By BRUCE DENNILL
Dangled / Starring Rob Van Vuuren / POPArt, Maboneng, Johannesburg
People will say; have said; that this is a tough play. And thematically, it is – it’s based on a story called Diary Of A Madman (written by Russian author Nikolai Gogol, in 1835), and that title is about the most sanitised possible summing up of the piece. But it’s also a gobsmacking piece of theatre, and suggesting that it’s difficult to watch suggests that reticence in booking early the next time it runs (this POPArt run was only for four performances) does the production a disservice: it should be prioritised, not approached with reservation.
The script focuses on a single, unnamed man (Rob Van Vuuren), attended by only some sparse furnishings, who delivers a long, rambling monologue – directed at this apparatus – telling of his frustration with his lot in life, his romantic aspirations and his challenges in attaining (or getting anywhere close to) his goals.
Louis Viljoen provides a script – featuring enough of Gogol’s story to be considered an adaptation but peppered with enough contemporary imagination to make it immediately relatable in a modern context. That this is the case should be worrying to the audience watching Van Vuuren perform, as Viljoen’s script is, as well as being whipsmart, sculpted and utterly devoid of fat, frequently filthy – in terms of the language used and the mental images it generates. When you laugh at the lines spat out by the protagonist when he’s angry, or just intense, you become an accomplice, if not to his schemes, then at least to his perspectives. And once the gut-punch of a twist is delivered, you may feel physically ill at having allowed that to happen.
Yes, this is a story good enough to still have powerful currency 182 years after it was penned, but Viljoen’s coal-black spin on an already dark original gives it an additional, crushing power that coerces as it compels.
This sublime writing would mean little were its interpretation mediocre. Happily, Van Vuuren’s performance is outstanding. The role requires him to be impassioned to the point of fervour for more or less the entire running time; to be perched on the edge of sanity throughout, always susceptible to losing his balance. Van Vuuren is required to push every utterance and action as far as it can possibly go; to land every syllable on a pinpoint and to use his body as exclamation point, parentheses, italics and every other means of giving the text nuance.
It’s a massively disciplined performance, but that steel is invisible, The result, though, which is Van Vuuren not missing a single nuance – you can hear every syllable of the madman’s diatribe and be shocked by the ferocity with which he uses his physicality to make a point – is mesmerising. It’s an accomplishment that’s pretty much impossible to fault, made all the more amazing by the fact that the play has no director.
Hilarious, desolate, brilliant and cutting – a compact slice of, whisper it, genius.