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A beautiful masterpiece is 'What Remains'

Published Jul 7, 2017

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Unspeakable stories: Buhle Ngaba and Shaun Oelf in What Remains. Pictures: Yazeed Kamaldien

If you did not get to Grahamstown to the National Arts Festival, no need to feel FOMO (fear of missing out) as many of the productions will be staged in our city in the next few months. First up, hot off the festival, is Nadia Davids’ new play, What Remains.

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The play ran last week on the main programme at the festival and opened last night at Hiddingh Hall, Orange Street. It is on until July 12, a short run. Direction and choreography is by Jay Pather and the A-list cast features Denise Newman, Faniswa Yisa, Buhle Ngaba and Shaun Oelf.

This much-anticipated play has, at its helm, an award-winning writer who was until last year, based in the UK. It is her first new play in nine years. Pather as director/choreographer is known for bringing a breathtaking visceral and original approach to text - and finding ways of expanding them beyond a linear trajectory.

Taking her place with veteran actors, Newman and Yisa and Oelf is 26-year old Buhle Ngaba who plays “The Student”.

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The interlocking narratives pivot around what happens when a luxury mall goes up and human remains are excavated. There are echoes of what happened in Green Point, at Prestwich Place, when a burial ground for 3000 was found in in 2003/4. An archaeologist, healer, dancer and student - must face What Remains and what it means to them.

Davids reflected the play is “both set in Cape Town and anywhere”. Dreams, dance, images are interwoven with the narrative - with Pather working with Davids to evoke alternative spaces and overlapping time frames.

“I play the student - the observer - the child who learns and unlearns,” reflected Ngaba. “I would agree that the play transcends time and place, and the rules of the story operate on a universal level. The student is also initially the narrator of the story. Considering where we are in South Africa right now, I found that to be intriguing choice by Nadia to make ‘The Student’ the lens through which the audience watches the ghosts awakening in the play.

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“I find it interesting to play the role because right now, as a young person in South Africa, I do feel that I am bearing witness to old bones, histories and wounds re-emerging. It’s all so visceral. As young people, we want to make direct shifts towards something new, because we are so aware of how ugly our history is and how deeply the scars run.

“Jay has a way of combining different mediums and finding a language between them that weaves the story together like magic. Shaun (Oelf) has a large part to play in this in his role as the dancer/ the ghosts of the burial ground that are disrupted and awakened.

“Nadia says that ‘there are some stories that are unspeakable’ I would say that these are the stories that Shaun tells in dance. He’s incredible. For me, my role was so interesting because ‘The Student’ seems to be a reoccurring icon in South African history.

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“What is particularly painful to note is that the student always seems to emerge when it’s time to tilt the narrative because history refuses to remove its shackles.”

Ngaba, who grew up in Cape Town but studied drama at Rhodes, has, in a short time, established herself as a versatile and powerful performer. She is a Shakespearean aficionado. She received the Brett Goldin Bursary to study Shakespeare in the UK.

She was in the musical, Blood Brothers and acted in Missing with John Kani in his acclaimed play and now, What Remains. No chance of her being typecast: “Yes. I’ve worked very hard to try to stretch myself as an actress and to pick roles where I would learn in bounds. I’m always evolving and working on my craft and my interests change. I think that if I just keep picking roles that genuinely interest me, then they will keep finding me too. If I don’t find them, I write them.”

In terms of generating her own work, Ngaba recently won two Kanna Awards for writing The Swan Song and for best upcoming artist. The Swan Song, she reflected, taps into the “ancient belief that swans burst into song with their dying breath and the swan song is a symbol of finality, death and closure.”

She posed: “How obscure is the idea of a swan in Africa? It became a symbol of chasing a thing that you imagine in a certain way, but it still isn’t you. I would like to tour with it nationally - maybe even internationally. I am also very interested in refocusing my attention into film in 2018.”

What Remains is on until

July 12, at Hiddingh Hall, Orange Street, at 8pm. Tickets are R120. Book at www.webtickets.co.za

Age restriction: 10 and above

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