By BRUCE DENNILL
There’s a psychologist’s aphorism that says “hurt people hurt people”. The truth behind that saying is evident throughout Paul Slabolepszy’s unstintingly frank examination of fractured South African society, circa 1982. Part of the script’s brilliance is in unpacking a situation involving men of different ages and races in a meaningful, thought-provoking way. But where its real genius lies is in obscuring, for long enough to ratchet up the tension, how each of the characters is hurt and how that will affect those around them in an increasingly fraught context. The action begins when, as the manager of a fringes-of-Joburg roadhouse (magnificently evoked in a detailed set) begins closing up for the night, two young men arrive, pushing a motorcycle that appears to have broken down. The plan, such as it is, involves on of the young men fixing the bike while the other uses a pay phone to call a mutual friend, who has a vehicle he can come and pick them up in.
The roadhouse manager, September (Samson Khumalo) is an older black man. The interlopers – Vince (Charlie Bouguenon, his distinctive bald pate hidden by an excellent wig that completely changes his appearance) and Forsie (Francois Jacobs) – are white. They are also en route home after a party and so are (Vince in particular) somewhat buzzed up. If not quite a tinderbox, the stage is set to at least create some sparks.
Vince is the most obviously hurt party from the start. He’s been dropped from the football team he plays for, undermining a large part of his self-image and identity. His response to this is aggressive, which the audience learns is more or less a default setting. Forsie knows this about his friend, which makes his deferential attitude to Vince seem sensible – he doesn’t want to become the object of unpredictable wrath, so he tries to stay out of the way as much as possible.
That’s only an option for part of the time, though. The play starts with a mildly edgy tone, but it moves through racism – relatively restrained and then obnoxiously overt – to bullying, lying, fear and panic. In that evolving maelstrom, Forsie can only play his default role, which is trying to be pleasant and generally floundering at everything he does, for so long. His ineffectiveness and Vince’s volatility make September’s situation unimaginably tense. Unimaginable (or somewhat so) in contemporary society, that is: in 1982, this was a black man’s daily lot. Slabolepszy’s combination of all these factors to slowly escalate the audience’s engagement with all of the characters while simultaneously not fully selling any of their agendas means that, as the narrative reaches its crescendo, the version of the ending that happens is possibly the one you least expect. As such, Saturday Night At The Palace is entertaining, but brutally so.
The cast excels. Khumalo brings a slightly hopeless dignity to Sampson. Jacobs is goofily charming as Forsie is harmfully inept. And Bouguenon makes Vince unexploded ordinance getting kicked around by overlapping bad decisions, most of them his.
Four decades after it debuted, this story still makes horrible, heartbreaking sense.