Theatre Review: The Promise – Paying The Bond, Or An Uncertain Assurance

October 27, 2023




The Promise / Directed by Sylvaine Strike / John Kani Theatre, Market Theatre, Newtown, Johannesburg


“Promise” means both “a declaration or assurance that one will do something or a particular thing will happen” and “the quality of potential excellence.” Both apply to this adaptation of Damon Galgut’s Booker Prize-winning book The Promise, with a script written by Galgut and director Sylvaine Strike.

The action centres on the Swart family (there’s knowing satire in that name; they’re blinkered white folks), who live on a smallholding just outside Pretoria, and their black retainer, Salome (Chuma Sopotela) and her son Lucas (Sanda Shandu). The promise from which the piece takes its name involves Salome being given ownership of something she deserves and is already taking responsibility for, which is a neat metaphor for the groundswell of change taking place at a national level as apartheid ends and middle-class white people, uncertain about the future, do much of what they do out of fear. The promise of the new South Africa, they discover, is just as likely to remain unfulfilled.

Depending on how you like you classical mythology, a promise broken will almost always result in a curse being played out, and the Swarts – unlikeable as many of them are – pay what seems to be a brutally high price.

It’s an epic tale, stretching over many decades, and condensing all of that into a small amount of time (the show runs to three hours including the interval, but every edit of the original story has been judicious) requires an enormous amount of creativity, and every facet of the production is required to multi-task in order to make sure all the bases get covered.

Josh Lindberg’s angular, tilted set is a stage, two houses, a small hill, a church, a hospital and much more all at once. Penny Simpson’s costumes mean the cast – virtuoso chameleons all – can morph into a handful of different people each as the story demands it, from boyfriends to priests to aunts and uncles and politicians. And one prop can be multiple objects: a door; a table; a bed; a coffin… All of this means that the stage can include, at any given time, the combination for high drama, or daft farce, or profound pathos. Handled badly, it’d be a mess – but that was never an option or a likelihood.

If there is a single factor that can be pinpointed as the major reason The Promise, with its mass of complexities, works so well, it is choreography. There is some of that in a literal sense, where Natalie Fisher of the Free Flight Dance Company has taught the cast to move in a poetic, expressive way that heightens the impact of the dialogue and aids the flow of the story. But Strike as director, along with her A-list ensemble – Kate Normington and Frank Opperman as the parents; Rob Van Vuuren as older brother Anton; Jenny Stead as middle sister Astrid; Jane De Wet as youngest child Amor and Albert Pretorius and Cintaine Schutte (reunited after their sublime work in Tien Duisend Ton) in a number of different roles, many of them hilariously comic – give everything a spot in which it interacts perfectly with every other component of the piece. Dialogue, actions, facial expressions, comic timing, accents, costume changes and, yes, physical movement – everything must interact in a way that allows every other part to spark off it and introduce each new action, word and scene in a way that makes sense. And all of it does.

The Promise is a piece without any really recognisable trope, and the elegant eccentricity of the approach taken on stage gives it an unconventional and unexpected feel, like Wes Anderson directing Salman Rushdie or something similarly and agreeably bizarre.

People die in the story, but you will laugh throughout. Characters are bigoted and annoying in the story, but you will find yourself understanding their pain. And, bar one or two brief interludes where dialogue snippets are perhaps a little too on the nose in order to drive home the political realities the play is at least partly designed to satirise, all of these contrary threads and emotions are intertwined in way that amuses and entertains as you watch it, and then inspire introspection later as you unpack all that you’ve just seen (and that’ll differ depending on who you most relate to onstage).

Fascinating, provocative, and beautifully made.