By BRUCE DENNILL
Dead Yellow Sands / Directed by Bo Petersen / Barney Simon Theatre, Market Theatre, Newtown, Johannesburg 7
For 17 years, my mother and father bundled me, my brother and my sister into an old station wagon and hitched a caravan’s worth of camping gear and canned food to the back of the car before spending the better part of 20 hours, spread over two days driving to a spot on the beach just north of East London. We’d stop at Bloemfontein (supper at a cheap hamburger joint), Aliwal North (hot springs) or Queenstown (gum trees and red sand; not much else) on the way, depending on what time we’d managed to leave and how long the breaks for boiled eggs or polony sandwiches had taken. The caravan park we’d eventually arrive at was (is still) called Yellow Sands, and it was the kind of idyll – with a long, golden beach, a fish-ridden estuary, rolling waves and campsites hacked out of virgin bush – that a boy could (and did) consider a kind of heaven.
The phrase “Dead Yellow Sands” thus, unsurprisingly, caused a measure of emotional conflict when I saw it on a theatre poster, but Graham Weir’s stirring one-man performance piece does nothing to evaporate my nostalgia. His yellow sand is the cyanide-bearing dust that blew off the mine dumps in Benoni, coating the home in which he spent part of his childhood, and the play is a collection of disconnected but vaguely associated (in that they involve people Weir knew or has observed) vignettes, memories and imaginings mashed together in a moving melange, celebrating the minutia of his experiences and helping me to re-engage with mine.
Weir gives a consummate performance, hardly moving for just over an hour and letting his resonant voice, pitched at different volumes and emotional intensities and coloured with delicate, finely observed accents, do most of the acting. His most significant prop is his hair – long silver strands framing his face and a magnificent, dense beard helping to give his words physical shape. These tresses give him the appearance of whichever sage generally catches your fancy, from Father time to Oom Schalk Lourens, which contributes a mystical air to his tales of one man losing his sight; or another tiring of his job cleaning an oil rig; a third dying of cancer; or another – Weir himself, this time – growing up to the east of Johannesburg before the place became infested with faux-Tuscan housing developments and shrines to Charlize Theron.
Darron Araujo’s lighting is the other great star of the piece. Set up in a tight circle around Weir rather than delivered via a traditional rig in the flies, it enables the actor, seated on a wooden chair throughout, to simply fade from view before re-emerging seconds later as a different character. It’s almost awkwardly intimate and entirely in keeping with the intimacy of the production, in which the audience is brought right into Weir’s personal space by his delivery and writing.
Dead Yellow Sands requires focus and concentration if you are to wring maximum value from its intricate script, but your efforts will be instantly rewarded, and Weir’s craft certainly deserves your commitment.