When I got to Grahamstown The Table had just finished its run on the main fest and I had to listen to the radically differing opinions of my trusted friends. Some loved it while others hated it. I was delighted when I realised that I was going to be able to see it after all on my last night in Jozi.
It seems like an odd choice for The Market Theatre; a very niche story about a Jewish family friday night; not really the kind of stuff that I would imagine being very accessible to an 80 percent black Jozi audience. This was true of last night’s audience, for sure, being made up of 80 percent of a group of black, mostly wheelchair bound or on crutches young people, who were waiting patiently in the foyer when we arrived. It was the kind of audience who laughed at weird places and during all the “sensitive” moments.
The play, created by Sylvaine Strike, the director, and Craig Higginson tells the fraught story of how the three grown children of a family find out that the family maid’s daughter is their half sister. This all happens on a Friday night Shabbat dinner, where they have gathered a year after the father has died. Flora (Janet Carpede) the maid’s daughter (Khabonina Qubeka) is back from studying overseas, the matriarch (still beautiful in her seventies Annabel Linder) is in a private hell of her own holocaust memories, Daniel (brilliant Brian Webber) is sick and has been thrown out by his wife, Ruth (the amazing Karen van der Laag) has eating issues, and the baby Levi (William Harding) is in love with his soon to be revealed half-sister. It’s complicated.
I have had a very interesting response to The Table. It’s weird, but it feels like I really liked it, in spite of itself. The play is in two separate styles; a strongly stylised Sylvaine Strike movement based interpretive visual almost slightly grotesque mode, and then a terribly naturalistic ordinary kitchen sink-ish emotionally fraught purge. And I liked them both, but was never sure how well they got on with each other.
Then there is the story (and I love a story), which just feels like there’s too much of it. The discovery of the black half-sister who lived under their roof without them knowing (reminding me strongly of Mike Leigh’s Secrets and Lies), the mother’s holocaust drama (that includes the table and reminded me of the movie of Everything is Illuminated) and then all the fraught family stuff that includes a healthy Jewish guilt complex, unresolved and hideous jealousy issues, lots of love, childhood memory games and the usual sibling stuff when a bunch of adult children get together. Too much story.
While all the performances were really good (some characters definitely had more meat written into them) Karin van der Laag and Brian Webber were beyond amazing. This play deserves to be seen just for them. I absolutely loved watching them and when I wasn’t convinced about other stuff they helped me get over it.
Everybody has spoken about Sylvaine’s trademark style of direction being all over this piece. I haven’t seen enough of her work to know about this, but there are moments of really beautiful magic, where things are stretched and extended, weird juxtapositions happen, strange things take place with ordinary props and subtext is played out in slow motion movement. Some of these are breathtakingly lovely.
A funny thing happened to me during the show though. There was a constant nagging at the back of my mind, and I struggled with it all the way out into the parking lot, and then back home, when it hit me. During the Directors and Directing weekend Faniswa Yisa spoke about loving working with The Magnet Theatre company because she was sick of only ever having the option of the playing the maid in South African plays. She said that those were the parts written for black women. Put in a black maid. And there she was last night. The black maid; steadfast, loyal, hardworking, traumatised by her own personal secret, and in her housecoat and doek. Surely, surely there are other parts for black women when they are in white stories?