Theatre Review: The New Abnormal And Country Duty, Or Commentary And Conniptions

June 2, 2022


The New Abnormal and Country Duty / Directed by Khutjo Green and Fiona Ramsay / Theatre On The Square, Sandton, Johannesburg


With one eye on the state of theatre in South Africa at the moment – 50% capacity in auditoria, and budgets still tiny because there is no way to viably build them back any time soon – playwright Mike Van Graan has come up with two quite different new scripts built for solo performers and low-cost, easily portable sets. Staged together here, either could be a standalone production, and with the simple set-up, a formal theatre space is not a necessity.

Watching the shows back-to-back (with an interval in between) is a treat – like being at a festival, but without having to walk through the dark in sub-zero temperatures.

The New Abnormal, described in the script as “stand-up commentary”, combines those two disciplines – the gags, direct delivery and droll energy of a comedian and the no-punches-pulled satire and sometimes candid criticism of the ruling party and its many incompetencies. Actor and comedian Nhlanhla Shabangu makes his full-length performance debut, revealing a great deal of charm, just the right amount of swagger and good comic timing. He’s not quite off book, which underlines the curious dichotomy of him channelling the words of an older writer, and one known for his deeply detailed intellectual takes on topics that interest him. The combination is solid, but not perfectly slick, though that may be more of an issue for audience members used to seeing a fair bit of stand-up comedy and politically-themed theatre in separate formats.

Country Duty is structured more like traditional straight theatre, though the planned economy of the production means there is still only one simple set – a chair on one side, a lectern in the middle and a bench on the other side. Khutjo Green plays a whistleblower, a woman who took an ethical stand against corruption in the company where she worked and has since suffered threats, a physical attack and being blocked from employment. Depending on where she is on stage, Green portrays different aspects of the character: as a speaker at a journalism awards ceremony; as the woman at home, relaxing and reflecting; and as a witness in front of the Zondo Commission, doing her best to make a meaningful difference in shaping South Africa.

Green’s excellent, measured performance drives home the dual desperations of the character – the choice to put her livelihood and reputation at risk by calling her employers on their criminal activities; and the fear and anxiety that comes after the deed is done, when her reward for being upright is only hardship. The piece confirms just how difficult it is for whistleblowers, and how ridiculous a scenario that is – that someone seeking justice is mocked and abandoned by the system she’s only trying to improve.

Sobering and insightful.