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Since winning the Jessie Richardson Award for Outstanding Original Play, Morris Panych’s Vigil has been translated into 19 languages and performed in theatres from London’s West End to Tokyo, from Paris to New York City. Locally, it started in Grahamstown last year and Cape Town before travelling to Hilton and now, finally, Gauteng audiences have a chance to see it at Sandton’s Auto and General Theatre on the Square.
GRAHAM Hopkins knows the challenge of his latest play, Vigil, is to convince people that in spite of the title, it is not about death. Vigil is a dark comedy about life and relationships.
“It’s delightful,” he explains.
It’s also universal, as it looks at ageing with a slanted eye.
He co-stars with Market Theatre Company founder-member Vanessa Cooke, under the direction of Fleur du Cap Lifetime Achievement Award-winner Christopher Weare.
“We haven’t worked together that much,” says Hopkins, which is surprising, as he and Cooke seem like a match made in heaven. “But it’s been fantastic to reconnect,” he says of an old friend. “She’s disciplined and extraordinary to work with. We’re both old-school in our work ethic.”
Hopkins plays Kemp, a self- centred, shallow person who finds himself, through his own errors and inattentiveness, in a life-and-death situation with profound and far-reaching consequences.
“It’s a strange piece because on paper it’s difficult to get your head around this guy. It’s only as you start to explore his situation that you realise how normal he is. He’s not exactly your everyman, but his experience is very common.
“The situation, though, is completely nuts,” Hopkins explains.
Kemp dashes off to his aunt’s death bed, but the old woman refuses to breathe her last.
Hopkins says while death looms over the plot, the play is not actually about dying, like one of his previous works, Tuesdays with Morrie.
“It was about profound wisdom around life and death and very moving,” is how he describes the earlier play. “This takes a different look, as it’s not about death. Though much of the humour is about death.
“Everyone faces it, death. That process sounds maudlin, but it’s something we all go through, and sometimes it takes a long time for people to slip away and we tend to be very reverent about it. But it also has a bizarre and funny side to it.”
What the play does emphasise, though, are relationships and the unlikely bonds that can form between disparate people.
“I suppose it is also about old age and loneliness, which can sound depressing, but the play is anything but depressing. Hopefully, it’s in the dialogue,” Hopkins says about the humour, which he describes as slightly out of kilter.
While Cooke’s character, Grace, does not articulate much, the play is very much a conversation between the two characters.
“What Morris Panych has done so cleverly is to reveal this terribly anguished life with a very light touch. Its quirkiness is what makes the play funny.”
While they haven’t changed the play’s Canadian setting and references, Cooke and Hopkins are also not adopting different accents (which they can do quite easily).
“Julia Anastasopolous’ sets are suspended in space, so it could be anywhere, any place,” he says.
The soundscape also uses ticking clocks and slamming doors to create a universality of experience and avoids natural sounds.
“It’s just two people who come together because she’s dying and then she doesn’t and they forge a relationship,” says Hopkins.
• Vigil plays from tonight until June 21 in the Auto and General Theatre on the Square.