Theatre Review: Borderline, Or Dysfunction And A Father Feared

June 10, 2022


Borderline / Directed by Maralin Vanrenen / John Kani Theatre, Market Theatre, Newtown, Johannesburg


Playwright Paul Slabolepszy has been telling funny, often uncomfortable relatable stage stories since the end of the 1970s, and each new piece he creates now deserves its billing as a major cultural event. Borderline is a drama, dealing in dysfunction and how trauma of different kinds affects families and relationships. The title is a multi-faceted reference to different aspects of the play, speaking to personality disorders, international conflicts and the interfaces where perspectives meet.

Everything that the audience sees takes place in the rather run-down lounge of a retirement home in a small town in the Cape somewhere. A married couple – Raymond (Antony Coleman) and Faith (Lerato Mvelase) – are waiting to see Raymond’s father Vaughn (Slabolepszy), who is a resident there. The two men have been estranged for more than half Raymond’s life, so Faith is to meet her father-in-law for the first time.

The first, foundational part of the play involves Coleman and Mvelase talking, with the former giving Raymond the frustrated, brittle energy of someone under considerable stress and Mvelase’s Faith (another name with multiple meanings) counselling patience and common sense, aided by her own survival of difficult family circumstances.

The writing is excellent, with the snappy, layered dialogue allowing the characters to develop quickly and painting a picture of the fuller context. That context involves Vaughn and his past and present actions, making the character’s delayed arrival unsettling to the audience as well as to Raymond, whose agitation is palpable, and grimly amusing.

Coleman gives an extraordinary performance, allowed licence by the script to move around and express himself physically as well as giving his words weight and rhythm. Mvelase is a wonderful foil, with the couple’s variously spiking and loving interchanges making it clear that their relationship is authentic, rather than some sort of reaction to circumstances.

When Vaughn does appear, the character’s having an injury that requires him to wear a moon boot on one foot and walk with a crutch means he has an almost simian gait. Add to that the odd manner in which he speaks – it’s not clear if this is a manipulative affectation or the result of senility or similar – and the picture painted is of a primitive (emotionally speaking, if nothing else) man who still seems unaware of the damage his actions have inflicted. With passions flaring, the interactions between him and his son are intense and complex.

All of this makes the ending of the piece a touch confusing. Where all the other sections of dialogue resolve (not necessarily cleanly or happily, as the subject matter doesn’t realistically allow for that, but there is a sense of the story moving forward), the ending allows for much more interpretation, meaning you may leave a touch less moved and compelled than you were a few minutes before.