The Eulogists, currently showing at the Fugard Theatre, sees the accidental author Audrey (Emily Child), story-hunting ‘American’ radio correspondent Harris (Pierre Malherbe) and disillusioned young political researcher Zee (Kiroshan Naidoo), descend on a small town along with the rest of the world media, as they await the death of great statesman. Each bring with them their own personal perspective. Anticipating and obsessing about the inevitable, they find themselves in a cheap room with but a few bottles of wine and their agendas: Their interactions inevitably turn a bit hot-blooded and explosive.
In an earlier interview with playwright Louis Viljoen and director Greg Karvellas about this production, Viljoen shared that The Eulogists is constructed to reveal a “smaller story by exploring a bigger story”, while Karvellas explained the intent is to have people “walk out questioning what their thoughts, beliefs and ideals are”.
Contemplating the impact of this production, one must admit it isn’t a ‘pretty’ play and won’t leave you feeling warm and fuzzy. As is the uncomfortable yet fascinating characteristic of most of Viljoen’s creations, this one again puts on display the dark side of human nature. Although with The Eulogists Viljoen appears not take that aspect as far as in some of his other plays – this perhaps being one of his most mainstream plays to date – it does leave you with a sense of unease, questioning reality and your understanding of it all. At various moments and to varying degrees (depending on which character you most associate with) you find yourself confronted with that dark mouldy motel feeling that crawls over your skin and makes you shudder a bit in recognition of some truths.
Distracting you with their retreat to the demands of the flesh in avoidance of soul and conscience, the gritty, rude and crude (re)actions, delusions and lies of Audrey and Harris make you pause and question if all is what it appears to be, as Zee challenges their beliefs and intentions. As the dynamics shift you start to question, which is it the smaller or the bigger story? The constant transferal of focus keeps you guessing. Everything from the strong acting to the reality driven set, sound and lighting design adds to you swaying between disgust and compassion (even self-recognition) as it all unfolds in an unsettling context.
Although the play is not about politics per se, it does highlight the emotional reaction of the three characters to their anxiety within a politically couched conversation. One may argue that in unpacking the (loss of a) voice of a generation, The Eulogists highlights the high stress occupational hazard of being a political journalist or researcher, but you may not be looking deep enough. The true gems of this production is found in the personal tug-of-war (underneath the public façade) that this play chisels away at, until it punches you with the revelation and power of the true relationship at the heart of it all in the last 10 minutes.
What appears to be an uneven playing field eventually tips the scale in an unexpected way in this triad of contradictions, as they unpack power struggles, gender roles, the democratic ideal and more. In their performances all three actors bring a cold, somewhat harsh, even detached delivery that takes some getting use to at first, but perhaps that detachment is a necessary audience experience to allow buy-in into the calculated moves of their characters.
The Eulogists reveals both a genuineness and genius in its generic conceptualisation. Never giving away country, statesman identity or even town name, the play leaves it open to the audience to fill in the blanks. This makes the play easily relatable but in so doing also calls on the audience to do a bit more work than generally required when watching such a multilayered production. Depending on your state of mind, you may leave feeling either empowered by the free will or confused by the gaps.
It definitely does not shy away from showing the motel stained ugly side of people’s fears and their need to control the presentation of memory moments when they feel they are losing their grip on their version of reality. First you think you are but an observer until that very last moment when you realise the grubby motel mirror has crawled ever closer and you are staring into the same set of circumstances as the three characters… but what are your reactions? How do you reveal your inner most fears in that inevitable moment of ‘abandonment?’
The theatrical version of the trias politica, this production has each character thinking they are independent, yet each seeking recognition of the self in the other individually, but also collectively in the ailing leader’s impact on their lives.
A thought provoking death-watch driven commentary, The Eulogists may not be everyone’s cup-of-tea, but it will have everyone who sees it talking. A portrait of an existential crisis, it all comes down to the introspective subjective question of every individual audience member’s incomparable perspective and reaction to this play and the life of the person passing. Is it luck? Are we all insignificant? Or is the relative hiding in the abstraction?
The Eulogists, the most recent creative collaboration of playwright Louis Viljoen and director Greg Karvellas, is showing at the Fugard Theatre until 24 June 2017 with tickets available at Computicket.