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BWW Reviews: Great Story and Performances UNDERMINED as Style Trumps Substance in New South African Play

Stefan Erasmus Nhlanhla Mkhwanazi
and Luke Brown in UNDERMINED
Photo credit: Dex Goodman

The mines are a constant feature in the South African news. Inhumane living and working conditions for miners, strikes and marches, problems caused by the migrant labour system and talk of nationalising the mines are frequently seen in the media, while the incident at Marikana serves as a symbol for the huge socio-political and economic challenges faced by this industry in contemporary South African. Against this backdrop, the true story of one miner is played out in the UNDERMINED, a new play written by Nhlanhla Mkhwanazi and Luke Brown, which has been adapted by the cast (which includes Mkhwanazi, Brown and Stefan Erasmus) in collaboration with the director of the piece, Tara Notcutt.

UNDERMINED tells the story of Madlebe, a Mozambican hunter who travels to South Africa to become a miner so that he can provide a better life for his father and the woman who will marry him upon his return home. Blessed with an extraordinary sense of hearing, fine-tuned by his experience as a hunter, Madlebe finds himself negotiating the urban landscape of Johannesburg and the mines of Westonaria with greater fortune than he perhaps expected. He is placed in charge of listening to the underground "locos" so that crashes, which cause fatalities and damage to the mine shafts, can be avoided. What happens next is best experienced in the theatre, but the title of the play is a clue as to the way things will play out for Madlebe.

There is a great story to be told here and a meaty context to inform it. There is also a clear passion shared by everyone involved in UNDERMINED that Madlebe's story needs to be told and his voice restored. This is evident in the press materials, in interviews with the theatre-makers that are plastered on the walls in the theatre foyer and also in the welcome speech made by co-producer Simon Cooper on opening night. But what has not filtered through into the play itself is the reason why the story needs to be told and what the audience is meant to take away from the experience. With only the most superficial nods made to the problems faced by miners in South Africa, UNDERMINED ends up undermining itself as a piece of theatre.

Stefan Erasmus, Luke Brown
and Nhlanhla Mkhwanazi in UNDERMINED
Photo credit: Dex Goodman

This is rather a pity, as what the audience sees on stage in UNDERMINED certainly catches the eye. Notcutt has directed the piece with a clear sense of what the rhythm of the play should be and the performance of the trio of actors is seamless as they bring the play to life through the use of explosive verbal dynamics accompanied by mime, comic book styled physical theatre, song and lively choreography by Mkhwanazi and Cleo Notcutt. All of the right ingredients are there bar one: the sense of purpose that should lie at the heart of this tale given the context that surrounds its setting.

There are two influences appropriated by UNDERMINED that support the idea that the piece needs to be more than a story told for the sake of telling a story. The first of these is the choice to tell this story in a comic book style and to present Madlebe as a modern day superhero, complete with sonic superpowers. Some might write off superheroes because of their origins in popular culture, but any comic book from THE INCREDIBLE HULK to the THE X-MEN is a reflection of the real world with characters that have to deal with serious issues. There is something more to superheroes than mere entertainment. Secondly, UNDERMINED draws upon the African oral tradition of storytelling, a fundamental aspect of which is to instil a sense of social order in the listener. Again, there is more to izinganekwane and iinstomi than the sheer sense of enjoyment that the tales evoke.

It is the right time and place for plays about the mining industry and it is absolutely true that the stories of South African miners need to be told, but the integrity of the voice that is given to them needs to be preserved. If there is anything that Notcutt and the cast need to interrogate before UNDERMINED resurfaces at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown later this year, it is the balance between style and substance in the play. At the moment, one overpowers the other. At a time when the Marikana massacre slips so easily into the background because more salacious and sellable headlines about celebrity murder trials on offer, what a piece of theatre like could say has never been more important.

UNDERMINED is running at the Kalk Bay Theatre until May 3 2014. Tickets cost R80, and R70 for gallery seats. Guests can enjoy a delicious supper in the restaurant before the show. On Tuesday nights, enjoy a great ticket and supper special: book for 2 tickets at R85 per person and enjoy a delicious bowl of soup and fresh bread before the show. To book visit the Kalk Bay Theatre website.

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From This Author David Fick