It is not often that we are privileged with a piece of art that truly surprises us, from start to finish, in almost every facet. Hunter Gatherers, on at the Market Theatre this weekend, is one such piece.
The play, by Peter Sinn Nachtrieb, is a gorgeous piece of realist pseudo-absurdism that treads a fine line between sanity and pandemonium as the carefully constructed lives of the characters begin to unravel over the course of an annual celebratory dinner party. In this production, designed and performed by students of the University of the Witwatersrand, these aspects are highlighted and then downplayed to even more ludicrous effect by the magnificent design of the technical crew.
The lighting is as excellent as we have come to expect from the Market Theatre. Wonderful soft lighting overtakes the stage as the characters fracture, slowly dimming from the bright lights of a loft apartment to soft mood lighting on different areas by the end of the play. The set design, by Wits students Hira Lodhi and Amy-Sue Lithgow, is magnificent. There is a wonderful use of the Mannie Manim Theatre, with the second level of the theatre employed cleverly and effectively. Even the visibility-linked limitations of the second level are utilized as opposed to avoided, as the railing in front of the bed above the audience allows for a censored view of a sex scene without too much complication. It really is clever touches like this, and the amusing art pieces that subtly capture the mood of the play, that often go unnoticed, but work so superbly here.
And then there are the performers themselves, whose immersive, dedicated, and constantly bonkers performances seal Hunter Gatherers as one for the ages. Despite the absurd nature of some of the interactions, these young, student performers handle the disparate nature of the characters and their complex relationships so adeptly that at times I forgot I was watching a play at all. Trevor Lynch’s lithe body movements, wild eyes, and elastic face make you hang on to every word like a starving person hoping for another morsel of food to enjoy; while Robyn Evans’ stoic, measured, and slowly cracking persona, tenses you up as you wonder how far she can be pushed before she explodes. Saul Kemack’s repressed, beleaguered and frankly rather irritated doctor lends just enough reality to the situation at hand, while Daisy Maphathe’s simply excellent comic timing, wild sexual urges and bombastic declarations constantly keep the audience swinging from hilarity to wide-eyed shock at her always ridiculous claims.
The cast embodies ensemble, working and playing off each other with an ease and chemistry so tangible you instantly believe they have known each other for nearly two decades. In addition, all four do the absolute utmost with their interactions with the audience, exchanging glances, pointing and shouting accusations, and giving instructions with such swagger that it immediately stands out as fresh, surprising, and endearingly amusing.
Neka da Costa and Tshego Khutsoane, the directors of this marvelous piece, not only make good on their promise to provide an “experience that will change from night to night”, but also display tact, taste, and a firm grasp of the South African context in the staging and also the casting of the play. Lines are altered to imbue the text with a distinctly South African flavor, while their “insistence on having a cast representative of the South African cultural and social milieu” gives the show an intimacy that grounds it in the familiar for the watching audience. We applaud Neka and Tshego for their challenging of boundaries and their ability to bring such a fresh, lively piece of theatre to a public stage, and for providing the students of the University of the Witwatersrand with such a fantastic opportunity to work in an important and historic space.
Congratulations to all the cast and crew on a truly stunning production. We cannot wait to see what this group of theatre makers goes on to produce in the future.
Kudos must also go to the Market Theatre for allowing this student production to play its run, and their commitment to growing and developing theatre in the Johannesburg region remains an example for all to follow.
Hunter Gatherers is playing at the Market Theatre from April 9-14.