By BRUCE DENNILL
NSA Festival of the Arts 2020: Scout / Directed by Mike da Silva / Space.com, Joburg Theatre, Braamfontein, Johannesburg
This is an interesting work, devised by the cast in association with the Society for Animals In Distress (SAID). There are many ways a similarly worthy piece could be put together, with many of them probably getting a bit saccharine and wishy-washy. Much of that potential here has been done away with via the decision to forego dialogue entirely, and to use puppetry, physical theatre and live music – played on stage by Ayanda Bixa and Lesedi Phage (guitar and percussion respectively) to tell the story of the title character, a ragged street mutt who is given a rough time by the people he shares the streets with, who take offence at his barking and occasionally get violent with him. He has no concept of human kindness until he meets an elderly lady (Chloé Amelia Padayachee) who is happy to share her food with him and, once she has won his trust, to take him to see a vet (Hannah Potgieter) and be treated for his ailments.
In terms of its educational value, the piece underlines the value of kindness towards animals and the impact it can have on their behaviour and quality of life. This may seem obvious enough to learners and audiences lucky enough to have pets of their own, but it’s a useful and necessary lesson to those whose only experience of the animals organisations like SAID deal with is in a scenario where they may be competition for space, food and attention. As such, this play, with its easily reproducible set – the only complex aspect would be ensuring that the puppet playing Scout himself is convincing to look at – should be easy to tour, not least because there is no dialogue for young casts to remember.
The puppet work, by Neo Koopedi and Thandiwe Hlelo Nhlapo, is excellent, with Scout having recognisably canine twitches and reactions to stimuli such as sounds and interesting items to sniff. The puppeteers also give Scout a distinctive, realistic vocabulary.
When watching physical theatre, it’s not always possible to know what is going on, but the script here is commendably clear, kept simple but not overly simplistic, and with its dynamics bolstered by the fall and swell of the music, smart lighting effects and having larger or smaller groups of actors on stage.
This play has many merits as a standalone piece of theatre. And as a potential part of education and fundraising programmes for animals in distress, it may go on to do much more than “just” entertain audiences.