Brighton Fringe 2011
The critically-acclaimed play, written by South African playwright Reza de Wet, African Gothic was originally written in Afrikaans, entitled Diepe Grond, which translated means “Deep Ground,” from the expression "Still waters, deep ground and underneath the devil is turning around." The play had its world premiere in 1985 at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg. African Gothic was later translated into English by de Wet and was staged in 1990 at the Tiffany Theatre in Los Angeles. In the middle of 2000, Reza de Wet re-wrote the play, which had been her first, in English. Under the title Run To Ground, the play was staged in Durban, South Africa in June 2003. Productions in English have since been under the name of ‘African Gothic’. This dark comedy is set on a desolate rural farm in South Africa, and follows the lives of an orphaned brother and sister who have grown up without parental supervision. They have allowed their farm to fall to ruin by rejecting reality and creating an eerie fantasy world. They are feral siblings, whose arrested state of development sees them incapable of keeping the farm in workable condition. They spend their time role-playing as the adults in their past young lives and as the repressed and opressed children they once were, and somehow have never quite moved on from. These youngsters live their lives in the past; they are in a terrible time loop with no discernable future. Instead, they struggle with their own demons as it falls to waste around them, surviving only due to the ministrations of loyal servant Alina (played here by the production’s Director, Naomi Wirthner).
Atmospheric design transports the Iambic Arts theatre’s small stage to a ruined farmhouse in South Africa, where broken window panes hang at the wall, and everything (including the actors) seems covered in grime, and dirt from the ground.
This gives the stage an agricultural feel. A lawyer (played by Colin Brown) visits the farm, threatening to destroy the bizarre but cacooned existence that these two protagonists have created. The plot unfolds and gains momentum with an edgy dark humor, climaxing with a dramatic twist, acted very effectively by the two lead actors, and Wirthner who plays the servant.
Director Wirthner has drawn very strong performances from her actors. Jane Akuwudike’s portrayal of Sussie, who imitates her mother so hauntingly well (almost as though she is summoning up the ghost of their dead mother), is disturbing and transfixing. She delivers a strong and sometimes even astonishingly authentic performance as the woman-child Stussie, who flits bizarrely between girlish flightiness and the god-fearing, stern disposition of her mother, whose presence seems to possess her sporadically.
This is unquestionably captivating portrait of a character riddled with neuroses. However, the performance often falls into the trap of being far, far too ‘shouty’, which is so unnecessary in such a small performance space. Attempting to master the South African accent is no easy feat, and though all three main actors give it a jolly good shot, Gary Wright is the only actor who seems to achieve it consistently, and without breaking into an English or even slightly Australian accent as the others often seem to.
Gary Wright puts in an always intense, engaging and intelligent performance as Stussie’s younger brother Frikkie, and he is very watchable. Although perhaps the audience may have liked to get a stronger sense of a certain wild menace that underpins his character.
Wirthner’s peformance as the family servant, Alina, casts a very effective ominous shadow over the stage and the ‘couple’. It’s hard to know what Alina really thinks of their bizarre mind games. This character comes out as my favourite, and her significance only seems clear in the very final scene – a very tender and affectionate one. Akuwadike, Wright and Wirthner are all strong and confident on stage, and with a good handle on their characters.
But Brown as Mr Grove disappoints a little (though this ‘straight’ role is undoubtedly a difficult role to play with interest) and not nearly as ‘officious’ and bigoted as this character ought to be. Barebones theatre company’s production of ‘African Gothic’ was a grim night at the theatre, and not for the faint-hearted. Essentially this play is about the shattering impact of disturbed family lives. It is genuinely disturbing, as any exploration of such a topic should be.