Theatre review: Plot 99

Posted: June 13, 2011 in Uncategorized

Plot 99.

review by ASTRID STARK  First published in Cape Times, 8 June ’11.

It took director Aja Marneweck three years to secure the derelict ‘Blacks Only’ wing of the Valkenburg psychiatric hospital buildings for her latest site specific multimedia production.  The old building, with its smashed windows and cracked walls, is situated across the road from the train tracks leading to Pinelands, and next to a funky little Backpackers’ hostel. There are gaping holes where the building’s light switches once functioned and on performance nights only bonfires and candles light the way.

Rouxnet Brown as the new age guru

This production explores the true story of Nonthetha Nkwenkwe, a Xhosa prophetess, seer, and rabble rouser to the white authorities. She was born in 1922 in the Eastern Cape.  The increasingly paranoid State found her to by ‘hysterical’ and locked her up for life in a lunatic asylum.  She was an advocate for unity and education among her people and had hundreds of followers.  In post-apartheid South Africa, historians, archaeologists, forensic specialists and church members tracked down Nontetha’s grave and arranged her re-burial in the Eastern Cape. 

Marneweck uses fragments of Nontetha’s story in her multimedia exploration of mental health and gender issues.   The story is told through photographic images, music and miming. The actors lead the audience through the various rooms of the psychiatric hospital.  Each room is used to recreate a picture of what it could possibly have been like being incarcerated in this building.  Haunting music, agonised screaming, and the scraping of invisible furniture follow the action throughout.  There are large holes in the ceiling and the thick stone walls are ice cold to the touch. 

It is quite an unsettling experience shuffling, along with a group of silent strangers, after an actor doing a great job of portraying a demented person.  The madness is tangible and at one point all the candles are dimmed and we are doused in suffocating darkness. There are doorways leading only to more doors and a new age guru in purple spandex. Shadow puppets tell stories of oppression and violence.

The production is loaded with symbolism and metaphors and it is lot to absorb in one go.  Xhosa rituals are dissected and explored.  In one room a nurse is force feeding fists full of pills to the inmates. In another a decapitated housewife, portrayed by a puppet, is angrily smashing tomatoes in rebellion against her role as an inferior human being.  An actor in a wet suit and armed with a climbing rope glides along the passage. He is an angel, or Nonthuko’s voice of reason, or the grim reaper looking for a soul to harvest.  He can be anything you want him to be. The ambiguous imagery leaves it up to each person’s imagination.

On opening night a large crowd showed up.  Every bit of the old building was filled with amused, confused and intrigued people being shoved aside by the performers fighting for their space.  After a while it feels as if the audience is swallowed up by the performance and at times you are not too sure who is acting and who is watching. When things start getting really confusing and chaotic, Marneweck directs the action back to Nontetha’s story.

If your idea of a night at the theatre is one of watching from a safe distance in a comfy seat you might find this experience challenging. However if you want to be a voyeur into the darker side of humanity, form a different vantage point, you are very likely to have some get some insights from this production.

Tickets are R65, and R40 for students. To book call Lesche Devis at 021 480 7129, or e-mail her, lesche.devis@uct.ac.za.  Tickets may also be purchased at the door. Plot 99. Directed by Aja Marneweck. Costume design by Julia Raynham, Leigh Bishop, Fagrie Nassop. Musical composition by Brydon Bolton and Gustavo Fasan. Sound by Resonance Bazar. Photography: Ant Strack. Starring Rouxnet Brown, Nobuhle Ketelo, Martin Kintu, Andrea Van Meygaarden and Julia Raynham. Introducing: Noxolo Blandile, Lulama Mame and Mandiseli Maseti.

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