DISCOVERY: Melissa Johannisen, Lauren Hannie and Maxine Caesaer. Picture: SITHEMBELE JUNIOR

TIP-EX. Written and directed by Lauren Hannie, with Lauren Hannie, Melissa Johannisen and Maxine Caesar. Music by Dominique Domingo. At The Baxter Theatre Centre until Saturday. TRACEY SAUNDERS reviews

THERE is a haunting image in Lauren Hannie’s TIP-ex which is both a metaphor and a reality for so many young girls and women in this country.

Searingly vivid it remains with you as surely as the red haze that remains after gazing directly at the sun.

She is washing a piece of clothing in a zinc basin, attempting to rinse out the blood. With echoes of Lady MacBeth’s “Out, damned spot! Out, I say!” she rubs furiously to no avail. The crime which she attempts to expunge is no less murderous and her scrubbing is as futile. It is this moment that is one of countless others where Hannie uses visual and verbal metaphors to ensure that this is a memorable script.

She will have you counting butterflies in a different way and her description of first love is achingly beautiful and oh so very recognizable. Not content with just writing the script, Hannie directs and plays the central character.

While the play may have benefited from the distance that another director would have provided, Hannie’s valiant attempt is to be applauded and I am sure that her career path is going to be one where she navigates between the three disciplines for a while before she finds her niche.

Johannisen and Caesar play the roles of mother and aunt and general neighbourhood busybodies, a mini Greek chorus of sorts.

They are a communal and critical voice rather than one of reason and beneath the comical interventions of Katie’s mother lies a disturbing and perturbing belief that given sufficient persistence a lesbian can be “cured.”

The play has travelled the journey from the mini festival to the main programme of The Zabalaza Theatre Festival retaining much of its original intention. The festival’s creative staff have once again managed to balance that fine line between the authenticity of the original piece and the polish that is required for a run on the main Baxter stage.

Moments in the play, where physical theatre is employed as an illustration of a particularly heart-wrenching moment, are inspired.

The addition of a Yamaha keyboard performance of songs in between less so.

The musical interludes may offer some respite from the harsh reality of the story on stage but the lyrical nature of the script is sufficient in and of itself.

The music breaks the rhythm of the text and the words are strong enough to stand on their own without musical gimmicks. If the piece can pack as hard a punch as it does with these distractions, I can only imagine how strong it would be without them.

The opening sequence describing Katie’s family’s reaction to her first love is priceless and initially you are lulled in to becoming part and parcel of this very familiar family with a mother that prays and a father that scolds.

The presence on stage of a muddled pile of suitcases is the site where she addresses her father, and while the exchanges are brief, she is able to convey the complexity of that relationship as surely as if the man himself was standing on stage.

Throughout the play there is a thread of humour and having written the text herself Hannie knows just where to lay her emphasis for maximum effect.

It is the contrasting blend of humour and brutal anguish that provides a deep emotional resonance without maudlin sentimentality.

Although TIP-ex is a play about growing up in a family that prizes conformity about all else, it is also a play about a young girl’s discovery of her sexual orientation, about the casual cruelty of childhood bullies and the family perpetrators protected by the secret covenant of respectability.

Hannie’s narrative transcends victimhood, and in much the same way that student activists at Rhodes University are currently reclaiming the narrative surrounding sexual violence she raises her voice against the pervasive scourge rampant in our society.

In the dedication of her book The Luckiest Girl Alive, the story about the gang rape of a young girl, Jessica Knoll writes “To all the TifAni FaNellis of the world, … I know.”

Given the prevalence of rape in South Africa, there will be many an audience member saying softly in response to Katie’s courageous words, “I know, I know”.

TIP-ex runs until April 23 at 7.30pm nightly with a matinee on Saturday at 2pm. There is an age restriction of 13.

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