Inspired by the life of Mr Nukain Mabusa, The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek, in true Athol Fugard style, emphasises that people will only ever perceive that ‘reality’ which they allow themselves to ‘see’.
At first sight, this seems a mere simplistic telling of the story of an outdoor artist, who wanted to paint flowers to beautify a “koppie” of rocks on the land of the farmer he laboured for. It is only once you take a seat in the Fugard Theatre’s new comfy Studio chairs that you become aware that this is more a story about the people influenced by the art and the artist, than about the man himself… because his influence and struggles outlived him.
Those who appreciate Fugard’s use of monologues to reveal the inner turmoil of his characters will definitely want to add his latest play to their list of theatre experiences. Newer audience may not be so easily persuaded by this one though. It is a hard sell, not in that the story is not poignant and worth a visit to the theatre, but because the rhythm and presentation of this play does not immediately lure the audience in. There is no comfort zone here, and perhaps there shouldn't be one. The play's build-up is slow, as it sets the scene for the ultimate 'revelation'. Through that slow process, powerful monologues become a bit preachy in tone at times. Preachy in the context of the play however has a place. The audience is being preached to, not necessarily through the use homilies and sermons from any particular religious diocese, but rather as a means to draw them into a discussion of right versus wrong and truth versus privilege.
However, the characters also preach to themselves (as we as humans tend to do when trying to persuade both ourselves and others of our position), so they may be 'forgiven' their preachy subjectivity also, as each vehemently clings to their beliefs of who they think Nukain really is/was in their search for their own identity.
Nukain’s story, as a man who worked the land without ever experiencing the privilege of owning anything of his own before finally resting within that land, provides the powerful context for this moving pre- to post-liberation piece. In the end though, only the rocks silently, objectively, speak to Nukain’s history, his memory, his legacy with the story he painted on them as his beloved rock ‘flower’ garden.
Within this tug-a-war of perspectives and perceptions, the play builds up to a revelation that at the heart of a conflict one usually finds an absence of understanding, an unwillingness to see. What is therefore truly wonderful about Painted Rocks as a play, is the recognition of the golden thread of Fugard’s signature popping up again in this script, most evident in the moment when Nukain (strongly portrayed by Tshamano Sebe) reveals to the young Bokkie (talented newcomer Likho Mango), that the Kleynhans farmers have eyes but do not see him.
Probably the most moving moments in this production are the opening interactions and the final 'collapse' of prejudice. First Fugard tugs at your heart as you stand witness to the scene between Nukain and Bokkie, where the elder reveals to the young holder of the future, through the painting of his garden, how he walked the length and breadth of the country, oppressed by a nation which repeatedly belittled him regardless of his efforts. Through his painted tales, he cultivates resilience and a need to escape within the young one, who begrudges his link to the land which mistreated his elder. Fugard then brings you full circle, when Bokkie ultimately finds himself back in the rock garden as an adult, free in theory but still oppressed by his past memories. This leading you into the other moving moment when adult Bokkie (the exceptional Sne Dladla) and the farmer’s wife, Elmarie Kleynhans (tour de force Anna-mart van der Merwe) face each other as equals, ultimately acknowledging (more to themselves) that they have no real understanding of each other's perception of reality.
The theatre magic in this piece lies more in the emotion it evokes through the past-to-present story it endeavours to reflect, than in the complete package of its presentation. At times, the slow build-up makes you wonder if the telling of it could not be a bit tighter were the monologues perhaps a bit shorter to better echo the powerful intent of the script. Taking nothing away from the genius of Fugard, the length of the play may arguably weaken its impact slightly.
This reservation however takes nothing away from the performances witnessed. In fact, it actually leaves one more in awe of the actors who tackle such a piece. The topics revealed in the lines of a clearly intricate script, are very personal and not an easy feat to translate. The cast truly gave it their all, with true tears and great depth. The stage design too is brilliant and delightful in its effortlessly authentic appearance.
In the end, Nukain was an artist, and this is his art brought to stage. In the same manner that art is subjective, so too will the theatrical experience of every person who sees this new Fugard interpretation of Nukain’s life as art. No two experiences will be the same.
Book at Computicket to see the thought-provoking The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek at the Fugard Theatre, before the limited run ends on 24 September 2016.