The startling opening image of Brothers – a tableau-like scene of a silhouetted stranger in a doorway – we are pulled into a story of intrigue and desperately concealed truths. Victor Gordon draws out a tale in the tradition of South African farm novels, a story that threatens to burst the seams of its confined setting as surely as the suddenly ripped open scabs of the past threaten to tear the titular brothers apart. A superbly acted and directed piece, the ability of Brothers to keep the audience on edge helps to build towards a thrilling and devastating climax.
The first thing we are greeted with is the lovingly and gorgeously constructed set, designed by Karabo Legoabe and set design mentee Gift Makadikwa. The countless intricate elements to the design plunge the audience straight into what feels like the distant past in a small farmhouse near Bloemfontein. There is an uncanny familiarity to the brothers’ setting; perhaps borne of trips to farms or even viewings of mid-20th century-set television programs and films in the South African hinterland. I was particularly enamoured with the clever way fire was represented on stage, with intelligently hidden lights allowing us to remain in the realism of the show without needing someone to fumble endlessly with a match onstage. From wood stove to broken faucet, Legoabe and Makadikwa created a marvelous foundation upon which the rest of this excellent production could be seamlessly constructed. This, too, is reflected in Legoabe and mentee Philani Masedi’s understated yet supremely effective costume design, evoking the relevant era and all attendant feelings of foreboding.
The five performers’ chemistry was something to behold. Dawid Minnaar’s Ben, self-tasked to care for his mentally handicapped brother Jan (Drikus Volshchenk) and timid nephew Willem (Ruan Wessels), have a tightly constructed respect and interaction between them, reflecting years of bland monotony farming in the desert. The return of long-disappeared brother Koot (Gustav Gerdener), whose motivations seem less than benevolent from our first glimpse of him in the doorway, scorns the boring life of hard labour that he left behind nearly 20 years previously. But Ben and Koot nevertheless tangle emotionally, in a way that immediately calls to mind long-buried tensions between family members and ghosts of the past that refuse to die.
Director Francois Jacobs and mentor director Mncedisi Shabangu put together a weighty journey for the actors to go on, allowing them remarkable freedom of movement without making any part of the action feel contrived. This is of course aided by the performances, whether it is Ruan Wessels’ debilitating stammering, Drikus Volschenk’s rubber faced expressions, or David James’ stern lecturing on the merits of his detective novels. Each bring a wonderful uniqueness and journey to their characters, and each of their evident feelings towards other people on stage help to ratchet up the tension several notches.
Gustav Gerdener’s Koot in particular boils with a barely contained rage throughout, railing at a world he feels has failed him, and a life whose disappointment he traces to his humble beginnings in Jagtersnek, the farm the brothers grew up on. His inability to keep a handle on his anger slowly reveal his issues with the family at large, slowly unlacing the carefully constructed, threadbare existence of the other three family members. Dawid Minnaar’s Ben, however, bears the brunt of the troubles, his faith tested and shaken as he strives to keep the two weaker members of his family from harm. His rare moments of loss of control are exercises in controlled outbursts, and Minnaar’s booming voice really drives home the depths to which he pushes his truths, that, as he says, they have “no need for” out in the desert.
Lighting designer Kosie Smit and mentee Neliswa Fantesi do a solid job that is most impressive when the main stage is darkened, shining lights through windows and curtains. The sound design of Mandisa Hope Vilakazi and mentee Lebogang Rammala is also astute, with wonderfully cued effects of radios and vehicles building the realism to an almost suffocating level. Special mention must go to stage manager Ali Madiga, whose resetting of props after each show must be an incredibly difficult tightrope to walk.
Another magnificent Market Theatre performance, Brothers is a must-see drama and congratulations must go to the cast and crew involved in building such a remarkable production.
Victor Gordon’s Brothers is on at the Market Theatre from January 24 until Sunday 23. Tickets are available from the box office and WebTickets.