By BRUCE DENNILL
Pests / Directed by Fiona Ramsay / POPArt Centre, Maboneng, Johannesburg
Watching Pests, it’s difficult to understand what would make the story appeal to playwright Vivienne Franzmann. A tale of two sisters, young women who have been emotionally and sexually abused, struggle with drug addiction and have next to nothing of material worth, it’s bleak and brutal enough to make Trainspotting look like a documentary about DIY plumbing.
The background, however, involves a commission from a theatre company that works with women who have been in prison or who are at risk of offending and in that context, it makes a great deal more sense. The stand-out facet of the piece is that, though the narrative ebbs and flows and features scenes that are not as dark as others, relatively speaking, it is ultimately devoid of truly redemptive moments. Once you realise that as an audience member, you understand how habituated you are to that expectation and how uncomfortable the lack of it is.
All of this makes the play almost impossible to enjoy as a story. But you can admire the intent, and the technical expertise with which the message is delivered, Janna Ramos-Violante (who plays elder sister Pink here) has won kudos for her work in everything from slapstick comedies to erotic dramas, with the equally versatile Ashleigh Harvey (as the younger, pregnant Rolly) having recently completed a run of a children’s musical, though not afraid of dark material, having also been acclaimed for her part in Neil Labute’s Bash.
Both actresses dive into their roles in Pests, from their broad chav accents (not English as we know it, but clearly intelligible all the same, thanks to the disciplined delivery of quick-fire dialogue) to their robust physical interactions and the paranoia and tetchiness that comes with both the drug-related problems both have and the commitment they have to each other and all the baggage that brings.
Pink is distrustful and manipulative, while Rolly – fresh out of prison – has an inkling of light at the end of the tunnel and a desire to move towards it by lacks the intellectual werewithal to extricate herself from her sister’s toxic influence. There are moments of bitter, brittle humour as the pair spar, adjusting to both life under the same rood and the possibility of parting again if Rolly can find work.
The claustrophobic set plays a role, too, completely papered in newsprint and strewn with rubbish. At one point picks at a panel, revealing an old photograph under the paper – a reminder of happier times, or perhaps an unrealised ideal.
This is harsh material, designed to make onlookers ask difficult questions as they drive home. Heading out of Maboneng via Marshalltown and the edge of Hillbrow, where run-down buildings and broken windows evoke the same atmosphere as the set is a little chilling, and taking what you might have – be it solid relationships, a supportive family, a clean bed – for granted seems more venal than ever.