Dop / Directed by Sylvaine Strike / Barney Simon Theatre, Market Theatre, Newtown, Johannesburg
Relationships. Everyone has them. Even lonely people. Everyone struggles with them. Especially lonely people. And almost everyone fails to give them their due as the intricate, convoluted organisms that they are, struggling with shyness, insecurity, ignorance and shame as they struggle to get below the surface to where the real issues of any connection lie.
Alcohol has been both a means to temporarily lower the barriers to engaging with someone or to hide from the need to do so completely, so placing an examination of relationships and their complexities inside a bar is a smart mechanism, more or less guaranteeing that the building of some sort of bond between the characters. Limiting the number of characters to just two minimises dilution of the subject matter, creating a sort of case study that creates an intimacy in the theatre – the compact Barney Simon space is well-suited to this. And giving the characters overlapping but notably different backgrounds and perspectives means that there will be conflict, but there is also likely to be common ground.
Such is Retief Scholtz’ set-up for Dop (an Afrikaans word with three distinct meanings: an alcoholic drink; to consume an alcoholic drink; or to fail). His protagonists are Frank Venter (André Odendaal), an older man who feels that has plenty of reasons to drink, and hopefully to forget; and Tim (Wilhelm van der Walt), a gentle, warm-hearted barman who could use the guidance and care of a mentor, even if he doesn’t expect his odd customer to fill that role.
The action – well, the discussion; this is a dialogue and a debate, without much moving around – begins relatively slowly as the two men spar gently. Frank is course and blunt; Tim patient and professional. The former, who is celebrating his birthday, wants to work his way through a ritual that gives some sort of meaning to his predicament. The latter agrees to play his part in that ritual in return for some advice. Frank is Afrikaans. Tim speaks English (he’s South African by way of Australia) and his status as both the service provider and the younger individual in the conversation means that he assumes the burden of closing the language gap, even if his vocabulary and understanding is imperfect.
As the duo begin to more fully comprehend each other’s contexts, it becomes clear, via excellent writing interpreted with great skill, that communication is about far more than language or even words. Frank keeps drinking. Physically, he deteriorates. Tim continues to seek help, supporting his customer – and friend, after a fashion – and learning as much from Frank’s slowly divulged mistakes as from whatever wisdom can still be revealed through the miasma of inebriation.
Odendaal and Van der Walt both give extraordinary performances, with the former required by the script to give considerably more in a physical sense and doing so in a persuasive, incredibly nuanced way.
The precision of the presentation, the intensity of the emotion expressed and a number of distinctive stylistic features all point to Sylvaine Strike’s superb, firm direction, which takes what is otherwise two men talking for an hour and a half and – along with the humour, pathos and tempered despair in the script – makes it into something that moves, teaches, saddens and amuses, all at once, with a sprinkling of magic and memory.
If you can’t relate on some level to this heartbreaking, inspiring subject matter, it won’t be down to a lack of comprehension brought about by the mish-mash of Afrikaans and English spoken throughout. And the deficiency you identify will be one you want to remedy immediately.