By BRUCE DENNILL
Land Acts / Directed by Rob Van Vuuren / Auto & General Theatre On The Square, Sandton, Johannesburg 7
This piece arrives with a pedigree, being the third instalment in a popular and critically lauded series satirising South African current affairs and starring Daniel Mpilo Richards, directed by Rob Van Vuuren and written by Mike Van Graan. That’s a formidable team: Van Graan is internationally respected for taking on political issues via stage drama (and, in the case of this show and its predecessors Pay Back The Curry and State Fracture, comedy), and Richards is one of the few performers in the country able to match Van Vuuren for ability, intensity and versatility.
In what is a tightly bound succession of skits, it is that last facet – though supported by the other two – that shines most brightly in Mpilo’s case, as he morphs from characters old to young, from male to female, and from musician to sportsman. His accents are always convincing, his delivery slick and convincing and his manner charming (even in the instances when the content is so serious that Mpilo’s expressions are every bit as thoughtful and solemn as the audience’s).
As brilliantly constructed as everything is, however, Land Acts struggles to equal the overall appeal of its antecedents. Its title is especially clever, with every sketch (or “act”) centred on the issue of land ownership and the politics that surround it, a hot potato in contemporary South Africa as well as in other countries and time periods, as the writing shrewdly points out. But all the creativity and the manner in which the message is conveyed don’t make it any easier to stomach. As obviously necessary as land redistribution is, it’d be a brave (or dishonest) man or woman who’d say, “Well, that’s lovely – here are the keys to the gate.”
Van Graan, typically, pulls no punches, and Van Vuuren’s direction keeps the pace high and the tone terse in those areas when it needs to be (that is to say, between chuckles both amused and nervous). As an audience member with any sort of sense of social awareness, you have to become involved in the narrative, making the experience of watching Land Acts less an escapist night out and slightly more of a challenge to both your intellect and your willingness to be held accountable.