Incendies was written by Wajdi Mouawad, a Lebanese Canadian writer, in 2003 and translated into English as Scorched by Linda Gaboriau. Scorched follows the story of Janine and Simon, a set of twins with an uncommunicative mother, after the passing of their mother, Nawal, as they unravel the mystery of her life. It has subsequently been made into an award winning movie.
Mpho Osei-Tutu and Ilse Klink in Scorched
One of the strongest features of this play, and certainly one which makes it stand out, is the use of music composed and played by Matthew MacFarlane. This was both sensitive and appropriate and I loved it.
This tragic drama is both long (about three hours) and the theme is war and its horrors, making for a theatrical marathon for audiences more accustomed to the usual one hour format (and usually lighter material).
Scorched is set in a nameless place in the Middle East and it unpacks the story of Nawal (Ilse Klink), an articulate journalist pledged by her grandmother to tell the stories she needs to tell, who simply clams up one day and never utters another word.
After her death the children are summoned to her attorney’s office for the reading of her will. They are called upon to undertake a journey to find their father and their brother (in the nameless place of Nawal’s origin). This story is told in a series of flashbacks, some of them quite horrifying, beautifully lit by Oliver Hauser. As the past and present dance with one another in a maze of wit, imagination, pathos, irony and tragedy, the characters evoke a large range of emotions.
Both the mystic theme of burying a parent with honour and the carnage and chaos of contemporary warfare are laid bare as the young mathematician, Janine, (Cherae Halley) listens to 500 hours of her mother’s silence, while her brother, Simon, (Jaques de Silva) vents his anger physically as an amateur boxer while refusing his share of the quest.
One develops a strong level of empathy for the twins as their family history unfolds, although one is always aware that they are but pallid copies of their ancestors. That empathy spills over to the characters touched by the war, including the nameless people involved in the incidents. The other actors in this piece were Ameera Patel, Bronwyn van Graan, and Mpho Osei-Tutu. Each of these played several characters.
For me the grisly devastation of the war drama climaxed just before interval, and had there been no break there I would have left the theatre shortly thereafter. However, the interval gave me the time I needed to process the work. The second half was almost cathartic in its handling of the subject matter, a way of making the work very personally gripping.
The denouement is almost too neat to be plausible, but the work has won many awards and it is certainly worth the long sit to see how this terrible tangled tale ends.
The set was by Nadine Minnaar. It made extensive use of both suitcases and red rope. I found it very clever. There is a recommendation that Scorched is only suitable for those over the age of 16. This does not surprise me.
I suspect that the work was very challenging to direct for a variety of reasons, not least of which the text is fairly stilted in style, being a fairly “pure” form of academic English used by all the characters, making it difficult to identify a distinctive verbal style for all but two of the smaller characters, the notary (Gopala Davies) who mixes his metaphors most amusingly and the twin brother, Simon, whose aggression was peppered with swear words. Whether this is a fault of the original play or of the translator, I can’t say, but it bothered me that I couldn’t always identify the characters listed on the programme for each actor. Of course, it might also have been as casting problem. I think the written characters are mostly quite a lot older than the actors who portrayed them. Nawal would have been a woman in her sixties, to have had her first baby in her teens, with the twins being born some 25 years after that (with Nawal being in her early forties) and then the twins being described as being 22 years of age at the reading of the will.
Jade Bowers is the recipient of the 2016 Standard Bank Young Artist for Theatre, and part of her prize was to present a work at the National Arts Festival. This is it. Johannesburg audiences can see it at the University of Johannesburg Arts Centre.
This is worth seeing.