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Maya Fowler

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Vertaalde mense and translated people

In a country marked by fractured linguistic identity, the potential for drama is great. So mazel tov to writer and director Michael Inglis for tapping into this potential with aplomb in his play Die Storie van die Vertaalde Mense. And it’s not just drama – Inglis mines his field for humour, and comes up with plenty of gems in the process.

Lost in the sands of time and travails

In this bilingual play, two printers are adrift in the desert of the north after a “verduistering”, suggesting both a solar eclipse and the extinguishing of some flame of knowledge, puts an end to their printing empire. Names like “Pofadder” anchor them in the northern Cape, and the costumes and mise-en-scéne bring to mind a bygone era, perhaps around the turn of the previous century. I must commend the choice of music, which certainly enhanced the play’s dreamlike quality.

While the setting is distant, Die Storie raises a lot of contemporary issues. There is, of course, the suggestion that printers, i.e. publishers in general, are lost in the desert, trying to make sense of the landscape, trying to find their way, trying to bridge the divide between history and what lies ahead.

In one way, in particular, and it really ties in with the theme here, publishers are finding their way. And here I’m talking about how they’re giving people the opportunity to tell their own stories. It’s one of the very happy turns in our recent history, the fact that previously marginalised voices are now being heard and appreciated. The strange thing about that is, the more it happens, the more there is some kind of temptation to join in the chorus. I mean, for a person like me. Not previously disadvantaged. Never having stuggled to make myself heard – no harder, at least, than any other young writer.

The temptation is to want to disregard one’s own heritage, with the idea that what’s closer to home is boring, surely? And, well, these are the stories everyone is telling now. Maybe I should be doing the same! After some grappling I’ve accepted, once more, that the best any writer can do is be true to himself/herself. In any case, getting into any character’s brain is already a stretch, so to want to reach into someone’s mind across a cultural divide? That takes either tremendous chutzpah or the kind of guts I don’t yet have. I’m not saying it can’t be done, I’m just saying it’s “proceed with caution” territory.

Ons is vertaalde mense – is ons?

After all, when you go too far afield, try too hard to tell a too-distant person’s story, are you not just creating some watered-down, soy milk and Weetbix cardboard mash-a-mix? Are you not just creating a “vertaalde mens”? This question flashed in my mind so strongly when the male printer character (Eben Genis) jumped up and shouted, “Ons is vertaalde mense!” And yes, in his vertaalde guise, this character struggles to make sense of his environment (even more than before), and naturally, struggles to express himself.

Then of course, another way of getting out of the badlands is revising and making sense of history, anew. Early on in the play, the printers refer to some misprint or factual error in a history book. It’s a great stab at things that happen in history books the world over, but it was also a deliciously funny moment in the play. Then, also, as the action unfolds, the audience gets to unravel the history of the character Elsabet (Ntombi Makhutshi), and how her story ties in with the story of the printers: the verduistering/eclipse and resulting journey towards the light.

As I’ve mentioned, there’s plenty of humour along the way. Most notably when Genis’s printer character crosses the “taalgrens” and spontaneously starts sprouting Afrikaans (which he doesn’t understand). A whole string of the meatiest Afrikaans words come out, almost all capitalising on that hard, rolled R. There’s another great moment when the printers have entered the town, Alledorp, and are trying to amuse the townspeople – played by the unsuspecting audience. When the audience starts laughing, the printers say things like, “They’re laughing … that’s good. Perhaps it’s our only hope!” I liked that – the idea that humour brings people together, but also I appreciated what I felt was a subtle dig again. Because here’s another divide. Whilst in some circles, only the most serious, humourless work seems to impress, audiences still crave humour. The sales figures speak for themselves. So perhaps one can interpret this “could be our only hope” comment as criticism on what is seen fit to publish, or put on stage these days?

This is a story that makes you think of loss, language death, identity, losing stories, finding and understanding each other through stories. The conclusion seemed to me to be that telling stories, all of us telling our own stories, in our own voices and languages, is the only way to celebrate who we are and make sense of where we’re going.

As I’m mulling over these various things, my only regret is that I can’t go back to replay, check those quotes, relive those moments. But then there’s another interesting point: that, unlike film, an element of loss is inherent to the medium. (So, what an apt medium then, for a story about loss.) You sit, watch, leave with what’s in your head. No take two, no rewind, and tomorrow’s performance will be just ever so slightly different to today’s. Only in this case there is no tomorrow, because I caught the last performance! In any case, perhaps this all makes theatre more forgiving than film. Because you can remember what you choose to, and afterwards, build a city with it in your head.

· Die Storie van die Vertaalde Mense ended its run at Theatre in the District on Sunday, 25 October.


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