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Edinburgh Fringe 2012

The Sewing Machine

Wordsmith's Theatre Factory and Assembly

Genre: Drama


 Assembly Three


Low Down

An acclaimed Afrikaans one woman show, performed in English for the first time. A powerful drama combining strong writing, pitch perfect delivery and an intense physicality.


Performed for the first time in English, as part of Assembly Festival’s South African season, The Sewing Machine was written in Afrikaans by Rachelle Greeff and translated to English by the director, Hennie van Greunen.  It is the story of one woman, 81 year old Magdaleen (played by Sandra Prinsloo) who has lived through apartheid, accepting the laws and restrictions, the propaganda of the ruling National Party, unquestioningly. The play has been performed some 200 times in Afrikaans to great critical acclaim and has won a number of awards.

The play is set in the present in a residential home where Magdaleen is tidying her few belongings and reluctantly preparing to part with her beloved sewing machine after 50 odd years of use. Although set in the specific political context of post-apartheid South Africa the themes of ageing, loss, change are universal.

As she potters among her few remaining possessions, we hear half-remembered conversations, fragments of criticism from her daughter or husband, reassurances from her son, as recorded voice pieces. Her story is gradually revealed as she responds to these fragments and talks to her ‘sister’, the sewing machine whilst she cleans it ready for collection.

The Sewing Machine is a powerful drama and Prinsloo brings us an entirely believable elderly frail woman. One who struggles with the everyday tasks of moving around the room, making a pot of tea, taking the cover off her sewing machine…

The text is lean and the play is beautifully paced with almost excruciating moments as she struggles quietly to make tea and take a tray across the room contrasting with sharp and often very funny observations about old age or lively ripostes to the interjections of the voices. The voices are recorded and we hear them as voice overs. The timing was perfect and Prinsloo’s responses sharp and witty

In some ways I found this very striking and effective as they broke into the space that the play has created, reminding us of the world beyond her room; at the same time The Sewing Machine shows us the world through Magdaleen’s eyes and I found hearing the other voices, as opposed to seeing her hearing them jarred very slightly.

The warmth of her reminiscences and conversations with the sewing machine contrast with the pain of the story she gradually reveals to us, the audience. The stillness of the audience was almost palpable; you really could have heard the proverbial pin drop.

The setting, South Africa as it adjusts to a new world, and the political experience of Magdaleen’s generation is unique but her personal experiences as a child, then a wife and a mother are not. Because I could identify with all of these, I could begin to make sense of living within a political system that I have no experience of. There were a few Afrikaans words and references; I didn’t need to understand them to gain a sense of their meaning.

However, although sad, her story is far from hopeless; Magdaleen makes a journey in the course of the play as she begins to question some of the truths that she has always taken for granted. Yes, she shows the frailty of old age but there is humour, a sense that she is making choices, has some control over her destiny so ultimately the story is one of hope.

This is a very powerful piece of drama that seems to have made the transition to another language and another culture whilst losing none of its original power. See it, whatever age you are!