Theatre Review: The King Of Broken Things – The Art Of Artlessness, Or A Kingdom Of Kindness

June 8, 2024




The King Of Broken Things / Directed by Michael Taylor-Broderick / Mannie Manim Theatre, Market Theatre, Newtown, Johannesburg


Kids, as all parents know, can be ridiculous, annoying, frustrating and unfathomable. Happily – for the wellbeing of our species, if nothing else – they can also be innocent, creative, joyful and adventurous. In the latter space, and mostly through a glorious naïveté that refuses to (superficially, at least) acknowledge the major woes of the world, they can even find their way, via play and introspection and invention and uncertainty…to wisdom.

This is the nub of writer and director Michael Taylor-Broderick’s one-hander, starring elfin thirtysomething actress Cara Roberts as young boy, perhaps around 10 years old, who has created a rich imaginary world, partly as a buffer against his physical context, in which school bullies exist, and as a way of processing a complex emotional scenario in which his mother is struggling and his much-loved father is absent.

Roberts has filled the role since the play began its life in 2018 as a festival piece, and it’s difficult to picture another performer in her place once she’s spent a few minutes on stage and established the character’s gentle sweetness, energy levels and physical tics. Is the role of a child best played by an adult here? Yes – while the whole thing is tender and warm, there are layers in both performance (phrasing; choosing stillness over movement and more) and subtext that would be cute in a kid but are perhaps more meaningful here. And Roberts’ petite frame means not being distracted by an actor who is clearly bulkier and brasher than a deep-thinking 10-year-old would be.

The ”broken things” referred to in the title are bits of scrap and trash collected by the character, who uses them to make machines and artworks that help to illustrate the metaphors he uses as a filter through which to interpret the world. The set is littered – literally – with such objects, with their various purposes being steadily unpacked as the story progresses. The idea of fixing rather than discarding – objects, yes, but people too – is central to the narrative.

Roberts is completely committed to her role, in everything from the isolated nervous movements of one hand to the frank, wide-eyed engagement with her audience, who she occasionally gives instructions to so that she can carry out a particular task in the way the character would like to.

The script is deceptively simple, with Taylor-Broderick very slowly and discreetly adding pieces to a puzzle that reveals how much is going on inside his young protagonist’s head and then, wonderfully, how important it is to retain the sense of wonder and guilelessness of a child when trying to figure out how to walk through a life complicated by love and heartache and earnestness and anxiety. And the ending lifts the piece still further, leaving the audience moved, meditative and possibly just silent as the lights come up.

This is a show that can be watched by audiences of all ages, with each generation gaining different insights from the text and action. And it’ll likely reward multiple viewings in that regard as well, with how the story is received very probably changing depending on the mental and emotional state of the onlooker.

See it.