In 2008, I did the Blaauwkrans History Tour while at the NAF in Grahamstown. http://www.artlink.co.za/news_article.htm?contentID=5864 (You may have to cut and paste this into your browser as I am not good at making clickable links).
That tour left me with a compulsion to see this particular work, written by Peter Terry, at the 969 Festival at Wits Theatre this year, more than a century after the 1911 disaster.
Set from the point of view of one of the survivors of the disaster, one Hazel Smith, a six year old child, this play is very word heavy. It is the nature of it. It can be no other way. However, this is also the work’s strength. It is more than “just a play” – it is a meditation – a gentle, polite, controlled but definite railing at the immutable God of the Anglican Cathedral of Saints Michael and George in Grahamstown, as well as a railing at the gods of the Xhosa nation who jealously guarded that canyon and viciously extracted payment for the lack of respect shown to them. One senses that an external peace may have been made, but that a lingering resentment still exists. It is very human.
Jenna Dunster portrays the role of Hazel Smith. If one never buys that this woman is a six year old child (and one is probably not meant to anyway), one buys her adult memories in their entirety. One feels her pain at watching her sister fall, one feels her anxiety as her brother slips from her little fingers. There is a huge sense of relief as she is rescued. And one understands her sense of loss which marriage and childbearing never quite erases. Tears spill over her face and rip my heart out. She has achieved exactly what she needed to achieve.
Chris Weare directed the work and it never lags over the details, nor dwells on the described horrors, nor hurries through the searching for answers. It moves at exactly the right pace all the time.
This is not an easy work to watch. It is gut-wrenching. It unpacks a personal and provincial disaster. It pulls no punches. It is incredibly moving.
Immortal plays at the 969 Festival at Wits Theatre and there is one more performance at 15:45 on Sunday 24 July 2016, the day the Festival ends.