Full Circle

Wednesday, 1 November, 2006

South Africa, 1994, is the setting for this award winning play by Kobus Moolman - here receiving its UK première by Blue Hug Theatre Company. It's also the first time the play has been produced outside of South Africa.

Brother and sister, Meisie and Boetie, live with Oom (the Afrikaans equivalent of Uncle if my knowledge of languages hasn't let me down) - their dead father's brother. The enormous political changes have left the family eking out a subsistence kind of living under the steamy heat of the South African sun. However, they still appear to have enough funds to buy weapons and ammunition, since Boetie frequently finds time for target practice with the handgun he totes around tucked into his pants, eventually arousing the interest of a local black police inspector.

Oom appears to be the leader of a white supremacist terrorist organisation, whose objectives seem to be to regain their lost land and to subvert the new political regime - 'Freedom or death' as Oom puts it. But not all of the protagonists are as committed to the cause as Oom. And when the moment of truth comes, Boetie cannot resolve the conflicts between his religious convictions, fear, and terrorism – “I don't know what's normal any more”, he says.

By the end of the first half, I was wondering just where we were headed. The first half of the play had been interesting and the characters had been quite well-drawn, and the appearance of the black police inspector had introduced an element of conflict and heightened intensity at just the right point. In a way, the white characters seemed rather pathetic, and up to a point, had begun to arouse my sympathy. However, the second half exploded, or possibly degenerated depending on your point of view, into a rather shocking and troubling sequence of events which included incest, suicide and murder all in the short space of about an hour. It gave the piece the feel of a Shakespearian tragedy, not least because a number of bodies litter the stage come the final curtain.

Jack Klaff's larger than average frame gives us an Oom who is highly unpredictable, clumsy, loud-mouthed and uncouth. Although there were times when he convinced us of his authority and power, there were also points when I felt he was simply rather bungling and inept - but then maybe that's exactly Moolman's point. But I enjoyed Richard Pepple's authoritative performance as Inspector Zuma, which had a keen streak of ironic humour. At one point when he's bound and being fed tinned pilchards by the blind Meisie, he says “I'm actually a vegetarian, but under the circumstances ...”. And Steven Farah's performance as Boetie was youthfully sensitive, brooding and considered. On the other hand, I found it hard to relate to Sarah Caltieri's performance as Meisie. This was largely due to a rather sudden change in her character during the second half, where she becomes something of a prophetic angel of death which jarred with what we had seen from her in the first half.

Though it's interesting (as well as important) to see a play about white South African extremism, 'Full Circle' stretches credibility which didn't seem strictly necessary or essential. I found the second half of the play just too much of a cataclysmic tragedy to be believable, even though it was quite compelling. Fanaticism doesn't always go hand-in-hand with madness which is what the play seemed to be describing. And when one links extremism with madness, it leaves responsibility somewhat out in the cold. I also found some of the character developments troubling. Why, for example, had Meisie to become the prophetic visionary who spurred on Oom, when he already seemed demented enough to follow his own path?

I suspect that the success of this play in South Africa tells us quite a lot about the significance of the piece. In particular, that it means rather more to the people of South Africa than it does to us in the UK. Unless one has lived through some of the times that 'Full Circle' describes, or you understand the complexities of the politics and the other issues involved, it's hard not to feel something of a bystander. Although the play never drags or fails to hold attention, it could easily be a play about a family in crisis, rather than one with something larger to say about recent events in South Africa, fanaticism or terrorism.

(Peter Brown)

Next review by Andrea Carpenter

Post-apartheid tales are usually told from the perspective of the black community so the viewpoint for Full Circle is immediately striking. Set in South Africa, where the fall of apartheid has left white Afrikaan farmers penniless and with few land rights, the play centres on a family harbouring two major resentments.

Meisie, a visually impaired young woman, and her brother Boetie are still mourning the death of their father in a violent incident in the city 15 years previously. Meanwhile, Oom, their uncle, is smarting from the balance of power shifting to the blacks. He is preparing for a violent uprising against the new government, a cause to which Boetie is a willing and naïve convert.

These two strands meet when a black police inspector arrives at the farm to investigate Boetie’s routine target practice only for the sister to recognise the Inspector’s voice as that of his father’s killer. Their plans for revenge test the family’s appetite for violence stemming from their deluded beliefs system and their isolation in the burnt earth of South Africa.

The play, written by award-wining playwright and poet Kobus Moolman, illustrates a nasty mix of religion and violence. For this household, the word of the bible is a justification for violence as well as a rulebook for old-fashioned values. Yet, the men also worship a false God in Meisie, whose visions beyond her blindness serve as prophesies for the impending coup.

Sarah Caltieri, herself visually impaired, warms up to her role as Meisie. As the protagonist, she gains the balance of power as the drama unfolds. While Caltieri adds a determined voice to the violence there is less change in her physical presence to illustrate a marked change from the modest girl we first meet.

Steven Farah makes for an unnerving Boetie, the cocky gun-toting youth driven by a religious conviction. His portrayal resonates with current fears about guns in the hands of the disaffected youth who think little about the reality of violence.

Oom’s violence is at times chilling but often less convincing. Jack Klaff looms physically large on stage and is heavy-handed in his violence. This is successful in making his audience feel ill at ease - he urinates and masturbates on stage and makes suggestive advances to his niece – but it lacks the subtlety to create a menacing performance to justify the psychological hold he has on his charges, particularly his nephew.

The real strength is Inspector Zuma, played by Richard Pepple. His presence demands your attention and lifts your interest in the play. When his character is in control, he commands the stage and when he turns victim, he still leads with his wonderfully macabre sense of humour.

The small set does a good job in portraying the redness of the South African earth that is often referenced in the text with a pixilated African scenery backdrop cleverly representing the haze of a hot climate.

Too many short sequences in the first act creates a pace that seems incongruous with what should be a slow languid existence in the stifling heat as the men wait for a sign before heading out to battle. However, the direction improves in the second act when the action dictates a fast pace of exits and entrances.

The play is always very watchable, and you are even slightly overwhelmed in a frenzied second act, but this pace while engaging is at the expense of some aspects developed in the previous act. The insight into white supremacy in South Africa is an appealing dimension that begins to get lost while Meisie's blindness also seems to be less important in the second act. It is a shame that both these issues end up serving as more of a cover for an atypical tale about a particularly dysfunctional family which bring about their own demise through an act of revenge.

(Andrea Carpenter)

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