Theatre: Finding Rosetta – A Breakdown For The Best, Or Part Art, Part Heart

September 20, 2023




Finding Rosetta / Directed by William le Cordeur / Theatre On The Square, Sandton, Johannesburg


With playwright Paul Slabolepszy have a prolific period of late, even by his own high standards, Finding Rosetta follows fairly closely on the heels of a highly-rated revival of Saturday Night At The Palace at the Joburg Theatre. Audience members who saw that show and then came to this would have been struck by the dramatic difference in tone. Where Saturday Night… places its characters perpetually on the edge of violence, Finding Rosetta has its near-eponymous heroine (she goes by Rose) looking for peace, after a fashion, as well as meaning and identity. This is a much gentler Slabolepszy on show…

One of the ways Rose looks to define who she is and what she feels is via her art – the set sees Annie Robinson-Grealy as Rose in the latter’s studio, surrounded by canvases, paintbrushes, a palette and all the other artist’s paraphernalia. Cleverly, projected backdrops expand that sort of perspective, along with its textures (physically and emotionally), showing animated landscapes that give a sense of either passing through them or the wind blowing across them or of other entities entering the story, all while Robinson-Grealy builds her tale in layers, helping the audience understand where Rose is and what she yearns for.

But despite the escape painting provides, Rose still feels like she’s stuck in a rut and attempts to mitigate that by taking a short trip to the coast. A car breakdown along the way changes that plan, and gives the play its freshness. Where Shirley Valentine or other similar identity-related pieces use foreign countries and cultures to short-circuit paradigms that had become stale, Finding Rosetta uses memory, magic and melodrama to take Rose out of her comfort zone and back to her past, before her view of the world became tainted by routine. She remembers and revels in the traditions and history of the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands as she gets to spend time in the area again, and the chance discovery of a book called Beyond The Light Barrier opens up yet more avenues for self-discovery – though these are not options that Rose had ever considered.

The book is the autobiography of Elizabeth Klarer, a resident of the village of Rosetta in the Midlands, who claimed to have had contact with aliens in the late Fifties and early Sixties. It’s a fascinating story that polarises those that read or hear it, but what is beyond doubt is that Klarer was a woman who exhibited confidence and talents in a number of fields. The intersection of her example, Rose’s emotional state and the close proximity of the geographical markers where Klarer’s alien visits are supposed to have taken place create a space in which Rose can really find inspiration in terms of claiming her own worth.

Slabolepzsy provides detailed monologues that help to paint a full picture of Rose as a woman who is both completely normal and undeniably complex – as we all are (though we don’t often see that dichotomy reflected onstage). Robinson-Grealy’s performance honours both of those elements fully. She’s easy to relate to and yet believable in the flight of fancy that she takes which many audience members might not be ready to commit to. And if the factors required to come together to make this particular story happen stretch credibility a little, the outcome still feels plausible, with the warmth of the package as a whole meaning the audience is likely to want Rose to succeed and find what she’s looking for. This is not an arresting play, but it is tenderly compelling.