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Dedication Foreword Introduction
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The Plays: Johnny Boskak is Feeling Funny White Men with Weapons Seeing Red The Blue Period of Milton van der Spuy Breasts – a play about men Look Out Happy Natives
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Greig Coetzee Biography and Fact File
I first came across Greig Coetzee at the Klein Karoo Nationale Kunste Fees in Oudtshoorn in 1995/96. I was presenting Athol Fugard’s Valley Song at the festival and our venue was plastered with posters for White Men with Weapons, which was showing elsewhere. I immediately registered that this young man was someone to be reckoned with in the New South Africa. His boundless energy (he used to run the Comrades Marathon annually and never needed a break in the schedule for any practice, just on the day of the race!) was a joy to any theatre producer, and it was not long before we were working together. I was arranging tours for him locally and internationally, and he was writing and performing and carrying out the many varied tasks of staging and publicising his work with customary gusto. This was the beginning of a relationship which has endured to this day. I find Greig unique in his articulation of his own feelings about the current situation in South Africa and his take on the apartheid years that he had to negotiate as a young man growing up in South Africa. Some of this time was as a conscripted member of the South African Defence Force. He writes in a range of theatre forms and to date he has not settled for one writing style but rather uses different ways to deal with different issues. His work is engaging and incisive and his understated humour often uses accurate observations of life at this time, in this country, on this planet. This publication represents the bulk of Greig’s theatre work to date, a splendid testimony to his burgeoning talent. Mannie Mannim Johannesburg
Johnny Boskak is Feeling Funny (2004) is the second of Coetzee’s plays to receive the Fringe First Award of the Edinburgh Festival. The first was White Men with Weapons and, fittingly, Johnny Boskak is the development of one of the characters from the earlier play. Coetzee was interested in exploring what one of these army veterans might be like twenty years later in a very different South Africa. The name Boskak is drawn from the Afrikaans slang for ‘shitting outside’ – it literally means a ‘bush-shit’ (a reference to the ‘boskak’ that was a staple part of army life, as well as to Johnny being a homeless wanderer). But the name could also be seen as a distillation of many conscripted ‘troepies’’ experiences of being in the army, namely ‘bosbefok en afgekak’ (‘bush-crazy’ and burnt-out). The tone of the play is apocalyptic as Johnny sets out on a road trip in search of salvation. His dope-induced dream of accounting to ‘the Devil and the Lord’ sets the tone for further encounters with a variety of vividly realised characters. But ultimately Johnny faces his demons and finds true love, for a time. A modern version of the quest myth in which the protagonist has to slay the dragon, Coetzee’s play takes a mundane life and, through mocking it, ennobles the common or sordid experience. The mythic tenor is underscored by an extraordinary text in rhyming couplets, made up of a mixture of English, Afrikaans, South African Indian slang and Zulu – a real ‘Durban’ concoction as vivid and evocative and unforgettable as a really hot ‘bunny chow’. Coetzee plays with rhyme and rhythm in a startling and unique fashion, not quite rhyming couplet (the rhymes are too varied and complex for the predictability of the couplet) and not quite rap (the language is too cleverly and adroitly organised). Coetzee considers this play ‘a piece of theatre to hold its own against rock music’. With a driving rhythm, combined with projected urban landscapes, a live musical accompaniment and a sophisticated playfulness, this is certainly a play that challenges theatrical form. Difficult to categorise, this tribute to popular
urban and film culture combines Coetzee’s love of wordplay with his sense of place. Distinctively South African, and yet strongly influenced by popular American culture, the play is in Coetzee’s words ‘a roadmovie for the stage’. Using elements of physical theatre combined with a strong rap beat, the clever rhyming and insistent rhythm sweep the audience through a headlong journey to inevitable catastrophe. Providing a virtuoso performance for the solo actor, the script suggests both musical and visual accompaniment to provide atmosphere and a sense of the degraded urban landscape and nightscape through which the hunted characters flounder. Part praise-poet, part Homeric storyteller, Johnny Boskak has transformed monologue into poetic ode as he pours out his epic experience of love, betrayal and loss. White Men with Weapons has been a significant play in the development of South African theatre. It was the first play written by Greig Coetzee to launch his career as a professional writer and performer. The play was initially performed (1996) at a time when South African audiences were weary of Protest Theatre and it suggested a way forward from this genre both in terms of subject matter and form. The experience of white males living under apartheid, and particularly the experience of conscription, had hardly been dealt with during a period when the struggle for black enfranchisement was clearly more urgent and important. Junction Avenue Theatre Company’s Fantastical History of a Useless Man (1976) and Anthony Akerman’s Somewhere on the Border (1986) had previously engaged with similar issues, but at a significantly earlier time. The subject matter of this play acknowledges that there are many South African stories to tell. The form of the play – a series of monologues from a variety of different characters – was unusual. While, in fact, it was a resourceful response to the financial hazards of staging theatre in South Africa – one actor/writer/stage manager makes for an economical and transportable production – it also showcased Coetzee’s skills as a writer/performer in its instantaneous and effective transitions through a number of complex and believable characters, all commenting from different perspectives on a common experience. It provided Coetzee with a form he was to work with, develop and transform in some of his later plays. It also introduced a very distinctive voice to South African theatre, an erudite, poetic and yet satiric style which allows audiences to laugh at their own absurdities and wince in recognition of Coetzee’s sharp analysis of South African realities.
White Men with Weapons has won numerous awards, both national and international, and thus has played a role in maintaining international interest in South African Theatre beyond the apartheid period. The international interest in this first play of Coetzee’s also led directly to the commissioning of his play Happy Natives by a British production company. Awards for White Men with Weapons were won for the writing, the acting and the production – an unusually holistic excellence. It is Coetzee’s multiple immersions in the process of theatre-making that has ensured the success of his plays, springing as they do from a thorough understanding and skilful use of the major elements of theatre: action, characterisation, language and metaphor. In terms of style Coetzee’s plays show a continuous growth in the complexity of writing and performance, while maintaining Coetzee’s belief that characterisation is the basis of theatre. In his earliest work, Tales from a Termite (1995) (not included here), he uses a storytelling mode, with the traditional simple ‘indication’, through performance, of the characters involved in the story. Both I spy blue sky (1997) (not included here) and The Blue Period of Milton van der Spuy (1997) examine the circumstances and attitudes of one complex character, whereas White Men with Weapons and Breasts – a play about men (2000) present numerous characters, each delivering a revelatory monologue directly to the audience. This monologue-based style is distinctive of this phase of Coetzee’s work, partly because of the success of these latter two plays. The juxtaposition of different characters lends a humorous and ironic touch as different attitudes to the predominant theme are played out. This humour has made these plays particularly popular with audiences, and the form has been recognised by other aspirant theatre-makers as eminently usable, particularly for political satire. I spy blue sky and Milton are more poignant, focussing in depth in each case on one troubled, even dysfunctional, character. These four plays all explore a slightly different use of the monologue form: White Men with Weapons outlines different responses and attitudes to a common experience; I spy blue sky includes songs as an integral part of the writing and explores a reminiscence of childhood and growing up; The Blue Period of Milton van der Spuy uses monologue to gradually uncover the truth of a character and situation; and Breasts – a play about men uses monologue to explore a variety of very different characters and responses to a single theme.
The Blue Period of Milton van der Spuy is a personal favourite of Coetzee’s and a play that has yet to achieve the recognition it deserves. Its focus is dual, dealing as it does with the protagonist’s attempt to understand life through the prism of his own mental limitations and the internalised views of his over-protective mother, and his attempt to come to terms emotionally with the trauma of his sister’s death. This dual inner action provides the play with a complexity of implication and with an oscillation between feeling and understanding that has a profoundly poignant effect. Coetzee’s fascination with the ambiguity of language is very evident here. The play also marks a growth in his use of visual symbolism on stage. The props in this play are multiple and cluttered compared to their sparse use in White Men and Breasts, creating a concrete representation of the fertile and yet disordered mind of the protagonist and his chaotic feelings. Despite the character of Milton van der Spuy being quite clearly ‘differently abled’, his difficulties with understanding the meaning of life and its relationship to creativity and ingenuity, and his difficulties in coming to terms with overwhelming feelings, are a common experience. Milton’s limitations and paralysis, his evasions and intellectualisations, are our own. While Coetzee had developed his monologue style in Milton to the extent that it was capable of sustaining one character through the length of a play, he chose to return to the multiple character form for Breasts – a play about men. The monologue form has the advantage of creating a complicity between performer and audience: it is an intimate form in which the audience becomes the confidant of each character, experiencing not only what the character wishes to share with the audience but also intruding easily into private thoughts. The monologue obscures the distinction between openly shared communication and the character’s inner world. It becomes unclear exactly when the listeners move inside the character’s head and when they are distanced. This movement of focus creates a direct empathy with the characters, which in this play allows Coetzee to move beyond the macho public persona to explore the vulnerabilities, longings and regrets of the variety of men presented. At the same time Coetzee’s acknowledged satiric humour is in full force in his representation of the mono-dimensional obsessions of the male species and the sizeable void existing between the sexes. Seeing Red (2001), Coetzee’s first dialogue-based play, with five characters interacting in a student digs, originated from the writer’s own
experience as an anti-apartheid activist on the Pietermaritzburg campus of the University of Natal (now University of KwaZulu-Natal) during the 1980s. Seeing Red is Coetzee’s first ‘big’ or conventional play, requiring five actors, and in its first production included a striking set suggesting the Victorian dignity of the decaying building the characters live in, as well as filmed projections which evoked both theme and period, and a sound track appropriate to the time. Seeing Red not only comments on the most intransigent years of apartheid, but also vividly captures a particular period and place, and that time in young people’s lives when they discover the heady joys of independence and the hard choices of adulthood. Its hindsight involves a glimpse of lost youth and innocence, lost idealism and purpose, lost people (Tony the Transvestite Tramp, to mention only one) and damaged lives, but it also touches on individual hopes and opportunities, the possibilities for a better life and a more compassionate and just society. This play is a formidable development in Coetzee’s work, revealing his mastery of the complexity of the conventional theatre script. Despite the seriousness of the themes that the play deals with, Coetzee’s sure satirical touch ensures that it is also very funny. Once again the characterisation is complex and believable as personalities rub up against each other and reveal the intricacy of human relationships. Look Out (2001) was written during a residency at the Drama Studies department, University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg. Coetzee was specifically asked to write a play to be performed by five women. He worked with the performers using creative-writing exercises which he had found useful previously when writing for commission. From these writings and from many discursive discussions he created five characters who inhabit the same metaphoric space. Coetzee did not feel that there was sufficient time to write a dialogue-based play and therefore chose to experiment with the monologue form. He had used a form of interwoven monologues for the final scene of Seeing Red during which individual characters spoke their thoughts directly to the audience, but were heard in juxtaposition to the ideas, feelings and experiences of the other characters. In Look Out he decided to experiment further with this form and created a multi-layered mosaic of imagery and theme. Look Out also provided the opportunity for Coetzee to further his experience of writing female characters and concerns. The five characters who finally emerged were, as described by Coetzee in the publicity for the play, ‘a mother with
a dark secret, a woman looking for colour in a grey marriage, a schoolgirl discovering her sexuality, a recluse trying to deal with a poisoned world, and a woman trying to cope with losing a breast’. Common to these characters is Coetzee’s interest in exploring both their vulnerability and their toughness. This play breaks new ground in its experimentation with form, as characters are seen in relation to one another but in a different way to the traditional interaction of dialogue. Here the characters don’t speak to each other, but interrelate in such a way that attention is drawn to parallels and differences of personality, life experience and emotional response, thus creating a sense of the richness, diversity and variety of human experience. This form also emphasises the poetic nature of Coetzee’s writing, its linguistic echoes, the use of imagery and metaphor. Happy Natives (2002) is a triumphant confirmation of Coetzee’s ability to comment satirically and powerfully on South African society. The play is gripping and funny, and yet keeps surprising the audience with its insight into the complexities of cross-cultural relationships ten years on from the start of the rainbow nation. As always with Coetzee’s writing the story is grounded in character – people one can immediately recognise and enjoy. Using techniques honed in his earlier work Coetzee uses the theatre’s ability to involve the audiences’ imagination, by showing scenes with three and four characters played by two actors. This playing with images of transformation adds an assurance to Coetzee’s use of the theatrical medium. Happy Natives purposefully delights in the actors’ skill in metamorphosis, and in the theatre’s ability to make the audience believe without necessarily actually seeing. This metaphor, of the shifting state of reality, is also expressed through the satiric subject matter. Attitudes towards each other are shown to mutate and transform as characters gain more insight into the actual feelings and beliefs held by individuals from ‘other’ racial groups. The play shows how little we still know each other, and how South Africans still make assumptions about each other based on racial grouping rather than on individual reality. This is rich material for comedy and Coetzee excels in using such theatrical techniques as the reversal of expectation, and the revelation of the unexpected and the contradictory. Happy Natives is about the process of making a theatrical image of South African identity. Coetzee brilliantly contrasts this manufactured image with the reality of the daily lives of the characters. Whereas the image is slick, exciting, sanitised and simplistic, the reality is shown to be
surprising, unpredictable, complex, difficult and depressing, and yet shot through with attempts at real connection which gives it meaning and value. The Western capitalist hard sell of the commercial world is contrasted with the dignity of self-sufficiency epitomised in the final image of the squatter camp covered in pumpkins. Through using the metaphor of image making, Coetzee also comments on the position and use of theatre, its decline from being a means of reclaiming history, articulating protest and exploring reality to becoming a mindless adjunct in the process of selling images in order to make money. Cleverly, this play proves itself to be the opposite of that commercialism, and of immense worth in its commentary on our values and behaviour. Coetzee comments on attitudes towards the future, on the place of tradition, affirmative action, crime, poverty and other contemporary concerns. He places most emphasis on the importance of seeing each other for who we really are. Under apartheid South Africans had a simplistic, reductionist and yet clear-cut way in which to understand each other and to pre-judge people. In our present situation each encounter is a process of discovery. Coetzee’s plays present a view of the South African experience that combines an appreciation of the poignancy of ordinary lives with a sharply ironic analysis of the self-deceptions with which we shield ourselves. Grounded in acutely observed characterisation, these plays also display a rich fascination with language and with theatricality. Through his use of colloquial speech Coetzee not only captures a strong sense of individual character but, significantly, he is able to create a sense of poetic depth through the very inarticulateness of everyday expression. This gives his characters dignity and serves to delineate the tragic aspects of the comedy of our existence. Structure and particularly patterning are also important in these plays, as is the creation of theatrical metaphor, which finds its most effective presentation in the performance space. Hazel Barnes March 2009
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