Damon Galgut’s 2021 Booker Prize winning novel has been taken from the page to the stage through his collaboration with director Sylvaine Strike. THE PROMISE had its theatrical premiere at The Star Theatre (the former Fugard Theatre) in Cape Town this September.
A story about a “forgotten” pledge and emotional truths in a conflicted country, the family saga that THE PROMISE so ingeniously sets out on the page was never going to be an easy adaptation. One would therefore require a very specific and unique approach to help the characters jump off the page and onto the stage.
Strike is well known for her creative use of clowning as a form of theatre. Though you may immediately think circus when one references clowns, in theatre clowning as a technique means so much more, it allows for a sense of freedom of expression, a sense of playfulness in the telling of a story. It also allows one to emphasise contradictions or elevate characteristics as a form of social commentary and expression. When considering the racial and religious bigotry that underscores the family saga in THE PROMISE, there is great potential in clowning emphasising prejudices through a heightened display of stereotypes.
The Swart-family, at the centre of THE PROMISE, clings to their misplaced privilege at the cost of life, sanity and happiness —regardless of the warnings life karmically flings their way— as a string of funerals effectively wipe out their family tree. At the root of it all is one man’s broken promise to his dying wife: a promise turned lie that reverberates through his family even after his passing. Salome, the family’s caretaker and effectively the surrogate mother to the Swart-children, was promised her own house, her own land, but decades of selfish family greed and misplaced apartheid relic superiority deprives her of a promise-made-reality for over 40 years. At the end everyone actually loses.
Such a tragedy brought to stage could be overly heavy and possibly too much for an audience to process all at once. Clowning is thus a clever choice to lift the dramatic tone just enough so that one can reveal multi-layered hypocrisies in a very effective way. It also plays into the fact that South Africans are known for processing sadness through humour: the theatrical equivalent of saying “If we don’t laugh, we’ll cry!”.
In taking this approach to the stage adaptation of THE PROMISE, Strike and Galgut’s collaboration results in a balanced exploration of the tale for the biggest part. Up until interval, THE PROMISE is practically perfect. After interval it stumbles a bit, as the physical theatre elements seem to dominate the storytelling, where initially it is very successfully used as a creative vehicle that aids the story telling without diluting the dramatic crux of it all. At well-over two hours I think the gradual imbalance that creeps in can be chalked up to the very human element of not being able to distance oneself from one’s creation and cut where necessary, as to the creator everything would be necessary. The subtlety of the clowning that so well serves THE PROMISE at the start, begins to fade as the story falls into that trap of not knowing when to end. This results in the overuse of the breaking of the fourth wall (which may be an effective device in the book) that only serves to interrupt the flow and rhythm of the play at that point.
THE PROMISE doesn’t need to be a marathon play to reach its dramatic climax and to give you the full experience. There is a strikingly sad moment when an aged Salome walks off in the rain towards her house where the story presents a natural and emotionally appropriate ending. If the production ended there it would minimise the risk of going down the rabbit hole of indulgent theatre towards the end. The portion of the play that continued after that natural culmination of experiences didn’t take the story any further for me. Everything before that was a lovely exploration of a sadly still-relevant story about the social fabric of our society.
In discussing the play with fellow patrons, I realised that the style choices used may be polarising, as THE PROMISE is up against the same potential creative trap as a book turned movie: Those who have read the book would have done so with the freedom to visualise the author’s created world in a manner of their choosing. Any adaptation that then visualises a favourite scene or component of the story differently runs the risk of alienating, and could easily rob the reader-turned-audience member from simply enjoying the story to unfold. Avid readers of THE PROMISE may have to check their initial excited anticipation at the theatre door to prevent unnecessary comparison that will limit the enjoyment of the staged experience. They can take solace in the fact that this staging definitely has the author’s seal of approval as he was actively involved in adapting his story as a play. Yet, one must make allowance for the fact that you won’t be able to please everyone and that the staged THE PROMISE may not stylistically be everyone’s cup-of-tea. But, even if it isn’t, you will be able to see that the execution of the chosen techniques and the performances linked to that are very well done and for the most part serve the exploration of the story (in a manner that I suspect stands in answer to the cinematic elements that the book plays into) to great effect.
As a whole, the play has real heart in its examination of dented souls. It explores human interests within the context of the historical impact of the significance of land in shaping our society. Ultimately, it’s a legacy of land story told through the perspective of broken individuals. It may be titled THE PROMISE, but for me I will always think of this production as ‘Salome’s prayer’: The moment following the passing of the Jewish matriarch of the very ‘proper’ Christian Swart-family, where Salome prays through sobs (that of her own and that of the youngest daughter of the family) the emotional pulse of the story speaks to one in heightened, raw, and sensitive tones.
Mainly the story is being told by the Story Conjurer who is portrayed by Chuma Sopotela, who also plays Salome. This character crossover effectively blurs the lines of character distinction, allowing for a smooth telling of what is as much Salome’s story as that of the Swart-Family. At the heart of the story are the interactions between Salome, her son Lukas (Sandu Shandu), the youngest Swart daughter Amor (Jane De Wet) and oldest brother Anton (Rob van Vuuren). The other characters (portrayed by Kate Normington, Frank Opperman, Jenny Stead, Albert Pretorius, Cintaine Schuttte) are catalyst for the issues these four grapple with.
A gradual strain creeps into the relationships at play between Salome, Lukas, Amor and Anton, which aligns with the deterioration of the Swart-family, both emotionally and physically. In unpacking this deterioration of dented souls, all the performers take on multiple roles, while the incorporation of Greek chorus aids to connect all the characters seamlessly.
The set and lighting design (by Joshua Lindberg) is nothing short of art, drawing from modern, expressionistic influences. There is nothing incorporated in the set design that isn’t there for a purpose, yet it is also aesthetically pleasing. It plays beautifully into the skewed perspectives and realities of the characters.
The use of props is minimal; used only when needed to amplify a specific situation or scene, making the dramatic passing on of a set of keys (that should be handed over to Salome) between family members all the more meaningful.
Sound design (by Charl-Johan Lingenfelder) cleverly draws on radio drama foley effects: a great choice as it makes the sound a true presence onstage, with the actors incorporating the sound elements as part of their performance. Certain sounds are also linked to characteristics of individual characters for that extra element of clowning. It all makes the audience feel as if they are part of the making of the play.
Although all performances are stellar, it is a treat watching Albert Pretorius morph through his characters. He is clearly having fun in his portrayals of various stereotypical South Africans, and that translates to the audience's experience.
Overall, THE PROMISE impresses with a clever use of theatre techniques paired with great performances. I found the culmination of it all to be a great form of commentary on South Africa (both pre- and post-apartheid) that serves Galgut’s dramatic prize-winning vision well.
You have until 6 October to 2023 to see THE PROMISE at the Star Theatre (the former Fugard Theatre). Tickets available for booking online through Webtickets.