By BRUCE DENNILL
Plum Tree / Directed by Godfrey Johnson / Foxwood Theatre, Houghton, Johannesburg 6
It’s not often that you can watch an experienced writer and actor perform in a one-man show he’s written about his own life while standing on the stage of a theatre he owns. But this is the scenario that greets audiences watchin Jan Groenewald’s The Plum Tree at Foxwood Theatre, and that milieu adds a great deal of both intimacy and impact to the piece.
Groenewald’s original script – telling the story of an incident of child abuse half a century ago and its multi-faceted effects on his life afterwards – was written in Afrikaans, his first language, and there were in this particular performance instances of some rhythm problems in terms of Groenewald’s delivery of the translated version that rather tempered the power of his words. (To be fair, the actor admitted in a post-show chat that he’d had a bit of an off night, and reviews of the show’s previous runs support this effort not being typical).
The source material being both true and the personal experience of the performer means that each aspect of the characters can be viewed in a different way than would be the case if they were wholly fictional (there is some dramatisation for effect). So the 13-year-old protagonist being a record-breaking sprinter brings into focus that however strong and athletic a child is, they’re still a child, and are vulnerable to manipulation and bullying. And the villain of the piece, the rich older man who bribes his way into his young acquaintance’s circle of trust, is played with exaggerated malevolence – perhaps the way such a person would be perceived by a young teenager rather than the more nuanced observation of a more astute, mature observer.
Whatever the case, the story is tragic, with only some unexpectedly shrewd operating by the young man at its centre redeeming the situation to some extent.
Supporting Groenewald and adding considerably to the drama of the piece is harpist Chris van der West, who spends the full duration of the play on stage providing a subtle, supple soundtrack. He’s a sublime talent, able to effortless change the mood of a moment using the pitch, key or force of his playing, and filling out the sketches created by Groenewald’s storytelling. The play has, in earlier incarnations, featured director Godfrey Johnson on piano, but the use of a harp – and particularly one played this well – adds a pleasing freshness to what is an emotionally robust piece.