DIE LAASTE KARRETJIEGRAF
DIRECTOR: Athol Fugard
CAST: Erica Wessels, Ivan Abrahams, Rian Visman, Richard September, Ephraim Gordon, Kim Pietersen
VENUE: the Studio at The Fugard Theatre
UNTIL: February 23
ATHOL Fugard’s latest play is both a poignant reminder of a dying culture and a rather pedantic lecture about those very same people.
Co-written in Afrikaans by Riana Steyn – whose research into Karretjie children forms the basis of the play –and Fugard, Die Laaste Karretjiegraf is also a loving homage to the Karoo.
Fugard promised his mother, who hailed from Middelburg, that he would one day write a play in her mother tongue and he grew up on her stories about the people of the Karoo.
It is not only Saul Radomsky’s dusty set with wire fence and stones or James Webb’s soundscape of singing cicadas and distant passing cars that is evocative of the blazing sun and big wide space. The use of Afrikaans as it is spoken in the Groot Karoo, as well as the way the characters mediate their self-identity in terms of their surroundings, also help to create a sense of that space.
Coming back to the pedantic lecture, though. The play centres on the story of Ouma Mieta’s grandchildren and how they react and adapt to her death.
It starts with the children burying their grandmother in the traditional Karretjie way, with the eldest, Pienkies (Visman), addressing the audience as he tells us about his grandmother losing the will to live as old age overtook her.
Their father Koot (Abrahams) – newly out of prison – catches up to them as Pienkies makes the tough decision to sell his father’s pride and joy, the donkey cart which has sheltered them for several years.
The interaction between the two at this point is emotionally engaging, harsh and hard-hitting, but the introduction of Sarah (Wessels) takes us a step backwards.
Sarah got to know the family while doing research for a Master’s degree in anthropology and she lectures the audience about the Kareretjiemense – direct descendants of the Khoi people who, over the years and generations, adapted to a nomadic lifestyle as sheepshearers travelling around the Karoo on donkey carts.
Once she’s done delivering her lecture (in the most pedantically academic way despite the plethora of interesting facts rolling off her tongue in the most beautiful Stellenbosch Afrikaans) she steps back into the play. The rest of the play consists of her interaction with Koot at the graveside, interspersed with flashbacks involving her observation of the children.
The children are played by grown-ups in an overblown kind of way and the use of a mentally disabled child to demonstrate the disassociation of cause and effect is clumsy and unnecessary.
Sarah takes issue with Koot’s seeming indifference to consequence in hooking up with yet another woman when his alcoholic ways have led to such a tragic outcome. And at this point Koot embarks on a rambling description of how he views himself within the context of his environment.
He tries to situate his very being within the greater space, and this brings us back to the poignancy of a disappearing culture which places great stock in the concept of a person being part of his or her greater environment.
But the play leaves us with an unfinished thought because while Sarah explains her anger, Koot remains the submissive who tries to appease the nooi’s emotional state, and nothing more.