As part of the London theatre carrot that might be in a place that it shouldn’t be right now I want to see as much local, new, fresh and exciting theatre as I can. With that in mind I popped off to The Intimate last night to see The Space Behind the Couch’s Out of Order. This is a two-hander written and directed by Beren Belknap (and performed by him, and teched by him) and performed by James MacGregor and Gabriel Marchand.
What happened to me last night was directly influenced by the week of pure theatre magic I have experienced in London. What happened to me broke my heart.
Beren, this is not a review of your work. This is a heartfelt response to the horrible way we are forced to make theatre in this country. And to be honest, I don’t even know where to start. When I was in London everyone referred to me as a playwright. This is a title I have never allowed myself to have, even though I have actually written quite a few plays. We all call ourselves theatre makers here. That’s because we always have to do everything. We are not really allowed to specialise, to be one thing. We can’t. Who will direct the plays if we just write them? What will we direct if we are just directors? Why does a brilliant performer like Nicola Hanekom have to write, direct and perform the things she makes? In London nobody has heard the term theatre maker.
Last night I got so angry Beren. I got angry that you have to do everything. I got depressed that you had to be a theatre maker instead of a writer, or a director, or a performer. I got sad when I thought about a process you needed and did not have the luxury of accessing. Imagine if you had had somebody older and experienced to be your mentor. Imagine if you had had the time to develop your script. Imagine if you and your actors had been able to play around for a couple of months, find things, throw things out, explore, develop the work. Imagine what could have happened then.
Things happen in such a rush here, and we are in such a hurry to get things in product form, in front of a tiny audience for such short little runs. We have no time. We have no money. We have no support. We piss on our own batteries here, because there’s nowhere else to piss.
Out of Order is such a brilliant title. We are Out of Order. Our theatre is Out of Order.
So, I want to congratulate you Beren for making theatre under these conditions. You shouldn’t have to. It shouldn’t be this hard, and this thankless.
Here’s what I thought about the piece. In my opinion Out of Order is a brilliant idea, with brilliant things in it and two brilliant performers, but it is not ready. It is not a product yet. It looks like it is, because there are the fab technicals and animations and set, but it isn’t. And for me, what was a potentially coherent, hilarious and outrageous piece of historic fantasy, Goon show style, was marred by one tiny mistake that permeated the piece. This was the dumb Afrikaner. The dumb Afrikaner is a bit of a racist idea, and it needs better treatment, either from a characterisation point of view, or from a language point of view, or from an ideological point of view. I was uncomfortable that the Afrikaans character was just a dumb Afrikaner (whose actual Afrikaans was not good), and that the kommandant spoke to his men in dumb Afrikaans accented English. The English character had so much to him; he was mad, and a coward, and a traitor, and filthy mouthed. He was a character. And he spoke in his mother tongue.
There is so much that is brilliant about the notion of this piece. At a time when the Boer war offerings of Deon Opperman laud Afrikanerdom and sow division, there is huge space for a different look, a fantastical reinterpretation of it all, and one that has the hope of the message of Out of Order. What will help make the message clear is if the Afrikaans character is not simply the dumb Afrikaner, but more. Someone we care about. Someone who deserves more than an accent and silly mispronunciations.
Beren, I think you are amazing, and brave and creative and talented. I think that Out of Order deserves time, and thinking about, and a bit of process. I keep thinking about War Horse, and how its creators spent 18 months developing it. I think about your performers, who would shine so much more brightly, and confidently, with more discovery time; more rehearsal time. And I imagine you, the writer, or director, with only one job at a time, being able to pour everything into that specialist thing. I wish that for you. And for all of us damn theatre makers.