Graham Hopkins and Vanessa Cooke


PLAYWRIGHT: Morris Panych

DIRECTOR: Christopher Weare

CAST: Graham Hopkins, Vanessa Cooke

VENUE: Sandton’s Auto and General Theatre on the Square

UNTIL: June 21

RATING: 4 stars (out of 5)

Diane de Beer

When the stars all align, something magical appears. From the skewed set designs, the director’s sharp pace and eye, a text that bristles brilliantly and two actors who shine and sparkle from start to finish, it’s a charmer with bite.

Somewhere in time, in a place that could be anywhere, two unlikely souls crash into one another as their lives follow a particular rhythm and route.

Because of the floaty sets, a clock that slows or quickens time, lights that pop on and off seemingly at whim, a woman who seems to live in a shoe and a wandering, bewildered, deeply bereft man, there’s a storytelling element that almost wants to signpost some of the imaginary qualities in case you’re drawn in too deeply. But you can’t help yourself.

You have to pay close attention. You don’t want to lose any of Panych’s words or phrases. Weare has the actors going at a pace to keep the story flowing and not tripping on its own smartness, which means that you have to listen carefully to catch every laugh or hold on to the pain of some of life’s atrocities so casually tossed in as part of a conversation.

If the title suggest that this might be a story of death, it is in the sense that a man has given up his minor salary in a minor bank to hasten to his only aunt’s side. She has written a letter, the first in 30 years, to say she’s dying.

There’s a snag though. Once there, she seems quite at ease to linger longer as he waits for her to fulfil her promise of dying. If that sounds like a sad affair, shrug that one off.

There’s much to chew on through the laughter but this will come when looking back as you marvel at the way this playwright has chosen to deal with life, ageing and how people are marginalised when they seem to fall off the trappings of what is called life.

That’s the surprise of Vigil. It’s fresh and new and comes at you guns blazing. And there’s no one smarter to go on the attack than the extraordinary Hopkins, supported by the versatile Cooke. Anyone who has witnessed the Hopkins career knows that any performance means watching in awe at a master at work.

This one offers all the opportunities with a range that swings high and low constantly as he bursts into tears, cracks the odd smile after a throw-away clinker and then turns on a rant that rattles all the cages.

In-between he’s hit on the head and tumbles across a bed on to the floor when hit by an electricity surge. It’s his conclusive command of the character, the way he allows the text to dictate yet never seems overwhelmed, how he slips into the shoes of a man bitter yet emboldened and still manages to slide into a humanity that takes your breath away.

Cooke’s character on the other end of the spectrum has hardly a word to say. She tells her story in gestures: the turn and twist of a body part, eyes that blink slowly, a head turned or simply a silhouette at the door. It’s a provocative and poignant portrayal of someone who has found something she didn’t know she had.

And the frisson between the two drifting souls is palpable. This one will possibly blow your mind. It’s that good.