‘MIS’ review: intensely unsettling
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MISSING. Written by Reza de Wet. Translated by Stephen Stead. Directed by Mdu Kwenyama, with Faniswa Yisa, Sonia Buqwana, Daneel van der Walt and Clyde Berning. At The Baxter Theatre Centre until Saturday. TRACEY SAUNDERS reviews.
MIS, the original title of this play which has been beautifully translated by Stead, has several meanings. The translation to the English word ‘missing’ loses the Afrikaans references to mist, manure and loss. The themes are still very much present though and the undercurrent of unease so prevalent in De Wet’s work remains.
It is an intensely unsettling play with disturbing characters, strange and yet very familiar. De Wet had a canny ability to reveal the sinister in the everyday and Missing is perhaps the finest example of this.
Kwenyama says that “her rich script grabbed me from the outset”, and it is not difficult to understand why. The writer’s invaluable contribution to the local literary canon was cut short by her untimely death in 2012 at 59. Her scripts won five Vita awards, three Fleur du cap awards and a Dalro award and she was the recipient of the prestigious Hertzog prize on two occasions. The return of her work to the stage is welcome and Kwenyama’s choice for his current residency at The Baxter is testament to the enduring nature of her quintessentially strange and alluring tales.
This is not merely a translated version of the script, but a transposed adaptation. To compare it to the original Afrikaans productions is to do both the original and this production a disservice. Still placed in the years following the depression, the set is draped in sackcloth, symbolic of the discomfort in which the family reside and an indicator of their financial ruin. The humble kitchen is strewn with the bags of manure that Miem and Meisie fill, their sole source of income.
The drama unfolds over the course of one night. A full moon, barking dogs and a howling wind contribute to the sense of foreboding which permeates the air.
Music from a travelling circus fades in and out with each unlocking of the front door. Like much in this play, it is felt but never seen. Bongile Mantsai and Robert Jeffrey have composed a score which lingers long after the door closes and remnants of the music hang in the air along with a portent of disaster.
The opening sequence in which mother and daughter seem to conquer the heavy sacks that they dance with sets up the strong attention to physicality which is repeated deliberately throughout the play.
As the central character of the mother, Miem, Yisa shows once again why she is such a sought after actor. She seems unsure of her own compassion, never quite certain whether she should dispense it or not, and seems to be consumed equally by despair and desire. She blows hot and cold and vacillates between praising and admonishing her daughter. Despair hangs over her and her deep longing for affection is all pervasive. Her resignation about her fate is matched by her desperation for her daughter to avoid a similar one. She ignores her instinctive sense of uneasiness in her bid to secure some modicum of freedom for her daughter. She nurses her despondency, mulling over her current state with overwhelming regret and a bitterness which sours every moment of her existence.
Her feeling of entrapment is broken briefly by her curiosity about the circus, that magical mysterious visiting cohort of freaks and troubadours. Her desire to know more is matched by her outspoken condemnation of their unholy presence.
While she tries to keep the malevolence of the circus at bay and protect her daughter she learns that evil is not always obvious. One of the themes of the play, the insidious nature of evil plays out in a myriad of ways which have to be seen to be understood.
As a counterpoint to evil and in an almost embarrassing display of naivety there is Gertie (Daneel van der Walt), the neighbour who seeks refuge with the family on a night filled with foreboding. She brings a zany humour in to the room. Her loneliness has a quirky and touching quality to it. Van der Walt will be familiar to audiences from her role as Magenta in the Rocky Horror Show. She is the quintessential nosy neighbour and is as willing to share information as she is eager to gather it. Her description of the “freaks” in the circus brings them to life before your eyes and her obsession with physical fitness provides some of the more memorable comic moments of the evening.
Young Sonia Buqwana seems younger than her years and is a delight as Miem’s daughter, Meisie. The generic young woman embodies the burgeoning desires of youth and struggles to contain her sense of adventure. She is a victim of her mother’s bitterness and a broader social construct which seeks to discourage her ambitions and curtail her desires.
Periodically during the play a trapdoor opens in the ceiling. There is a ubiquitous malevolence about the presence in the roof. Never seen and only occasionally heard, his physical being is confirmed by the bucket of slops sent down on a rope. The stench evokes a visceral response in the cast so intense that one can’t help but react. So much is missing from the lives of these women: love, fulfilment and to some extent their dignity. They exist on the periphery of a society which sets the boundaries of their behaviour, tells them what and who they can desire and what they can aspire to.
Kweyama has captured a pervasive underlying sense of fear so familiar to women. There is no clear and present danger and yet nobody is at ease and although the story has an intrinsically local feel to it, the sentiments are universal.
The clammy terror of the original script has been altered to convey a lingering, almost stifling sense of despair. Like the mist and the stench of the manure, it is omnipresent yet elusive, but most of all memorable.
You may check your locks a little more diligently when you return home, but with the knowledge that sometimes the greatest evil enters the door as an invited guest.