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Four funerals and no wedding

The on-stage production of Damon Galgut’s award-winning novel leaves this reviewer feeling very conflicted

To live in South Africa today (or maybe I mean to be alive today) is to see your various friends/groups of friends constantly triggered by small slights or big slaps across the face.

On Friday it was the misogyny and poisonous patriarchy and the long shadow cast by apartheid brought to mind during Hamba Nam Ndipheleke, the isiXhosa school set-work on stage at the Baxter Theatre (See Subtitles’ failure highlights my own, on right).

The very next day, it was the rolling out of one Afrikaner stereotype after another by some of South Africa’s leading actors in the stage adaption of Damon Galgut’s Booker Prize-winning The Promise at the Star Theatre.

Nothing simple about being a South African …

The Promise shone for the exceptional performances, most especially, we thought, Kate Normington and Rob van Vuuren in various different roles. It is one helluva romp, with maybe 30-something characters played by the cast of nine of our finest actors. Many will love The Promise’s clever, giddy, cocky roller-coaster ride, but some sensitive souls may find the tone a bit abrasive.

The staging is very interesting with broken chairs and a sloping stage providing an appropriately warped context that magnifies the weird-wickedness of a story set in very twisted times.

Frank Opperman and Jane de Wet

The combination of farcical stereotyping of Afrikaans people alongside the backgrounding of the stories of the black characters might leave some feeling a bit confused about whose story this is.

Since we at Call Off The Search are quite conflicted about this play, we thought we would canvas a few other points of view:

Michelle: I really enjoyed it. I found it laugh-out-loud funny and tragic at the same time. The stage was really innovative and the way the actors moved around it was brilliant. I thought Kate Normington was exceptional in so so many roles.

Sasha: Verdict: Undecided. I thought the actors were really good in multiple demanding roles. The general interpretation was quite ‘out there’, maybe trying a little too hard at times. But I appreciate that they tried to do something interesting.

Dale (who read the book for the second time in the week before the show): It could have been so different. The production seemed to strip off the potential subtlety that can bring a moment alive. I thought it would be hard to do and I was expecting a clever vision. This was a literal (too literal) romp.

Cintaine Schutte, Rob van Vuuren and Jenny Stead in The Promise PHOTOGRAPHS Claude Barnardo

Ann-Maree: It was absolutely superb! I highly recommend! The Promise was one of my reading highlights of 2021. I was nervous that the production wouldn’t do the book justice. But I had nothing to be worried about and am encouraging everyone to see the stage production at the Homecoming Centre.

Anne:  I was resistant to a story that felt like it didn’t ‘need to be told’ at this complex time in our history. The strong and stunning line-up made me think I should give the play a chance. But I couldn’t appreciate the tone and wackiness of it all. And the silence of Salome and Lucas was salt in the wound, even though I realise it was deliberate. Why though? I couldn’t understand the motivation of centring the story on a white family – we all know those stories and characters and motivations – instead of on those who had no voice at that time. I obviously need to read the book

Published on 16 September 2023:

May 31 2023: In a year that saw Willian Kentridge’s Head & The Load on stage in South Africa for the first time in Johannesburg, Cape Town gets the first bite of the next “must-see cultural event of the year”: the world premiere of the stage production of Damon Galgut’s Booker Prize-winning novel, The Promise.

The Promise will be on at The Star Theatre at the Homecoming Centre in Cape Town (formerly The Fugard Theatre) from 14 September to 6 October, before transferring to The John Kani stage at The Market Theatre from 18 October to 5 November.  

Damon Galgut, whose novel was awarded the prestigious Booker Prize in 2021, says: “On the edge of District Six, and home to the District Six Museum, the Homecoming Centre is the perfect symbolic venue for a work dealing with the most charged of all South African issues.” 

Presented by Club Dezza Productions and The Market Theatre, The Promise has been adapted for stage by Galgut and multiple award-winning director Sylvaine Strike. In a discussion process spanning almost two years, Galgut and Strike identified a visual language through which this seminal family drama unfolds, supported by a uniquely chorus-driven narration.

“Our recent workshop week was an extraordinary process of discovery with the author, cast and creative team. They were absolutely formidable! We were able to spend time decoding The Promise as a novel, and develop a physical, poetic language to turn it into a theatre encounter.” director Sylvaine Strike.

“Funny, confrontational and powerful, this production gives the novel a whole new life. It will speak to audiences in the most intimate way possible.”

The show will feature a star-studded South African cast of Rob van Vuuren, Kate Normington, Frank Opperman, Chuma Sopotela, Cintaine Schutte, Jenny Stead, Albert Pretorius, Sanda Shandu and Jane de Wet. The creative team is pretty impressive too! (Sound design and original music composition: Charl-Johan Lingenfelder. Set and lighting design: Josh Lindberg. Costume Design: Penny Simpson; Choreography: Natalie Fisher).

Sylvaine Strike

“It’s been an honour to work with the script penned by Damon, which harnesses his novel in all its beauty, humour and devastation. He is a master storyteller, writing remarkable prose with a profoundly complex understanding of human relationships,” director Sylvaine Strike.

Damon Galgut

“I am a great fan of Sylvaine’s work. The detailed physical transformations, vivid imagery, pathos and hilarity of her productions remain in audiences’ hearts long after a show has ended. Her directorial signature, seen in her work on productions such as Beckett’s Endgame, Firefly, Molière’s Tartuffe and Sam Shepard’s Curse of the Starving Class, draws on the poetry of the performer’s body as primary story teller. She is the perfect director to bring The Promise to life on stage and I am greatly looking forward to seeing the final result!’

The story: On a small farm outside Pretoria, the Swart family – “a typical bunch of white South Africans” – tries to hold itself together through the violent lurches of recent history. They have promised to give a small piece of land with a tiny house on it to Salome, the Sotho woman who has worked for them her whole life. A worthless property, but still, they will not give it up.

Are they cursed, or just unlucky? 

One by one, members of the family die, while everything around them changes and they try to stay the same. Only two siblings will eventually be left, facing each other over a great divide: Anton, the tormented older brother, and Amor, his strange younger sister.

Bookings open via Webtickets.

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23rd September 2023 7:29 pm

I thought the play was brilliant, probably the best theatre I’ve seen in SA since moving here (for the second time) a decade ago. I loved loved loved Galgut’s book, which was damn bleak, like Coetzee’s Disgrace, but the play is much funnier with lots of breaking of the fourth wall, to great effect, and no loss of profoundity on the subject of how weird, wounded, and bewildered South Africa is.

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