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Autopsy was commissioned by Aardklop festival two years ago, but this tweaked version is the first presentation of the thriller in Cape Town.
Back then they’d been working on Every Year, Every Day I Am Walking for almost five years, and were ready to start something new.
“We kind of liked the idea of doing something different in the sense that most of the work we’d done up to that point had been more physical theatre, imagistic kind of work, with the text being secondary,” said the director, Professor Mark Fleishman (head of UCT’s drama department).
The popularity of television forensics due to programmes such as CSI seemed like a good starting point, combined with ideas around SA and Africa and Magnet Theatre’s physical theatre style.
“We like to think that we innovate, that we don’t stay in one place. I don’t think we’re going away from the roots of the company as we try new things
“This has just been really a case of pushing the boundaries of our style and our usual way of working,” said Fleishman, who is artistic director of Magnet Theatre, which won a Fleur du Cap Award in 2010 for its innovation in local theatre.
Being a commission, the creation of Autopsy was a forced process with a deadline and the piece evolved to incorporate video and live cameras on stage.
This performance now uses provocative images from Sanjin Muftic, Craig Leo has given input regarding object manipulation, and there’s “people and lots of props and dead bodies”.
Aardklop 2011 being spread across a variety of venues, most of which are not proper stages and lacking in technical support, meant “there was a lot of pressure on that first production, which made it quite a fraught process”.
“So the first version in Potch-efstroom was really a try-out, an opportunity to see what we had and what needed cutting. We’ve been looking for an opportunity to redo the piece in Cape Town.”
This new production is not dramatically different. The script’s been trimmed and a fourth actor has been added to realise some of the characters originally implied but not created.
The piece centres on Faniswa Yisa in high heels as a forensic investigator called in to determine the death of a wealthy landowner.
DJ Mouton, Jennie Reznek and Mandisi Sindo play a host of other characters from Chinese politicians, traditional healers and shebeen owners to oil magnates.
Fleishman says working in the thriller genre is a complicated business: “There has to be a logic to the whole thing, the logic has to be connected to some kind of science and it has to make sense and then it has to do so in a way that the audience does not expect.
“If it’s absolutely obvious then they sit there thinking ‘we saw that coming ages ago’.
“The other difficulty of course, is theatre is not really the best medium for this kind of thing, which works better on film and television where you can create a sense of realism.
“In theatre you have to have a theatrical style, a physical style, whilst still making it kind of believable in your genre. You can’t pretend you’re on film, so if you are trying to make it work like you are on film, it’s going to fail because it’s not film, it is a theatre piece.”
All of this is compounded by the eventual question – “What are you actually trying to say?
“There’s the thriller as a style and there’s the physical theatre as the medium but there’s the content of the story as well and what that story is trying to point to which is, when you conduct the autopsy of the body it becomes a metaphor for an autopsy of the country in some way.
“By digging up, you dig up layers of intrigue and corruption and dirty deals and all of these kinds of things.”
They also have to be careful to balance the playfulness of the genre which makes it enjoyable and entertaining versus giving enough substance to the intention of the play to keep the audience’s attention.
Still, he readily admits he has deliberately drawn on David Lynch’s Twin Peaks for reference, to create a surreal feel to proceedings: “There aren’t little dwarves, but there are strange characters…
“I think there’s lot more latitude in the theatre to experiment than in public television where the audience is wider. We get a niche audience coming to the theatre. I’ve tried for a little bit of wackiness, a little bit of humour, a little bit of playfulness and some gruesome stuff and a lot of video and camera work.”
“It’s not a kitchen-sink drama, all earthy and grounded.”
• Autopsy plays at the Magnet Theatre in Observatory from March 16 to April 1. Tickets: R80, call 021 448 3436 or book at webtickets.co.za