Woordfees: Martelsang, a mindwarping experience

March 12, 2017

Martelsang, Christo Davids se verwerking van Ariel Dorfman se ‘Death and the Maiden’, is ‘n treffende ondersoek na die balans tussen vergifness en wraak in die soeke na geregtigheid. Dit was definitief ‘n Woordfees hoogtepunt en mens sal hoop dat dit binnekort ‘n langer speelvak in die Kaap sal kry.


Placing a spotlight on the psychological wounds left by the torturing ways of power-hungry leaders, Christo Davids draws a powerful parallel between the emotional impact of totalitarian dictatorship and the apartheid government’s rule in his South African adaptation of Chilean playwright Ariel Dorfman’s ‘Death and the Maiden’ with his 2017 Woordfees offering, Martelsang.


It introduces you to the ‘truth’ triangle of a traumatised wife (Lee-Ann van Rooi), a driven lawyer husband (Zane Meas) and the apparent wrong-place-wrong-time doctor (Stian Bam), who in a culmination of circumstances are forced to confront their differing views of justice in search of the ‘truth’ and everything but the ‘truth’. In their introspection and reflections, the seat of power constantly shifts, challenging the audience to admit that the truth, as much as associated justice, has at least two, if not three, perspectives. This is all cleverly set in the context of a take-two version of the TRC, which apparently is bound to fail because it sees justice as owed more to the dead than the living.

As the drama unfolds, with the revelation of varying perspectives of reality, truth and justice, you continuously adjust your just(ifiable) allegiance… is the doctor truly just a good-hearted Samaritan that unfortunately stopped to help a famous anti-apartheids lawyer in need of a hand, or is he just very good at living in denial for self-preservation's sake? Is the traumatised wife emotionally waterboarding him or is he really confessing a truth? As all this unfolds it leaves such memorable a theatre mark that you will never be able to listen to Schubert’s composition 'Death and the Maiden' again without a flashback or two.


Christo Davids’ unpacking of justice as a concept in this adaptation deserves a spot between iconic scripts in this genre, as it falls somewhere in between ‘Twelve Angry Men’ by Reginald Rose and ‘Judgment at Nuremberg’ by Abby Mann. From a direction point, it is also spot on, with the pace and the exceptional performances keeping the audience spellbound to the extent that you don’t even realise that the play is 90 minutes long.


Although all three actors are exceptional in their own right, portraying anything but easy characters, it is Lee-Ann van Rooi that stands out as a true tour de force, apparently effortlessly stepping into the shoes of a tortured unstable wife. And as we all know, if something looks effortless that is where great acting truly shines through, especially in the context of a drama (perhaps even suspense thriller) of the nature of Martelsang. It definitely merits the PG 16 age restriction, as the actors don’t hold back in inviting you to partake in the emotional roller coaster of their characters. Even the set design showcases the balance between emotional vulnerability and clinical inquisitorial unease.

In the end, the audience is left to decide for themselves what the true capacity of a victim (and perhaps even a nations) is to forgive when justice is apparently only served for justice’s sake in a judicial system where the surviving victims are left to deal with their trauma in their own way.  Can justice be too blind of the truth?


Martelsang strikes a delicate balance between the themes of forgiveness and revenge in the search for the true meaning of justice. It is a mindwarping experience that keeps the audience captivated with every twist and turn. It ticks every box that makes for great theatre with a purpose. Here is hoping that it gets a longer Cape Town run soon.


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