By BRUCE DENNILL
Van Wyk: The Storyteller Of Riverlea / Directed by Christo Davids / Mannie Manim Theatre, Market Theatre Complex, Newtown, Johannesburg
The late Chris Van Wyk was a prolific and respected writer, author, poet and editor, esteemed for acumen and much loved for his good humour, approachability and skill as a raconteur. Actor Zane Meas knew Van Wyk well, having been inspired at high school after gaining acclaim for performing an adaptation of a short story called Flats (which forms a segment of this play).
Meas penned Van Wyk: The Storyteller Of Riverlea as a tribute to both his friend and Van Wyk the political commentator and activist. On tht first score, the piece is a lyrical, well-acted success. Director and set designer Christo Davids has given Meas a sort of playground of the mind to move around in – a painted map on the floor; a representation of the golden mine dump around which Riverlea, the poor Johannesburg suburb in which Van Wyk grew up, was built; a fold-up screen on which home video-style footage is occasionally projected and books hanging from the ceiling. Meas, who comfortably inhabits the character of his old comrade, weaves Van Wyk’s story – autobiographical titbits; little asides delivered with a twinkle in the eye – with stories and poetry Van Wyk wrote. The script and the performance combine well to give a good sense of Van Wyk’s nature and the kind of man, both gentle and ethically unyielding, behind both the well-known writings. Meas runs through a number of moods and intensities during his performance, maintaining his focus – and helping the audience to maintain theirs – throughout.
As a measure of, or tribute to, Van Wyk’s impact as an activist (against apartheid, yes, but against and in favour of other causes as well), the piece is less effective, The pieces of Van Wyk’s writing chosen to showcase his perspectives are, with a few exceptions – his still-devastating poem In Detention is in there, for one – in line with the general tone of the piece. This is temperate at worst and tender at best. As such, while Van Wyk: The Storyteller Of Riverlea is a lovely testament to a good man, it’s difficult, on the evidence of the play alone, to fully comprehend the importance of his legacy, which takes away from the impression the piece leave as the lights come up. Still, if you’re interested – and Meas’ work may spike that curiosity – it’s easy enough to put in a bit of research into Van Wyk’s full output once you leave the theatre.