IF YOU experienced Paul Slabolepszy’s Pale Natives the first time around, it’s tough to be reminded it’s 20 years on. And bizarre as it may sound with white men often wailing about their plight in the country, especially at that time, that specific issue was not this prolific playwright’s problem.
“It was about a bunch of middle-aged men who are coming together 25 years after leaving school,” he says. “What were their dreams and what happened to them? Had any of them achieved anything they wanted?”
That’s what he was dealing with when putting together what then was described as a real “all star” including his big buddy Bill Flynn with Danny Keogh, Tim Plewman and Slab himself, directed by Bobby Heaney. It was huge, and the reviews from the time were all raving ones.
“His scripts are crystal clear in their ability to reflect man in all his shapes, ways and sizes as he digs deeper behind the veneer, until dark secrets scuttle out,” wrote critic Gill Lord at the time.
Slab is described as someone who has the South African psyche and lingo wrapped around his tongue.
That’s partly the reason artistic director James Ngcobo invited Slab to stage Pale Natives at The Market. He wants the local classics to be staged for a younger generation so they become part of today’s theatre lexicon. Especially this one which played on the cusp of the new democracy, and will allow those watching to see how far we’ve come.
“They talk about faxes and cellphones which aren’t yet around,” says Slab. Neither, of course, was the internet.
It’s a reflection of the times with especially this band of boys in mind, drink being the fuel of everything they say and the way they speak.
It doesn’t happen any more, says Slab, but in his day, every boy was in a rock band at school.
“We were influenced by The Beatles and the Stones.”
And that’s true of the origins of these particular friendships.
Rereading the play, he was taken by the chords he had struck and the haunting echoes of the court case currently occupying many minds are quite eerie.
“Let’s reminisce, let’s explore morality, materialism, with corruption and offshore accounts all part of the chatter,” he notes. “I wanted to show what these animals were up to.”
It’s about the unravelling of men at a wild stag party with one oke comatose for most of the play.
In the first run, an actor was cast, but because he hardly says five lines and, as Slab says “the part can be learnt in five minutes”, it became part of the mystique of the play. Different actors from Sean Taylor to the director would take turns doing the role.
He’s also amazed by how Tarantino-esque some of the scenes are. “It was before his movies,” says Slab, who has the knack of dipping into the zeitgeist.
The writing started way back because of the cultural boycott, among other things. Slab and Flynn needed some good material after the success of Saturday Night at the Palace.
But these firm friendships are also why Heaney has been invited to direct yet another star-studded cast from the next generation, including Lionel Newton, Anthony Coleman, James Cairns and Ashley Dowds.
Because he stepped out for the first one, revisiting the work is amazing, especially for the two veterans involved.
But there is a wry nod at ageless directors, while actors grow too old to play certain roles.
Would Slab have liked to have stepped on to the stage in the role he first played when Pale Natives premiered? Of course, but he is also brutal.
“We’re too old now,” he says, and being the playwright, he is in the process of writing a two-hander which will give him the male lead.
Actor or playwright? That’s the dilemma, says this passionate artist, but fortunately he doesn’t have to choose, and in today’s world, having more than one skill in this precarious field is obligatory if you want to survive.
But it was tough being at the coalface when he first started. Barney Simon (as with so many others) was the one who encouraged his writing and pulled it out of him.
“I didn’t have any role models at the time,” says Slab, who felt he didn’t have the courage.
His daughter, actress and writer Frances Marek, who also directs (Vreemdeling) will also be working on one of his earlier plays later in the year.
But for Slab at the moment, it’s all about his Pale Natives which runs until May 11.
“It is an examination of the most brutal aspects of men,” says the writer. Even though publicity always tends to target men, he feels this is especially a play for women.
“I wanted to show, by displaying the different shades of men, that there is an alternative. If they embrace their feminine side…” and he allows that thought to drift off in a world where so many can’t handle their testosterone-driven lives.
“It’s about understanding the male psyche.”
Returning to the Market after almost a decade’s absence is sweet. As one of the founding members of Cape Town’s Space Theatre, he can remember, when returning to Joburg, breaking down walls for specific spaces at The Market.
“There are many ghosts here,” he says. Perhaps none more invasive and bittersweet than someone whom he felt was part of his being, Bill Flynn.
That’s why this second run is in memory of his old late friend.
“He was involved from the birth of my writing. It felt like the right opportunity,” says Slab with a metaphorical doff of the hat.