Saturday 25 March 2017

Valley Song sings of hope & sweet sorrow
All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & those costumes 
& the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)
Veronica reassures Grandpa Buks that the bright lights of the city are for her. Photo Credit David Cooper
Editor's note : As we are unable to attend this year's mounting, the following is a re-worked version of BLR's February, 2015 review of the play from its original Gateway Theatre production. The principal actors are the same, and most of the production team as well.

Quick background sketch :  In his mid-80's now, playwright Athol Fugard has created some three-dozen stage plays across the decades. He acts. He directs. He writes novels. He's big. He's a white of Boer descent. And he never lets himself stray too far from a self-imposed grip of guilt over that fact. 

From his earliest days script-writing in the 60's he assailed South Africa's colonialism with its nearly five decades of official apartheid . (Interestingly the correct pronunciation of the word speaks to its inherently nefarious purposes : apart-hate.) As well, only 9% of its population are white but control nearly 100% of power, money and wealth. What the late US Christian theologian Marcus Borg termed "the powers that be", Fugard in Afrikaans calls the "groot kokkedorre", the great bigwigs.  

As a result of his impudence and daring, he was under regular surveillance by the Buro vir Staatsveiligheid, the secret police -- the S.A. stasi to whom Western journalists applied the easy acronym of "BOSS" -- and regularly had to produce his plays abroad to avoid detention and imprisonment.

Post-Robben Island : the Mandela years :  Once Nelson Mandela and his African National Congress achieved power in 1994, Fugard stopped writing polemics so much and concentrated more on "personal memoir" type plays. Valley Song fits neatly into that category. Because in it but for a few references to "white" and "master", there are virtually no political out-takes whatever. 

One would hardly know his setting in the Great Karoo from rural Ireland or England or India. Dirt-farmers, peasants, feudal serfs wherever they were stuck were still what and where they always have been : stuck. But some of them at least seem to have developed a love, almost a lust, for the fecundity of Mother Earth despite, or perhaps even because of, their modest circumstances. 

Plot overview : Old -vs- new. Generational conflict. Tradition -vs- progress. Life working dirt -vs- life in the lights. We find Abraam Jonkers, a.k.a. Opa (David Adams), who struggles to keep granddaughter Veronica (Sereana Malani) in his local village and not let her pursue a singing career in Jo'berg, where she desperately wants to go. 

There's a third character. "Author". An artificial but workable interjection of a Fugard alter ego playwright into the script, also played by Adams. When Opa, Adams is stoop-ish and slops a knit tocque on his head and speaks Great Karoo Afrikaans vernacular. When Author, he's military erect and speaks in a crisp private school British mien.

Abraam ("Buks") lost his daughter Caroline twice : first when she ran away from Karoo, and secondly when she died in childbirth bringing Veronica to life. Years back he also lost his wife of 25 years Betty -- whom he talks to "up there" daily. Buks has been raising Veronica on his own since she was a toddler. Buks is proud. He enthuses mightily about his pumpkins and his walnuts and his beetroots and his Sneeuberge arrtappel (potatoes) and his carrots and his onions. To him the re-birth of these earthly fruits each year is a miracle. He worships the Spring rain as if it were holy water.

Veronica is a lyric soul. She sings spontaneously, putting the day's events to song as they happen, and is the joy of Opa's heart. But she has dreams. To be wreathed in shimmering green and trill to adoring crowds instead of taking hand-outs singing pedestrian ditties she's made up to passerby whites in the local town square. 

"I want adoration. I want romance. What is there here for me? I am bored. It's the same old story, nothing happens here," she urges Opa. He flips back "You are talking too fast! I can't understand what you say!" Referring to Mandela's election, Veronica pleads : "Isn't it supposed to be different now?" Opa scoffs : "I don't need other people to give me ideas !" When Opa extols the virtues of dirt and veggies and their earthy nurture as one's proper and fulfilling life work, Veronica explodes : "The ground gives us food but it takes our lives! You plant seeds and I dream dreams!"

Author warns Veronica : "I don't want you to be hurt by your dreams, the 'Big Dream' that doesn't come true. Dreams don't do well in this valley, pumpkins do." 

Production values : Drew Facey's set features stacks of fruit & veggie crates and weatherbeaten wooden skids that face each other floor-to-ceiling E/W on Pacifica's alley stage. Perpendicularly the N/S facing banks of auditorium seats lend the set what regular playgoers will recognize as that "familiar forceful Facey effect". 

 Acting pin-spots :  As Veronica, Sereana Milani peppers her role with quick hand-action and a powerful voice befitting teen-age passion. She is sheer delight to watch and hear. David Adams flips between Opa and Author splendidly, a mix of grandfatherly concern & temper & empathy aside Author's more removed and analytical bearing. While the script yields up mostly predictable lines and conflicts and resolutions, the actors' execution of them is charming.

Who gonna like : Valley Song is a self-conscious and reflective and apparently autobiographical period piece from South Africa in its early post-apartheid moments. One reviewer said it was less play than "tone poem". 

The poignance of Ms. Malani, particularly, was stunning, even if her role was limited in characterization by virtue of the play's central and basically simple conflict of Gramps -vs- me. Acting students who need to see terrific individual scenes of delivery would learn much as they absorb Malani's intensity and body language even in such a predictable part. 

A well-executed performance for sure, this, that will appeal to thoughtful folks wanting some wee insight into the world of South Africa, old and new.

Particulars. Produced by The Gateway Theatre.  At Pacific Theatre, 12th @ Hemlock. Performances March 24-April 8th.  Schedules and tickets contact the Box Office @ 604.731.5518 -or- online @ the Pacific Theatre website.

Production crew. Written by Athol Fugard.  Directed by Gateway Theatre Artistic Director Jovanni Sy.  Set Designer Drew Facey.  Costume Designer Barbara Clayden.  Lighting Designer Chengyan Boon.  Original Music and Sound Designer Cathy Nosaty.  

Actors :  David Adams.  Sereana Malani.

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