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Play Nation

by Greg Lomas, ilustration by Greg Lomas / 02.09.2010

“Charming spot. Inspiring prospects,” Sir Ian McKellen whispers. He’s perched on the edge of a makeshift stage, glaring into the darkness. Into the gloomy half-light of Oliver Tambo Sports Hall in Khayelitsha. Things are going on. Real things. Not in the play. A plastic chair squawks. An infant squirms. A young girl folds her homework. But the show has begun.

In Waiting for Godot the landscape the two main characters (Gogo and Didi) amble through in the opening scene is a bog, an unforgiving quagmire. If you follow their frequent glares beyond the intent mix of Khayelitsha residents, up and over and beyond the sports hall walls, you’ll find a matching landscape. Barren football pitches, broken fences, one of South Africa’s poorest informal settlements. We are watching something rare, something resonant.

McKellen’s fame has brought the play into the heart of Khayelitsha. It’s a chance to share theatre with an audience largely unaccustomed to it. What’s amazing is the dialectic between the onstage characters and residents crowded onto the cold scaffolding seats. There’s a continuity here. People facing harshness and making do with very little.

Beckett’s play will go on being staged around the world – it’s a world historical classic – but its punch is fiercely contemporary and chimes especially with local life, with our own struggles and hopes of promise. The search for understanding is not lost on the destitute. This ‘difficult’ play is immediate and vital. Bowler hats or no bowler hats. In South Africa, there is a lot of waiting. Beyond the square labyrinth of the creaking stage are any number of struggling communities working out the limits of existence in trying circumstances.

Waiting for Godot is open to high brow political and religious interpretation – critics have long had an existential field day with it. But Beckett basically nails our fundamental condition: humanity doomed to face the absurdity of existence. Maybe its even tougher an ask for the working class, less able to indulge in the luxury of distraction. Maybe the play is doubly resonant for people actually trapped inside its slow burning nightmare of grinding hunger and utter indifference.

Inside the hall is an audience stuck in a similar purgatory. Looking for some kind of purpose (a job, a future, a hot meal) while waiting for something – solace, meaning. Needing the communal assurance found in churches, in a loose cigarette, in a drink, a lover, a job.

A police siren cuts through the night and mixes with McKellen’s voice:
“Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it’s awful.”

Was it “culturally insensitive” to put this play on in Khayelitsha? Imperialistic. I don’t know. Did this canny, devastating play go over everyone’s head? Do you need a matric to get it? Are its themes lost to the night out here?

McKellen makes it work. Opens up the text in a thrillingly popular way. He is subtle and sublime. Laughter and awe often spills back over the stage. Magic and delight. True theater. Outside of Oliver Tambo Sports Hall, having finally escaped the labyrinth of Becketts’ play, I am faced with another labyrinth: the amber glow of Khayelitsha. It dawns on me that the redemptive power of the play and its star performance (Sir Ian McKellen in full flight) made you forget where you were. A momentary escape. Which is what art can do.

*Illustration © Greg Lomas.

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