BWW Reviews: Chilling and Challenging SLOWLY Stirs the Imagination and Seduces the Emotions

Chi Mhende and Jennifer Steyn in SLOWLY
Chi Mhende (Calf) and Jennifer Steyn (Sign) in SLOWLY
Photo credit: Rob Keith

Fresh from its performances on the main programme of the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, this production of Howard Barker's SLOWLY has arrived in the Artscape Arena with little fanfare to announce its arrival. For a play in which stillness matters as much as language, in which the audiences acts as witnesses to the final hours of an ancient civilisation and where ritual conformity serves as the subject matter for contemporary tragedy, this seems as appropriate a marketing strategy as any when it comes to SLOWLY. SLOWLY is neither a piece of light entertainment, nor is it a piece that couples affirmative enlightenment with the issues of the day in any simple or overt manner. What SLOWLY is, is theatre that pulsates with life and purpose, that demands engagement and which stirs the imagination and the emotions deeply.

In SLOWLY, four princesses debate what their fate should be, while apparently barbaric invaders advance upon them. Tradition demands collective suicide, but both the method through which this will be achieved and the tradition itself are up for question. Not much else happens in SLOWLY insofar as a traditional plot is concerned, but the journey through these concepts and is arresting. Barker relies on the manipulation of language to create conflict and action and his script is precisely engineered to seduce one's intellect, senses and emotions.

'We come in four versions evidently,' one of the characters says late in the play. 'One willing whore. One who whores reluctantly. A suicide.... And.... the subject of an atrocity.' She is talking about the four characters in the play, but Barker is talking about all of us. The magnificence of his work is lies in how, in a mere fragment of space and time, he has created an entire mythology that reveals the disturbing workings of contemporary society. Whether one looks at the mechanisms of post-colonial re-colonisation in Africa, the horrific war that is currently escalating in Gaza, the originally non-conformist hipster subculture that has evolved into one of conformity, or simply the way that people handle themselves through social media, what SLOWLY has to say about life - or rather, living - today is universal. By avoiding the restrictive contexts of social realism or issue-based theatre, Barker has created a play that effectively asks the audience to look inward and meditate on our moral behaviour and agency both as a society and as individuals.

Gahlia Phillips (front), Faniswa Yisa and Jennifer Steyn in SLOWLY
Faniswa Yisa, Gahlia Phillips and Jennifer Steyn in SLOWLY
Photo credit: Rob Keith

In his direction of the play, Geoffrey Hyland picks up theatrically the impulses that Barker stimulates in his text. His production has the stature of classical Greek theatre; there are echoes of THE TROJAN WOMEN here. Trapped within a beautiful unit set, designed by Hyland with Nicolas Meyer and atmospherically lit by Luke Ellenbogen, the four women are costumed in layered white dresses, designed by Leigh Bishop to capture something that is at once beautiful and restrictive. As they move through the space, all the elements of theatre conspire to create an arresting mise-en-scène that is achingly beautiful in its character. Barker writes visually - his language is as much about imagery as is about words - and Hyland's staging suggests, in response, a series of paintings linked by the action that shifts one part of the play to the next.

The four actresses who bring the characters to life play no small part in realising that intention. Working in collaboration with movement coach, Jackï Job, the physical vocabulary that each of the actresses adopts, reveals the characters' shifting relationship to decorum and allows each to find a unique physical expression while clearly existing within the same world.

As Sign, Jennifer Steyn is glorious, mining the language that Barker has put into her lips for every possible nuance in tone and inflection. Chi Mende's Calf, a stiller character with a great deal of internal shifts as she alone comes to realise that the dichotomy between death and being conquered is a false dilemma, mines her silences for the same kind of impact that Sign's language has. Gahlia Phillips is suitably histrionic as the snot-filled Bell, whose concern for her own individual suffering triumphs over her commitment to tradition, while Faniswa Yisa delivers a wonderfully idiosyncratic reading of Paper. Yisa's delivery of her final lines in the play is one of its many highlights.

SLOWLY is a challenging and chilling piece of theatre. Everything in the play has ramifications for both the characters and those who observe them: speech, silence, movement, stillness. Barker and Hyland takes the audience to place where nothing is certain, seducing us into a maze of ideas and feelings in which we are subsequently left to find our own path out. In that experience, we rediscover our fall from grace, and perhaps we will begin to find our way back. This uncompromising play is a must-see.

SLOWLY runs at the Artscape Arena until 2 August 2014. Tickets caost R70 and can be booked through Computicket.

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