Truth in translation
A play about the translators a the Truth and Reconciliation commission (TRC) of South Africa which started working in 1995 and presented its report in 1998. The TRC was a court-like body assembled in South Africa after the end of apartheid. Anybody who felt they had been a victim of violence could come forward and be heard at the TRC. One major objective of the court was to pardon anyone who publicly admitted to his crimes.
I didn't expect the group of ten, or so, actors to start singing after about ten minutes in to the show, but the musical excursions, of which there are about six, work surprisingly well. I suspect this is in part because the songs very strongly rely on the actors voices, using the few musical instruments as a mere backdrop and in part because there's made little use of soloists, making each of the songs a collective effort in tune with the objectives of the TRC.
The few instruments that are used, a bass guitar, a keyboard and a djembe, are used throughout the show and have the effect of a non-intrusive but pleasant soundtrack to a movie.
The play uses and mentions the atrocities of apartheid-era South Africa, without becoming melodramatic and shows how, by being part of a process of reconciliation, without the ability to step away like the general public was able to do by simply turning off their television, effected the lives of the individual translators on a very human level.
Before doing the show in Jo'burg, the actors went on a 'field-trip' to Rwanda, to understand the effects of nationwide killings on the psyche of the affected individual and a nation as a whole as most of the actors are too young to have fully grasped, first hand, the events and effects of apartheid in their own country.
For the most part, the actors were extremely convincing in their roles, acting having to witness perpetrators talking about, confessing, their atrocities during the apartheid regime in South Africa, which was similar to what the actors experienced themselves while in Rwanda.
The play was also performed in Rwanda, for the victims of the genocide, there. The tale acted out has no real story arc, which in fact suits the play very well as an imposed plot would possibly have made the show feel too contrived. The performances in Rwanda showed that, for viewers who suffered from those terrors first hand, this approach made for very believable, if not true to life, theater, as it happened that the spectators would return the next day, in the assumption they would be able to check out the next installment in a soap-like series.
Early on in the play, a rather bland joke of the type that somehow always generates buckets of laughs here in South Africa, like a fart joke, or a veiled reference to some lewd sexual act, extracted a chorus of laughter. It's the type of humour that did well in Holland in the 1970s and 1980s and at first I could only yawn.
However, I realised that, perhaps, a nation which has seen so much terror and destruction, from the hand of supposedly educated and elated individuals, maybe the only real entertainment can be relatively simple, the type everyone understands and has no real deeper meaning.
Then again, maybe it's just the British legacy at work and is Benny Hill still a major favourite over here.
One part of the play, which might have been the most crucial, I didn't understand. The ending. A coloured woman, not one of the translators, tells of an old man, talking about forgiveness and reconciliation, saying that he, the man, is too old for a grudge, but, thinking of the old trees that used to stand right in front of his house but were cut down for some unspecified reason by the apartheid regime, says he would want his trees back: "Give me back my trees". The play then ends with an almost jazzy, but mellow, song, where the group of actors go through the old man's words once more.
What are they saying? Is, in the end, apartheid only a passing faze, almost like a fad? Is it that, of all the things apartheid took away, what only mattered was what nature provided? Or is it that the common man wasn't really affected by apartheid as such? I really don't know.
We saw the show at the Market Theatre, a very attractive smallish theater smack in the middle of Johannesburg, in Newtown, a heavily secured area where you can actually sit outside, without actually being robbed, raped or shot, and enjoy a designer coffee and admire the 100 year old architecture of the old indoor market.