last third of the play. Were that same degree of ingenuity applied to the entire visual and aural environments, the world of CANNIBAL COUNTRY might contribute in a more complex way to the meaning created in the play.

CANNIBAL COUNTRY is the tale of one woman who comes to terms with systemic privilege. With the relevance of its themes confirmed by the events at UCT this past week as well as the reactions thereto, the play has the potential to become a rich allegory for one of the narratives at play in contemporary South Africa. To do this, McCarthy needs to grow this piece beyond its first iteration as a theatrical distillation of a winning concept. There is still a great deal of CANNIBAL COUNTRY left to explore.

CANNIBAL COUNTRY runs until 20 February at the Alexander Upstairs at 21:00. Tickets cost R80 if booked and prepaid online at the Alexander Bar's website, or R90 if paid for at the theatre itself. Tickets can also be purchased at the bar, which is situated at 76 Strand Street in Cape Town's city centre, anytime during its regular opening hours. Under 18s must be accompanied by a parent or legal guardian. Keep up to date with events at Alexander Bar on Facebook and Twitter.

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From This Author David Fick

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