BWW Reviews: Sekhabi's SILENT VOICE is Gripping, Immersive and Shocking

Don Mosenye, Zenzo Nqobe, Tshallo  Chokwe, Don Mosenye in Silent Voice, pic by Sanmari Marais
Don Mosenye, Zenzo Nqobe, Tshallo Chokwe
and Boitumelo Shisana in SILENT VOICE
Photo credit: Sanmari Marais

SILENT VOICE is something else. An audacious play written and directed by Aubrey Sekhabi, it shatters - especially in the setting of the Baxter Theatre, where it is currently running - conservative middle class perceptions of that which represents a compelling theatre experience. It is not poetic, or reflective, or enlightening, or obsessed with its mandate to deliver social commentary - although Sekhabi has a clear vision of what he wants to achieve and where he wants audiences to go when they watch the play. Drawing on the traditions of so-called township theatre, SILENT VOICE is a flat-out assault on the senses: gripping, immersive and shocking. It is the kind of confrontational and provocative theatre that we do not see often enough on main stem stages in this country, theatre that re-sensitises audiences to the violent reality of life in South Africa by exposing a world that many are all too happy to pretend does not exist at all or, at best, engage with on the level of armchair activism through the platform of social media.

SILENT VOICE brings together the narratives of four different criminals, brought together by a robbery that goes wrong and ends in murder. On the run, they are pitted against one another as their respective agendas and worldviews clash, often to devastating effect. The journey to their safe house takes them down long roads, through farmlands where they encounter a menacing farmer and - to the genuine distress of some audience members - into a building in which everyone in the theatre is held hostage at gunpoint.

The play puts a theatrical spin on the stylistically excessive aestheticization of violence that leapt to prominence in film with Stanley Kubrick's A CLOCKWORK ORANGE and which has been particularly popularised by Quentin Tarantino over the past quarter century. Certainly, the aesthetics of violence have also shifted in news reporting over the years and even younger children can access violent narratives through literary portals like THE HUNGER GAMES franchise by Suzanne Collins. By adopting these conventions into live performance, Sekhabi achieves something that film, the news or literature never can: an ambiguous immediacy, in which the boundaries between the fictional experience of the play and the real experience of the performance become blurred, forcing audience members to negotiate their experience of the violence presented on stage in order to make meaning from the performance.

Tshallo Chokwe, Zenzo Nqobe, Boitumelo Shisana and Don Mosenye in SILENT VOICE Photo credit: Sanmari Marais
Tshallo Chokwe, Zenzo Nqobe,
Boitumelo Shisana and Don Mosenye
Photo credit: Sanmari Marais

What it all boils down to in the end is the recognition of how curiously insidious the nature of violence in South Africa has become: how a culture of violence has been inherited, in concept and in practice, by the new dispensation from the apartheid regime and how violence is perpetuated because its effects is viewed more criticically than its causes. SILENT VOICE reminds us that violence goes far beyond guns and murder and rape; it has its origins in starvation, harassment and neglect. And while some people lament the efficacy of the police or the justice system, and others think that the solution to violent crime is the reinstatement of capital punishment, the battle for peace in this country is not about legislation or its implementation. In this country, peace - which is more than simply the absence of violence - can only be achieved by shifting the morally and ethically degenerate realities that cause criminal behaviour in the first place. In many ways, the key to the future still lies in resolving the injustices caused by the past. Right or wrong, Sekhabi tells us in his play, actions are based on intentions. There are moments in SILENT VOICE when each of the characters elicits the audience's understanding and sympathy. That is where the piece rather alarmingly hits the nail on the head: it gives a face to violence in this country, one that asks quite frankly how far you might be prepared to go in similar circumstances.

SILENT VOICE is brought to life by a team of four actors, Tshallo Chokwe, Zenzo Ngqobe, Boitumelo Shisana and Don Mosenye, and a percussionist, Motshepe Pusho Kwagane. The five work together in a seamless ensemble, driving the play forward from one thrilling sequence to the next. Each of the actors plays a kind of archetypal everyman; the characters are all named Charlie and each has his own axe to grind.

Charlie X is the leader of the gang, gun-happy and confrontational one moment, reciting verses from the Bible the next. Chokwe neatly captures his dilemma as a man who lives by the sword, forever wondering whether he will have to die by the sword. Charlie Q is on parole, having prevously turned to crime as an alternative to the slow death sentence that life on the mines metes out to its workers. Ngqobe portrays his smoothness - at times it seems that he is a better leader than Charlie X, holding the group together as their experiences on the run contrive to tear them apart - and his desperation equally well.

As Charlie Y, Shisana swings between the humanity and ruthlessness of a gentle man pushed by cruel circumstances to the extremities of his own cruelty. His character's backstory is perhaps the most riddled with moral ambiguities. Compared to the others, Charlie Z seems like a relatively new kid on the block, with each of the other Charlies mentoring him in one way or another as the play progresses. Mosenye works hard to embody the layers of a man being taught to perform the part of a hardened criminal.

Don Mosenye, Zenzo Nqobe, Tshallo Chokwe and Don Mosenye in SILENT VOICE Photo credit: Sanmari Marais
Zenzo Nqobe, Tshallo Chokwe, Boitumelo Shisana
and Don Mosenye in SILENT VOICE
Photo credit: Sanmari Marais

Kwagane augments their efforts with his ubiquitous percussive effects on the drums and various other rhythmic instruments. His contributions to the mood of the piece, as well as its rhythm, are instrumental to the play's success.

In writing SILENT VOICE, Sekhabi has created a rich world in which grand narrative themes like trust and betrayal, sacrifice, and the price of wealth at all costs can be played out. His writing is sometimes a little rough around the edges, with some statements by the characters sounding a little too wordy for their informal conversations, but encapsulates clearly what he wants to say about the world that SILENT VOICE reflects. His direction of the piece plays excellently with rhythm as he finds different ways to vary the imagery of the four men running, although sometimes he lets noise overwhelm moments that could benefit from a little more weight and focus. Nonetheless, the effect of Sekhabi's work is visceral and pulls one to the edge of one's seat at the audience is pulled into the play.

Willhelm Disbergen's set, lighting and video design for the production is innovative and thrilling to behold as it is executed in the performance. There is a gritty sense of urban decay, with tyres and other detritus strewn around an iron barrel, in which a road sign is unceremoniously planted. Traditional stage lighting is augmented with unusual effects coherent with the set design, including live effects, police siren lights and, in one ingenious sequence, a ceiling fan. The total effect is dystopic, the fragmentation of the design reflecting the fragmentation of contemporary South African society, of the characters' lives and of our own experiences of life in this country - and perhaps even our experiences of SILENT VOICE as theatre.

Many will question the literal use of violence in SILENT VOICE to represent violence on stage when the commentary is one that aims to reveal that violence breeds violence. That discourse must focus on two questions: whether or not the violence depicted in the play is gratuitous and whether or not the violence in the piece violates the people involved in making and watching it. On the first point, the way that Sekhabi uses violence in SILENT VOICE is essential to the argument he presents in his play; the way he presents his thesis is inextricably linked to the proposition itself. On the second, it cannot be disputed that SILENT VOICE pushes audiences out of any kind of comfort zone in which they make take refuge, and that it will be a particularly difficult play for people who have been subjected to extreme violence to watch. Approaching SILENT VOICE may require caution. That said, it represents something that should still be approached: SILENT VOICE challenges us not to be silent victims or passive witnesses, but rather to engage with a topic that has no easy solution. Perhaps in acknowledging that, we will find ourselves one step closer to addressing the violence we accept as the norm in our daily South African existence.

SILENT VOICE runs at the Baxter Golden Arrow Studio until 1 November. Ticket prices are R90 on Mondays through Thursdays and R100 over weekends. There is an age restriction of 14 years due to language and violence. Charlie X will be played by Presley Chweneyagae from 27 October. Booking is through Computicket (0861 915 8000) or at any Shoprite Checkers outlet.

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