Director Greg Homann met playwright Ariel Dorfman when he was doing the eigth annual Nelson Mandela lecture.
Homann was asked to be a guest interviewer for a local paper and once the job was done, Dorfman queried his intense interest in theatre, discovered he was a director (among other things) and told him about a new play he was writing.
That was a few years ago and now (with the help of the Ford Foundation) Delirium will open for its first local season at the Market’s Barney Simon Theatre, after a short preview season, tomorrow night.
If you know anything about Dorfman (think Death and a Maiden), Delirium is soul food for a man deeply entrenched in the world of politics and how everything turns. He’s having fun with this one while at the same time dealing with extremely serious issues.
The play is set on the border of two warring nations – imaginary countries called Tomis and Constanza. An elderly couple (Fiona Ramsay and David Dennis) live on this border and they have taken it upon themselves to bury and catalogue the dead, which they are paid for. Suddenly peace is declared and a border guard (Fezile Mpela) breaks into their home and draws a border line dividing their house in two and declaring that the husband and wife are from different countries though they live in one house.
Delirium, say the pre-publicity notes succinctly, is a pertinent allegory for the ethnic and nationalist divisions we see across the world. “These divides are perhaps at their most astute in a country like post-apartheid South Africa, with the staging an exciting opportunity to highlight the absurdity of man-made boundaries and borders. Set against the backdrop of invented lands at war, the three characters hang on to a series of delusions as a means to survive against the insanity of borders that have been created by state and family.”
But the inventions don’t end there. Dorfman also makes up a language that worms its way into the play in-between the sounds we understand. In a country such as ours with 11 languages, who’ll even blink if another one is added to the mix?
“It’s been delightful,” says Homann, who has been involved with plays and performances as diverse as Mike van Graan’s Brothers in Blood to Pirates of Penzance and still, he’s only in his early thirties.
“The piece is playful, but the joy and the comedy are underpinned by some sinister issues at play.”
It’s easy to see where Dorfman finds his fodder. The world is in turmoil on so many levels that mention of the word “Syria”, for example, will explain how absurd borders have become.
Country is a place where its people should feel protected, but that’s no longer the case.
Delirium places the spotlight on the way the world constructs boundaries between countries and families, you can go as large or small as you want to with this one – and Homann urges both.
Nothing is ever as it seems when Dorfman is in command and there are many issues that creep into the piece. A huge bonus for Homann is the cast. Dennis, who worked with him in both previous mentioned pieces, was perfect for this one.
He and Ramsay know each other and have worked on other levels with her coming in as a voice coach, but this is his first experience directing her. “There’s an almost Beckettian quality to the play which is something they play well,” he says.
He’s also charmed by the way the actress has embraced the rawness and roughness of her character.
“It’s not something we’re used to see her doing,” he says.
But she’s playing a strong woman and that’s full-blown Ramsay.
Even though it seems like quite a light work, Dorfman allowed for different approaches. “We could have cast in many different permutations,” says Homann.
He could also have introduced different languages rather than Dorfman’s invented one, all adding to the layers of meaning.
But in the end, he stuck to the playwright’s vision, casting the people on merit rather than pushing a particular formula. He wanted to play around with the way he put it all together. Check the pictures, and you can see we’re almost looking at something like a fairy tale with edge.
“This is one of those plays that seems made for post-apartheid South Africa, but speaks to other parts of the world as well,” says Homann.
He feels, for example, that casting Mpela quotes SA in some way. It’s that kind of work. “Different people will interpret it differently.”
It seems there are so many avenues you can skip down or through, that each audience member will bring their own understanding and interpretation to the work. On the question of identity, for example, Dorfman challenges all of us. “He feels it should be fluid and less rigid than it is seen,” says Homann.
On board is lighting and set designer Denis Hutchinson as well as Jemma Kahn (as costume designer), who made waves with her Epicene Butcher in Grahamstown.
He relies on his design team because in his world and with an architectural background, he’s creating visual pictures with the bodies of the actors on stage. He wants similar visual images to add texture from everyone on board.