THE decision to use masks as a poetic device was fundamental to how director Jenine Collocott and actors James Cairns and Tarryn Bennet approached the project.
“Masks have the ability to transpose emotions through simple actions, and this was the conceptual key to unlocking the theatrical impact of this powerful story,” said Collocott.
She studied mask-making techniques under Italian director and mask-maker Matteo Destro, and describes it as the most exciting of art forms: “It takes theatre to this idea that the story is bigger than you. I think that’s possibly true of all theatre, but when you’re playing with a mask, you have to play very precisely and clearly, and be completely drawn as a character.
“There is no room for muddiness or vagueness,” said Collocott.
Initially, the first time all three sat down in January last year to start the rehearsals she asked Cairns to tell her the story, and he told it from the point of view of the lighthouse. Bennet did it as if she was the snow goose, then the three started suggesting the connections between the various characters, which is how the play veered off the initial first draft as things became complex.
She went off and started toying with the idea of using masks, and the first one she created was for the hunters. “I adore them – they are sort of small-minded and quite mean, but they’re funny, so they have these polarities.
“There is a very specific mask that I studied, called a primary mask.”
This particular mask is simple and definite; it can be only the one thing.
For the Phillip Rhayader character, she used the human mask because “obviously that’s what he needed to be”.
“When James put it on he changed. Your voice has to be masked, your body has to be masked – everything has to match the fact that you’ve got this thing on your voice.
“So he went a little higher-pitched when he was Rhayader, and when we watched him we could understand why this girl goes back to the lighthouse every time. He’s not a weirdo.”
For the general character, she used the doctor mask (which probably has its roots in the plague-doctor costume dating back to the 1600s). This is the one with the curved beak shaped like a bird, which slips over the forehead on to the nose and mouth.
“I like that he’s a body part – that he doesn’t have a face. I don’t know if you realise it when you’re watching the play, but the choice is connected to what happens to your body if you go to war. It’s like when someone comes back from the war in pieces, they’re not the whole thing any more.
“Then there’s a half-mask to suggest the soldiers on the beach, and since Fritha is the innocent in the story, it makes sense that she goes unmasked. But this made for an interesting challenge for Bennet, because she couldn’t act in a natural style opposite Cairns.
“So when we rehearsed, she had to wear a red nose, for the same kind of precision,” said Collocott.
The play was presented at the National Arts Festival for the first time last year, and they are currently in a Kalk Bay Theatre run, before they go back to Grahamstown.
Since theatre is a process, Collocott points out that the play is not really finished – or at least her plays are never ever finished, so they’ve been changing things around, tightening it up, and what we will see now is different from what they did last year.