By BRUCE DENNILL
Suddenly The Storm / Directed by Bobby Heaney / Barney Simon Theatre, Market Theatre, Newtown, Johannesburg
A new play by Paul Slabolepszy should be a reason for fanfare. Even without his near-peerless track record as a playwright (over 30 plays, many of which have become South African classics and setworks, as well as films in a couple of cases), Slabolepszy is a multi award-winning actor and a founding member of two of the more influential theatre entities in local theatre history – Cape Town’s The Space Theatre and Johannesburg’s The Market Theatre.
Bemusement at the relative lack of buzz (would the same occur in the States if, say, David Mamet unveiled a new work he was particularly proud of?) soon gives way to fascination, as you take your seat, at Greg King’s fantastically detailed set. It’s not a glamorous entity, being just the central part of gate- and fence-maker Dwayne’s (Slabolepszy) business somewhere out to the east of Johannesburg, with part of his workshop visible in the back and a passage to the house he shares with his much younger wife, Shanell (a gloriously seedy Charmaine Weir-Smith) leading off to one side.
Dwayne and Shanell both view life view a haze of hopelessness, for different reasons – he because of regret at past deeds and the hole left in his life by the passing of a dear friend, and she because of the fading of the early promises of a marriage to a vital older man, which has left her feeling adrift from the relative excitement of the lives of her friends and the dubious sophistication of, er, Benoni and Brakpan.
Two events disrupt the pair’s bellicose ennui (such a thing is possible, on this evidence): the discovery of an object that might provide the financial means to escape their current reality and the arrival of a stranger named Namhla (Renate Stuurman) whose insight into their situation causes first awkwardness and then distinct discomfort. These occurances mean Dwayne and Shanell are forced to face their respective issues more directly than usual, which causes direct conflict in an already fractious relationship.
The dialogue Slabolepszy provides for these two characters as they bluff and counter-bluff each other is exceptional, being at once acerbic, compelling and darkly hilarious. He and Weir-Smith both give terrific perfomances, personifying (and occasionally caricaturing) a whole class of South Africans still confused by their context and the ever-changing cultural landscape of their country. Namhla was educated in exile and armed with the resulting expanded perspective, and Stuurman gives her the requisite detachment and mellifluous speaking voice, setting herself apart from Dwayne and Shanell, who converse in the broad, rasping (or, in Slabolepszy’s performance, “rrrrrrrrrrrraaaspeeng”) tones of the Far East (Rand, not Asia) far more effectively than even her darker skin colour does.
The tale’s twist, while not explicitly telegraphed, will be apparent to those paying attention to both the general progression of the narrative and the clues it holds and those aware of Slabolepszy’s searching societal themes. That touch of predictability and a necessarily abridged denouement – the set-up includes all the information the audience needs, and the play is already 105 minutes long, though you won’t begrudge the cast a moment of it – are the piece’s only weaknesses.
Everything – beginning with the set and ending with the slight tremor in Dwayne’s hand as he pauses over a photograph – is drenched in authenticity. For that reason, it will nag at your consciousness throughout, making you uncomfortable (because something, or many things, on stage ring true for your situation), making you laugh and making you think as you unpack the many layers in the script.
Suddenly The Storm won’t age. It makes perfect sense now, and it’ll still do so in a decade’s time. Expect to continue seeing it ask its tough questions for years to come.