By BRUCE DENNILL
Does the subject matter here – child rape – add a dimension to the way you approach the role? It requires you to be an activist as well as an actor…
It’s a very difficult subject to deal with. As an actor, I need to find ways to present it in a way that will encourage people to start a dialogue. I also need to find a way to focus on compassion and hope, not despair.
What we do as a society is to alienate someone – we say this one is a perpetrator and that one is a victim. But we sometimes forget that there is a cycle that needs to be broken; that we’re dealing with both of those sides, and that we need to look at it from both perspectives.
That can’t be an easy thing to do, however wise the concept. How does what is expected of Simon fit with your own personality and views?
This role is the first time in my acting career where there is no character. Usually, a first rehearsal us a simple process where we discuss lines and swap ideas. For this piece. I arrived on the first day, and all that was on the table were piles of newspaper articles. All we did for the first seven days was read about this stuff. This was not about acting. I had to go there as a person. At that time, my own daughter was only three years old, and Lara also had a young daughter.
So we approached it as parents as well. We even used my daughter’s name as Simon’s daughter’s name in the play. We did find, though, that that first version was too brutal and we had to change it a bit for audiences. But we took some strong images out of it.
Going back to the role repeatedly over the last 15 years: how has it changed? How have you changed?
Nothing has changed. The only difference is that 15 years ago I had youth on my side. I had a young man’s anger. Now I have a parent’s anger. Now, I am having a dialogue with my daughter, not just trying to protect her.
We’ve changed nothing in the play – not the script, not the blocking, nothing – but the performance has matured. I have more knowledge now, and a better understanding. Then it was protest theatre – it still is – but it is now informed in a different way. I feel more comfortable doing it now.
Were the more newspaper articles to read; research to be updated? Or can you access the same feelings regardless?
This answer goes back a bit. This is a play where we were lost in our own space, rejected by institutions to begin with. But we had the will to mount it. Emotionally, and economically, it drained us.
We made the decision to go forward with performances even if only one person turned up. Our spirts said that this is a story about change, and we still believe that. The emotions involved are as wide as the ocean. We’re not only bringing our various talents to the show; we’re also bringing ourselves.
Lara and I stayed in the same house in Irene when we started rehearsing this. I couldn’t fight with the director and then leave! But that was part of understanding that we can’t leave anything behind with the play – anything, from the friendship to the violence.
And it makes what is happening now so frustrating. Why does the media continue to interrogate the wrong details? Like this Dros case recently – there have been more stories about the tone of the restaurant’s apology than about the rape itself!
When baby Tshepang was raped, six people were arrested initially. Then, it was of interest to everyone, even CNN. But when they found out that only one person was being held responsible, they all left. It wasn’t as exciting for them.
This is not a play. This is reality.
That makes it a hard sell for the average theatregoer hoping for some escapist entertainment. Is there a way to convince those audiences that something like Tshepang should be as high on their priority list as, for instance, the pantomime?
The play is still beautiful. It is well made, acted and directed, with a great set. It’s magical. It helps you to look at life to its fullest. The character of Trompie is really funny, even if he has his failings. And Dewaal, who finds the baby – he has an important story to tell. As we say in the publicity material, this is a story that tells 20 000 other stories. You’ll see your own village here.
The play has toured internationally and won a hatful of awards. Its importance has clearly been recognised, for all the challenges it presents. How satisfying is that for you?
The first audience we had was in Amsterdam. We opened at a space called The Tropical Institute. We had been rehearsing in Pretoria in winter, and when we opened it was June – summer in Amsterdam. The pile of salt that we have on stage as a prop was melting!
Then, I fell as I went on and tore my pants. I couldn’t sit for the whole performance, otherwise the audience would have seen much that they shouldn’t have. When Lara came backstage afterwards, she was really angry until she realised that my pants were now a skirt.
When we took our bows for that performance, there was no applause, so with that, and all that had gone wrong, we were worried; we were crying together. Then one of the organisers came backstage and told us that there was a reception for us in the foyer. The whole audience was there, and they gave us a standing ovation. It turns out they’d been too shocked to clap…
Another time, in Sweden, we had a post-show Q&A session and someone made a comment about how sad it was that this was happening in a post-Mandela South Africa. An old man at the back of the room responded, standing up and introducing himself as a past member of the Swedish army. Then he said – I’ll never forget it: “Don’t point fingers at Africa. When we fought in the Congo, we raped women all the time. It’s us, too.”
Audiences have stopped saying that the play is about what’s happening in Africa. Now they say, it’s about what’s happening where they are. Tshepang allows them to talk about it.