The mother of all storms breaks on Tuesday evening, about 18 hours after I meet Bobby Heaney, director of Suddenly the Storm.
It’s kind of a nice dovetail: the much acclaimed drama in which a storm of another kind brews; and around pretty much the same time, while the pantechnicon truck carrying the massive set for the play is slowly making its way to the mother city, the virtual storm is inching closer and closer.
As I pen the article the storm has finally broken; its full force unleashing gusts of fierce winds and sheets of rain, which lash against the thankfully resilient windows.
The much acclaimed play opened yesterday, (Wednesday June 7) at The Baxter Theatre and Heaney has flown up from a busy schedule in Johannesburg to launch the play.
It turns out he’s very reticent to speak too much about what happens in the drama as he really doesn’t want to spoil it for audiences and, listening to playwright Paul Slabolepszy being interviewed later in the day on radio, he echoes Heaney’s sentiments by saying that he’s been told by his long-time colleague and friend not to reveal too much.
The two (along with the late Bill Flynn) had a long and fruitful collaboration in drama, creating magic on stage with throught-provoking theatre, which offers surprise, intrigue and ultimately hope. According to Heaney, “Suddenly the Storm” promises all of that and more. And as if to give the final stamp of approval, the news spread on Tuesday that it had scooped three Naledi awards.
Seasoned director Heaney has more than 40 years in theatre and TV under his belt, a succession of successes. But before we even start talking about this great new storm on stage, there’s something else I want to find out. As Madiba’s videographer for 10 years, what was it most about the man he likes to remember?
“People talk about charisma and everything they said about this great man is true. I like to think some of my attitude to life comes from him,” he says.
“I only saw him about five or six times a year and while it was not a major part of my life it was intense and indeed a privilege.”
Turning to the matter at hand, Heaney’s willing to let on that the play is in essence a thriller and there’ll be a lot going on. He admits that Slabolepszy has let himself in for a lot, both writing the play and acting ageing ex-cop Dwayne to Charmaine Weir Smith’s Shanell (who plays his wife), with Renate Stuurman as Namhla Gumede.
It all takes place in a somewhat decaying East Rand smallholding. Dwayne, a brutal policeman in the apartheid regime, and his younger wife, not so much live as co-exist in an uneasy marriage, scraping a living together in which the ex-cop goes around collecting debts, or rather bullies them out of defaulters with a bloodied baseball bat.
But beneath his angry, violent exterior lies a dark past and Shanell believes his depression was sparked by the death of his childhood friend and recent work partner, Jonas. Yet as Heaney reveals, the source of his mourning and anger lies much further back. “Dwayne’s marriage to Sharnell makes a tsunami look like a ripple in a bird bath,” comments Heaney.
Enter Namhla Gumede, who 40 years after her birth on June 16 1976, arrives on the fraying couple’s doorstep. She’s come looking for answers to questions that have simmered below the surface all these years.
“It’s incredibly relevant to our times,” says Heaney, adding, “when people have lived under apartheid there’s the political, social and emotional relevance. Namhla’s years in exile have had an effect and this really tells a good story. What begins as a smouldering dark comedy, suddenly turns into a roller-coaster ride of startling revelations, rage and recrimination before the storm finally breaks.
“Paul has the ability of making people laugh but then feel sick to the stomach when all is laid bare.”
Yet Heaney notes the play is filled with hope, something we all need in these uncertain times. “It’s a terribly moving play and the message of optimism comes at a time when we are all foundering.
“And while it’s a very real play, so utterly real, it’s highly entertaining.”
*Suddenly the Storm swept up three awards (nominated for six) at the Naledi Theatre Awards in Johannesburg on Monday June 5, scooping the Best New South African Script for Paul Slabolepszy, Best Theatre Set Design (Greg King) and Best Lighting Design (Wesley France) awards.
Following its run at the Market Theatre and the Theatre on the Square in Johannesburg, it runs at the Baxter Flipside until July 8.