Friends since the age of 15, playwright Louis Viljoen and director Greg Karvellas, have definitely grown and grown-up together in theatre. Having paid their creative dues along the way, they have established themselves as two of the top theatre-makers on the Cape Town theatre scene.
After Viljoen cast Karvellas in his first ever acting role during their teenage years – a role that he was terrible in Karvellas jests – they have since found their individual creative expression, while maintaining a brilliant team dynamic through collaborative works such as Champ and The Frontiersmen. Now with Viljoen as the Fugard Theatre’s Writer in Residence, they get the opportunity to join forces again, with Karvellas using his directing skills to open up Viljoen’s latest script, The Eulogists, to audiences.
“When we started out with Champ, I was very nervous, as was Greg”, Viljoen shares. “I was at a lot of the rehearsals. We speak about it the whole time. In hindsight it was probably just us being insecure and going ‘well we have to hold on to each other because it’s our little thing’.” Although it was a fun play, and didn’t deal with anything too dark, Karvellas agrees, “Champ was stressful… It was my first real job as a director.”
Since those Champ days they have both grown greatly and become theatrically self-reliant, making it possible for them to tackle their latest project, The Eulogists, with not only individual confidence but also a greater understanding that their collaborative power actually lies in each doing what they do best. Also Viljoen hopes that since the shock some audiences expressed at the language used in Champ (which was part of the Artscape's new voices programme and also had successful runs at the Fugard Theatre, NAF and in Edinburgh), and the risks they took with The Frontiersmen (“where we took the violence off the page” Karvellas adds), that with every subsequent play they “open certain things up, that you can speak a certain way and act a certain way; explore things without, as the theatre-makers, beings judged for it”.
While carving that path for their theatre vision, they have also been on their own development journeys, shares Karvellas. “We use to do all our projects together – film projects, theatre projects, we ran a company together – and what’s really exciting is that we started to branch off a little bit. Louis had done fantastic directing work, fantastic writing, he’s acting now. I’ve branched off with my directing. Our creative relationship has changed. We don’t latch on to each other anymore, so when we do come together we have the foundation of all those years of creating stuff and now we bring different experiences to it. Louis having directed, I believe, now brings that experience into writing. All of a sudden for me as a director it brings another level to it. And Louis has become a brand in his own way and an audience has grown with him. I think people now recognise that he’s not just a young writer who swears, but that there is a real style developing. It’s exciting to see that style grow.”
It is that style, along with their matured collaborative power, that now brings to the stage The Eulogists, where Viljoen and Karvellas again show that they, through their distinctive approach to theatre, don’t shy away from topics and experiences that get people talking and thinking.
The creation of The Eulogists stems from a very personal and introspective place for Viljoen. “I wanted to write a play that doesn’t rely so much on plot or on a certain shock reveal or a twist or anything. So I wanted to explore that”. Coming to terms with the passing of a mutual friend of theirs, Viljoen started thinking a lot about death. “He was so far away, but he died, and there is a weird way that you deal with it, because you are not there with his family and you didn’t see him die, but still it feels like all of a sudden there is this emptiness that you don’t know how to deal with.” Then they also saw how I close friend had to deal with the loss of his mother, and regardless of the sadness had to carry on with his life, “because it can’t just stop.”
The Eulogists grew from there, as Viljoen took inspiration and started turning these experience into ideas, to “see how those ideas could fit into a story” in a South African context. He ended up with an author, researcher and radio correspondent all stuck in a small town, awaiting the death of a great statesman, so creating the context wherein he could “tell the smaller story by exploring a bigger story.” A very clever approach to revealing the depth of the play, as Viljoen admits this allows him to “hide the emotional truth about a thing behind a larger story.”
Elaborating on the story-within-a-story without giving anything away, Karvellas comments on the relevancy of The Eulogists as a play today. “I think people need to come see it because of where we are as a country now. The Eulogists sort of explores a lot of themes, and a lot of discussions that are happening right now about the country… I would really want people to walk out questioning what their thoughts, beliefs and ideals are.”
Listening to Viljoen and Karvellas share their The Eulogists thoughts, it becomes clear that although this could be a very political play, it actually isn’t, at least in so far as it isn't political for the sake of being political. Viljoen explains that it wasn’t written to be about politics, but that the political influences hover on the periphery of the characters and their experiences and opinions by “reflecting what is happening without having to state it”.
Ultimately, the purpose of the play is to hold up a mirror, as is the way Karvellas views Viljoen’s style of writing in general. He sees Viljoen’s approach to storytelling as providing “insight into human nature and maybe more often than not the dark part of human nature – but that’s a really important part of us, because that darkness drives us.” Drawing that understanding into The Eulogists, Karvellas gives a hint of what audiences can expect, “It is not about a space, it’s not about The Eulogists exploring this particular event. It just goes, in this room, at this time, at this made-up event, and then discussions start. And that’s what for me is going to make the audience feel something, because that’s what Louis’ writing does”.
The Viljoen and Karvellas recipe of clear vision, mutual respect for each other’s skills and an understanding of why theatre is such a powerful medium to make people think about that which makes them feel uncomfortable, is why The Eulogists is a much anticipated production.
Starring Emily Child, Pierre Malherbe and Kiroshan Naidoo, Viljoen’s The Eulogists will take to the stage under direction of Karvellas from 30 May to 24 June 2017 at the Fugard Thetare. Tickets are available at Computicket.