Set in the present, Suddenly the Storm, Paul Slabolepszky’s latest play (and his first new play since 2009), delves back into the past to uncover whatever it is that is eating Dwayne Combrink, an angry man whose income as a creator of security gates is not his sole one – he also serves as a loan shark’s “enforcer”. That he is a man of violence is made clear from his first entrance – cleaning the blood off a baseball bat. We get a stereotypical picture. An aging white male blue collar worker from the East Rand. We make judgements. The play unfolds and so does a complex character so far removed from any stereotypical South African that it is almost difficult for someone of my generation to grasp. It is not that he speaks the vernacular – most whites raised on farms grow up speaking the local language of the workers. This comprehension difficulty is rooted in the very system of Apartheid and it is not a challenge that can be overcome with “willing suspension of belief”. It reaches deep inside the South African psyche and demands a some sort of response, an acknowledgement of the individual’s complicity in the political landscape of Apartheid. It touches on the current concept of “white privilege” in interesting ways which is the beauty of this play. Suddenly the Storm was created in time for the 40th anniversary of both The Market Theatre where it had its world premiere and for the 40th anniversary of the Soweto Riots. It is both historically and currently pertinent.
Billy Ocean wrote and sang a song in the late eighties entitled “The colour of love”. It is all about painting and dreaming “of you”, but it might as well have been an anthem of apartheid policy where love – and particularly sex – across the colour line was not only frowned upon by society, but forbidden by law. Paul Slabolepszky himself plays the role of Dwayne Combrink. We are soon introduced to an invisible character, Jonas. In fact we fairly soon learn that he is dead. But his presence dominates the stage at times. He was Dwayne Combrink’s best friend and employee. For a white and black man to be best friends in the sixties, seventies and eighties was rare, almost unheard of, and where it happened it was seldom discussed. No one thought to ask.
There are two other characters, Shanell Combrink, one of those East Rand stereotypical characters who comes to life as a somewhat less complex character than her much older husband in the very capable handling of the role by Charmaine Weir-Smith. She has appalling taste in clothing and a drinking problem. Then there is the mysterious Namhla Gumede, a beautiful black woman who is quite clearly out of the league of the Combrinks, created on stage by Renate Stuurman. If there is a weakness in this play it is that this character appears too early and has a too prominent role before the denouement. The unrevealed purpose of her visits feels contrived and implausible at the beginning and one guesses (rightly or wrongly) at the climax too early.
The sad details of a failed marriage, a disappointing and frustrating life and expectations unmet are teased out for 105 minutes. There is no interval. It is curious that there is no interval because there are several places where one would work naturally as the days pass (each time involving a blackout) and it is not the kind of play where one need fear that the bulk of the audience wouldn’t return after an interval (the two most common reasons for making the audience do the long sit instead of buying drinks at the bar). However, the play didn’t lag and the time sped by without undue stress on bladders or the need for a drink (or smoke for those that do).
Everything in this thought provoking play is beautifully crafted. There are moments of humour and moments of sudden revelation. It really is a stunning piece of theatre.
There is nothing minimalist about the staging of this work directed by Bobby Heaney. The set is by Greg King and it is intricately put together to further the stereotypical clutter of the workshop where space and good taste do no hobnobbing. It is convincingly lit by Wesley France to create the lightning flashes so familiar to Highveld audiences. The costumes are not credited in the programme, but they are worthy of a special mention. Ntuthuko Mbuyazi is responsible for the sound.
Suddenly the Storm is playing at the Auto and General Theatre on the Square in Sandton until 19 November 2016.