By BRUCE DENNILL
Ruined / Directed by Megan Willson / Wits Downstairs Theatre, Braamfontein, Johannesburg
There’s an unfortunate, embedded bias that places student productions on a lower theatrical rung than those featuring older casts simply because the actors and production team have less experience. What is often not taken into account is the way they use the time they have invested in a production and the impact those efforts can have on their work. It’s an obvious, stupid, oversight, but it’s one audiences make often, perhaps supposing that students haven’t much else to do than drink endless cups of coffee in crammed concourses or, in the current political climate, overturn dustbins in the names of demanding lower fees.
The cast of Ruined, carefully marshalled by director Megan Willson is notably, impressively well-rehearsed. They operate in a plain, bare-bones environment that does play somewhat into the sincere-but-simplistic expectation, but they do so in such a way as to do proper justice to Lyn Nottage’s play, a Pulitzer winner in 2009. Such a prize is awarded on the basis of content more than, say, production values, and the themes explored here are devastating: rape, war, hopelessness, poverty and never-ending cycles of violence.
This is where the attention to detail in terms of the performance really matters, as the dozen or so characters must embody – in short order – anger, fear, confusion, duplicity, ennui, profound sorrow and, unexpectedly, joy, passion and love. Nottage’s text pushes the piece along at a constant pace, so that even while everything remains contained in a single space – the shebeen of one Mama Nadi (Ratanang Mogotsi), a shrewd, ruthless proprietor, a madam and an unofficial guardian to a gaggle of damaged young women – there is always something to watch; to focus on.
The counterpoint to her cynicism is Christian (Sibusiso Mkhize), a travelling merchant who, over the course of many years of supplying her with all her commercial needs, has come as close as anyone to developing something like affection for Mama Nadi.
Everyone exists in the midst of such constant horror, made infinitely worse in the theatrical sense by the fact that it’s based on appalling real-life events in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where government-backed and rebel troops were (and are) battling over minerals, territory and power with equal disregard for ethics, law, respect and basic human decency. It’s bleak, heart-breaking stuff, but it’s infused with enough personality, intrigue and humour (yes, even in this context), plus a few pretty musical interludes, to make it not only watchable but enjoyable.
Mogotsi is outstanding at the centre of everything, with Mkhize as good as she as a sorely needed leavening agent in the whole sordid mess. With only a couple of exceptions, and those in minor roles where a lack of depth is not a major problem, everyone on stage delivers at a first-class level, and given a spit and a polish in terms of its set and its lighting (a technical challenge in the relatively spartan Wits Downstairs Theatre), this production could easily and successfully be transferred to a professional stage.