935 Chi Mhende, Gahlia Phillips, Faniswa Yisa and Jennifer Steyn(front) play in Slowly showcasing at the Victoria Theatre during the Grahamstown Arts Festival. This year is the 40th anniversary of the festival. 110714. Picture: Bongiwe Mchunu


DIRECTOR: Geoffrey Hyland

CAST: Chi Mhende, Gahlia Phillips, Jennifer Steyn, Faniswa Yisa

VENUE: Artscape Arena

UNTIL: August 2


GEOFFREY HYLAND’S latest offering is a very cerebral exercise, albeit a haunting one.

Based on a script by English playwright Howard Barker, its central conceit is that four princesses are debating how to commit suicide in the face of their city being invaded by barbarians.

The concrete pillars on the smoke-plagued set could be anywhere or anywhen and everything we are presented with visually supports the idea of a highly conformist society.

The four actresses sweep around the stage in intricate costumes which hint at how clothing restricts and confines without being limited to one time period or specific culture. So, too, the soundscape evokes modern warfare, but some of their references hark back to older times.

The four are in constant motion, slowly whirling around each other in a carefully calculated dance – sometimes pitted one against three, sometimes the other way around but always exact and exacting in their manner towards each other.

“The civilised die many deaths,” more than one of them repeats as they argue just how they are going to end their lives. But the will to survive is strong and the arguments rage, raising issues of what civilisation is, what it means to be alive, what the will of the individual is, and many more.

Ideas are held up to the light as each princess challenges the other about conformity and what it takes to be civilised.

Compared to their Grahamstown performances the four actresses, Jennifer Steyn especially, have lightened up by a considerable distance. She now manages to evoke sympathy even as she says the cruelest things to the youngest princess.

While the play is still very stylised their less stiff performances mean you pay more attention to the words. And this almost-hour-long play is very much all about what they say less than how they say it. Still, now they sound more like people arguing about their very existence and less like sound bytes.

Their arguments are not just about whether to commit suicide, but also touch on issues of gender, identity and martyrdom.

The pace has picked up and the Cape Town audience is picking up, inadvertently or not, on some funny lines in the dialogue, but which really get foregrounded by Steyn’s deadpan delivery. This helps to leaven the tension and the dread which could become unbearable otherwise.

Chi Mendi is grace under pressure while Gahlia Phillips gets to fall to pieces in overblown hysterical fashion and Faniswa Yisa is the pragmatist.

The elegant presentation belies the harsh thoughts they throw at each other and while it is a difficult piece to chew on, you will be ruminating on the ideas long after you leave the theatre. How would you face your imminent demise? With grace? Or are you going to pick up your skirts and run?

Because these are all ideas you have heard before, albeit not always in one go like this, there is never one thing that you latch on to.

This is not a piece with some huge message or a linear chronology or huge idea that runs through it. It doesn’t take you to a new place or a fresh place. Except for the look it is a very conservative way of presenting the ideas.