We are told early on in Evil, the Jens Boutrup-translated Benny Haag adaptation of Jan Guillou’s semi-autobiographical novel Ondskan, that a nosebleed is key to instigate early on in a fight. It removes that person from the fight – it’s tough to breathe, and the blood flowing over your lips and into your mouth constantly panics you with the reminder of your broken nose.
Evil uses the same tactics on us, the audience, as we are delivered a devastating blow right at the very beginning of the play that we never truly recover from. Your emotional, rational standing is swept out from underneath you in the first few beats of the story, and leaves you reeling until well after Jacques De Silva has taken his bows at the end. A brutal tale of the vicious circle of violence, loneliness, and the nature of morality, Evil reads as an incredibly timely examination of the extremes to which toxic masculinity can push individual people, and the lethal and crippling effects that their actions can have on both themselves and those around them.
We watch as Eric, the protagonist, is shunted from pillar to post, always on the receiving end of extreme and sadistic violence at home, at school, and in the beginning, with his “gang.” We witness his crazed father beating him at home, his schoolmaster dishing out needless lashings, his gang getting into frequent fights, and the older boys at Eric’s school attempt to assert and maintain dominance over the younger students through physical abuse and coordinated beatings. It is a genuinely shocking tale, made more so when the anecdotes we have heard from family, friends, and acquaintances over the years line up disturbingly with Eric’s experiences.
Despite the harrowing nature of the story, what really makes Evil such a bone-chilling experience is the raw, powerful performance of Jacques De Silva. The man is truly a genius – his exceptional physicality is constantly on show, as he flawlessly transfers from one character to the next, clearly delineating between each with ingenious uses of clothes, posture and voice, and never leaving the audience in any doubt as to whom is being portrayed at the time. De Silva has clearly mastered this, as we noted similar characteristics in his performance of The Old Man and the Sea in Cape Town in August last year.
This alone is a mighty task for any actor, but De Silva also puts in virtuoso emotional journeys for multiple characters – sagging and brightening, jumping and cowering, rising and falling in stature as they are slowly beaten into submission by the system of violence around them. We watch Eric and his friend Pierre crumble under the weight of systemic and systematic violence, and the consequences of their choices to resist are movingly played out with a rare emotional nuance that one can feel reverberating around the theatre. It is not often that a one-man show can move past the gimmicky nature of the medium and not rely on playing for laughs, but here we as audience members are often lost in the world that De Silva creates using only a bed, desk, and chair for props.
For this, credit must also go to directors Laine Butler and Mike da Silva, whose sharp use of space and movement make this short tale into what feels like a sweeping epic, but never allowing us to break free of the tight, tense confines of our character’s surroundings – he almost always appears trapped, or in a cell, even if it is of his own creation.
The set, as mentioned, is sparse but wonderfully conceived, with only as much as is needed allowing for Jacques De Silva’s magnetic and calculated movement to shine through. The lights, also simple but brilliantly effective, had several audience members shifting uncomfortably in their seats as they turned from brightly light to deep, murderous red. All of this was perfectly iced with Nik Sakellarides’ prickly, unsettling score – twisting and shifting from triumphant moments to catastrophic, foreboding tones at the drop of a hat.
Evil is the type of production where material and performance weave effortlessly into each other to spellbind the audience, and the timeless and important themes make it as important a piece as I have ever watched. Congratulations to the cast and crew on a fantastic effort, and once again credit to Daphne Kuhn and the crew at the Auto & General Theatre on the Square for bringing in another fantastic show.
Evil is on at the Auto & General Theatre on the Square from January 14-25. Tickets are available from the box office and Computicket.