SPOTLIGHT: A Reflection on the Sins of THE GOOD DAD

Barbara Loots

 

DIE GOEIE PA, an Afrikaans translation of Gail Louw’s most recent play, THE GOOD DAD (A LOVE STORY) is currently onstage at the Drama Factory. The team behind the latest production also brought audiences THE UNLIKELY SECRET AGENT.

With DIE GOEIE PA, Paul du Toit, the director and writer of the play THE UNLIKELY SECRET AGENT, again dons the hat of director, taking on the task of translating THE GOOD DAD (A LOVE STORY), for an Afrikaans audience. Erika Marais who played the role of Eleanor (who was tortured by the apartheid era security police) in that first production, now takes on the role of Diaan (a woman called Donna in the English version, who is abused by her father, but obligated to protect him to her detriment). Both are harrowing stories; it seems Marais has a knack for taking on roles about women who face great and very triggering, obstacles in their lives.


When Marais reached out to Louw, they initially connected over the writer’s interest in the story of Eleanor whom Marais was portraying at the time. Following that, they started following each other on social media, Marais came to learn of Louw’s THE GOOD DAD (A LOVE STORY). She had been looking for a one-woman play with a gender-based-violence focus, and this presented her with the challenge she was searching for. Reading it, Marais appreciated that this interesting story was also a very disturbing one: “The more I sat with it, the more I felt it is a story that needs to be told. I know of quite a few close friends and family who have had similar experiences, and yet, it seems like so many of these stories get swept underneath the rug. I was specifically intrigued as to why families would keep these secrets and not speak out.” With this realisation, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to bring the play to South Africa.


Much like THE UNLIKELY SECRET AGENT, THE GOOD DAD (A LOVE STORY) is also based on real-life events. This time the play draws from an incident in the 1980s where a daughter finds herself the victim of sexual abuse and incest at her father’s hand, but remains silent (along with her mother and sister), because her father has a weak heart and needs the family’s protection. Ultimately, though, the impact of the grooming and abuse over the years creeps up on Donna/Diaan, and she finds herself in prison while her father’s head finds itself all too well acquainted with a cast-iron frying pan.


Louw tells that she first heard of the story from a friend who worked with the family, and she found it a fascinating topic for a play. She does note that her play is rather inspired by true events as it “is based on fact, though relatively loosely” so. To maintain the confidentiality of the real family, she has taken care to change aspects that could lead to their identity. However, she says, “the main issues about a father abusing his child, having children with her, leaving his wife for her and setting up home with his daughter and their children, is true.”

In writing about the ordeal experienced by this family, Louw wanted “to understand how a girl and then woman would feel and experience the horrors of abuse by someone she loved, how and why her mother was not able to protect her and how others in the family might feel”. In unpacking all this, Louw asked the question: “What would I have done?” She elaborates on this approach to the play: “I think this is an important question in the play, especially when you realise, what else could she have done. There but for fortune…”


Known for writing about flawed characters (mainly rendered so by circumstances), THE GOOD DAD also takes on that perspective and style associated with Louw. She finds the multi-dimensional nature of such characters intriguing:


“Think of a hero, a true-blue hero; all there is to talk about is what they did, rather than the conflict within them. But if you want to look at a wide range of dimensions of a character, there has to be more than just one end of the continuum, as you would see in the non-conflicted hero. My most flawed character is Stella Goldschlag in my play Blond POISON. She was a beautiful young woman who in ordinary life would probably have lived a fine life of semi-hedonism. But the circumstances of living during WWII and being Jewish enabled the narcissistic or self-interested aspects of her character to develop in such a way that she ended up working for the Gestapo and being implicated in the deaths of up to 3000 fellow Jews.”


With this approach to her characters, it is then no surprise that Louw also sees the value of theatre as social commentary, which she feels can be “very effective as such”. She explains that although, for her, “that is what theatre is about”, the social aspect of it “must be regarded in the widest context”. She does not regard this as the only form of theatre, as “some of the most popular theatre, farce, is often not about social commentary (it certainly can be)”, although she suspects this to be the reason that she “cannot bear farce”.


While rooting her writing in social commentary, Louw has over the years embraced a monologue style that sees her characters as speaking to ‘someone’, rather than breaking the fourth wall in addressing the audience. THE GOOD DAD (A LOVE STORY) is one of Louw’s plays that sees the story being told through the interaction between different female voices, in this instance that of Donna, her mother, and her sister. Each of these female characters Louw gives a distinct voice. The distinctiveness is crucial to her, as it is the guide for the audience to experience their very different responses to the same facts: “It wasn’t too difficult to make their voices distinguishable because they are such different people, even though two of them are twins.” She also confesses herself reliant on an exceptionally good actress to relay this distinction accurately.


Asked what level of strength and conviction she thinks it would take of an actress to tackle THE GOOD DAD, Louw comments that she believes it would take massive commitment “to the play, as it is not an easy sell”.


With Marais taking up the gauntlet in the current staging, she gives some insight into her preparation for the role and how she tackled the triggering themes of abuse and powerlessness (what Louw also describes as “the intrinsic awfulness of living with fear, trauma, distrust, and disappointment all your childhood”):


“Fortunately, I’ve never been a victim of sexual abuse, otherwise I don’t think I would have been able to do this play. But there are many places and situations in the play with which I can identify as a woman and as a mother, and so in my preparation, I had to tap into those emotional abysses. For example, I was a very young mother and had my first child at 20. I still remember the shock of being pregnant at 19 and the struggle to accept my changing body. In those days and especially in my family, it was quite a scandal, and it was hard to talk to my mother about it.”


As for the fact that the story calls on her to move between three different voices in creating the reality that Diaan finds herself in, Marais says that she sees the three female perspectives as painting “a very clear picture for us of who and what the Dad was, even though we never hear from him directly… [yet] we get to realize how far-reaching the effect of his abuse was.”


The absence of the voice of the father (or perpetrator) is an intentional choice of Louw, as the play focusses on the impact of his actions on the women in his life: “Had I included the father, it would have been a two-hander and a very different play – which is not to say there is not a play there, what his experience is, how he explains things to himself, his perspective.”


THE GOOD DAD however still gives a balanced perspective, as Marais explains: “If the story was just told from Diaan’s perspective, one could easily say that it’s one-sided and lacks objectivity. But hearing from all three women, the story becomes much more truthful, and we get to see how not only Diaan was impacted, but the rest of the family as well. One of the saddest things for me in this story, is not only what actually happened to the victim (which is terrible), but what was actually lost and stolen from all three these women.”

Asking Louw what her reaction is to her story getting an Afrikaans tone, she expressed herself “thrilled” as the themes remain universal and she “would love to see it translated into as many different languages as possible”. She also sees it as an important aspect of such a process, to give the “translator as much leeway with the text as they need to ensure that specific cultural idiosyncrasies are incorporated into the play to make it as truthful and relevant as possible”.


As such, the Afrikaans version DIE GOEIE PA does not have the same “A Love Story” contextualisation in its title, but that does not mean that anything is lost in translation. As Louw explains, that aspect of the title is a hint to the interesting fact that the women professed to love their good father/husband, which stands at the centre of the crucial question: “How could it be that nobody said anything even when social services were involved”.


Ultimately, the character of Donna/Diaan, finds herself in prison which speaks to the feeling of containment, both emotionally and physically, given that the violation in question has been hidden so long… or at least that was my take in engaging Louw with a question posing such. She very kindly responded: “I think one characteristic of a good play is when audience members (and interviewees) find things in a play that the writer never realised! It takes the play further into previously uncharted waters, and I would say this is true of this question. So thank you for it!”


Taking the gap with such an encouraging response, would Louw then say that an element of Stockholm syndrome is present in the play too?


“I think Stockholm syndrome is specifically to do with people who develop a relationship with someone who takes them captive. But in this play, the abuser is the person who has cared for her throughout her life, the first or second person she came close to (though in this case, one could say it was her twin). She started off loving him as her good dad, and only later became captive by him. In that sense, there is perhaps a similarity later in her life with those suffering from this syndrome.”


Getting into the full inquisitive-thespian swing of the discussion of the play, we simply had to ask whether it can be seen as a commentary on victim shaming, seeing as Louw put Donne in an imprisoned context?


“Victim shaming is an interesting concept here. I think the victim shaming is directed by her to herself. However, I believe that she will not stay in prison for long and that she would see justice once her case came to court. I don’t see this play as a commentary on victim shaming which in itself is an important concept to explore.”


As with any play that deals with social issues, especially with gender-based violence in the current South African climate, Louw is very much awake to the reality that theatre as the vessel for the much-needed exchange is dependent on the product which acts as the vehicle for it: “People will come and see the play because they hear how excellent it is, how brilliant the acting is, how superb the directing is. They won’t come, I believe, for the topic. Domestic abuse is so difficult, it’s not a fun evening out. I also think that some abuse victims might find this healing and others would experience great difficulty seeing it.”


So, what would she like South African audience to take away from DIE GOEIE PA?


“I was often taken aback when people I knew who had watched BLOND POISON say to me, I really enjoyed that! I’d think, what! Enjoy! But there is more to theatre than enjoyment, which is not to diminish enjoyment. I sit in front of the TV and click away from harsh subjects and turn on The Great British Sewing Bee! So, yes, South African audiences, absolutely have your entertainment, but please make some time to go and see Erika Marais performing brilliantly in Paul du Toit’s wonderfully directed play. It is just an hour, but it will enhance your lived experience!”


More show and booking details available at www.thedramafactory.co.za