Theatre Review: Book Marks – Words To Stall By, Or Stuck On Scrutiny

February 11, 2017



Book Marks / Directed by Allan Kolski Horwitz / AFDA Red Roof Theatre, Milpark, Johannesburg


This intimate four-character play is billed as a tragi-comedy, but as it weaves its convoluted way to its conclusion, it leans more towards the former than the latter, making it challenging viewing that’s more enjoyable for its construction and execution that it is for its all-too-realistic outcome.

Playwright and poet Allan Kolski Horwitz is a man with an enduring passion for justice and equality in his embattled homeland, and Book Marks confirms his awareness of the challenges South Africans face in realising either of those goals. Here, he brings together representatives from across the spectrum of freedom fighters who all, in their way, agitated for the end of apartheid. Gathering for the launch of an informal book club are Stanton de Villiers (Craig Morris), Vis Naidoo (Leversan Gerard), Mncedisi Julius Matanzima (Pule Hlatshwayo) and Cornelia Hendricks (Campbell Jessica Meas). The first three are old friends and activists who used to live together, while Cornelia is the daughter of another old comrade, and all the performers inhabit their characters energetically and convincingly.

Times have changed, as has the behaviour and, in some instances, the values of the protagonists. While there are deep-seated bonds between the men, there are also well-developed disagreements, made more complicated by the different context of their young female guest, who doesn’t place as much stock in their shared history as they’d perhaps like, and who stirs the pot repeatedly by confronting them about their attitudes and perspectives.

The piece is split into two acts. In the first, the characters break the fourth wall and introduce themselves to the audience, sharing their personal histories and allowing the audience some insight into their situations. In the second, they interact with each other in a more traditional fashion, unpacking the same topics, but using different techniques.

This mechanism disrupts the narrative to some degree, as the onstage relationships don’t develop as much as they would in a more conventional set-up, and onlookers may feel slightly involved in the interactions, rather than being objective outsiders. This discomfort doesn’t matter in and of itself, but it doesn’t help in terms of making the political discourse and the discontent and disappointment of the characters (both individual and shared) that fills the script any easier to stomach.

Horwitz’s concerns, as expressed in the long, heated conversations his characters share, are all valid, but ultimately, all their passion has no effect on the outcome of the story. They care deeply, they express themselves vividly and they refuse to back down (unless alcohol or emotion intervene in unexpected ways). But ultimately their efforts to change anything – even each others’ minds – are futile, and the knowledge on the audience’s part that this is an accurate reflection of much of what takes place in contemporary discussions between real-life Struggle veterans or any other random person who tries to engage with what’s going on in any sphere of life touched by politics is a touch depressing. And while theatre doesn’t promise to cheer up its audiences, leaving the auditorium feeling more cynical than you did when you arrived is a tad discouraging.

Hopefully, you’ll have the energy to respond by not perpetuating such frustration – by finding a way to make sense of South Africa’s philosophical impasse.