Actress, Renate Stuurman, is a well-known and much loved face on South Africa’s small and big screens, but she has briefly exchanged that world for the theatre. She is currently gracing the Baxter Theatre stage in the Naledi Award-winning Suddenly the Storm, alongside Paul Slabolepszy and Charmaine Weir-Smith, as the mysterious, Namhla Gumede.
Unlike television and film, the stage only gives you one opportunity to tell the story to a specific audience. Stuurman’s love for the theatre is rooted in exactly that, the fact that you get no second chances to establish that connection. It is the live performance element of theatre that draws her in; the action-reaction immediacy of it all when the performer steps in front of the audience.
“I read somewhere film is the director's medium, television is the writer's medium and theatre is the actor's medium”, Stuurman elaborates, “it's the only time where as an actor you have the time and space to do the in-depth work required to create the character.”
In Suddenly the Storm, she applies that character creation skill to a very complex Namhla, who the audience first meets as a guarded journalist who grew up in exile, who has them wondering… Is she playing her cards close to her chest as a professional tactic or to protect her heart?
The intrigue that forms part of Namhla’s persona, makes it a challenge to draw the audience in to her world. In unpacking this challenge, Stuurman focusses on the passion behind Namhla’s mysterious demeanor. “Namhla is a truth seeker, she's very passionate about getting to the truth of what she's after. Her dignity and integrity and her passion around getting answers is what draws audiences further into her story and so they start to realise who she is as a character.”
Without giving too much away, one can reveal that Namhla has a very interesting dynamic with both Dwayne (Slabolepszy) and Shanell (Weir-Smith), the very volatile husband and wife duo in this play, which Stuurman reveals is part of the dramatic undercurrent of this production. “On paper it would seem that Namhla should have no connection to either Dwayne or Shanell”, she explains. “They are a million miles away from her geographically, emotionally and socially, but it's interesting that Shanell and Namhla find topics of conversation that they both connect on, one their absent husbands, two the fact that they're childless, and three that they're both searching for answers but for different things. Namhla also connects with Dwayne for a variety of other reasons, but you'll have to come and see the play to find out what those are...”
Apart from the unexpected dynamics, character developments and plot twists, the play brings another element into the mix, in the way it develops and reveals dramatic moments. It has a strong cinematic feel that is accentuated through the award-winning stage, lighting and sound design. Stuurman finds that the cinematic style embraced by the play, makes it easier for audiences to fully immerse themselves in the tale that links the three main characters as they face the demons of their past and present, as “all the elements of the play are crucial to the telling of the story”.
Through all these elements, Suddenly the Storm, similar to well-known plays such as Athol Fugard’s Statements or John Kani’s Missing, addresses themes of regret, displacement, police brutality, the impact of the apartheid's years on mixed race couples and also the personal loss people suffered because of South Africa's sad past. Though similar in that context, Stuurman shares that Suddenly the Storm is as powerful yet unique in its presentation and perspective of these themes, as it focusses on the way in which these emotionally still resonate with South Africans in this current time, climate and search for community.
“As Namhla says in the play, ‘...you're not still waiting for that one moment, deep in your heart, when at least, please God longing gives way to belonging...’ The idea of identity, home, belonging are themes that resonate with people from all walks of life and these are some of the themes that have had such a powerful impact on the audiences of Suddenly the Storm.”
So understood, the play takes a strong stance within the realm of theatre as commentary and the voice it gives to important societal issues – a voice to which the character of Namhla strongly adds. Stuurman ascribes the impact of that voice to the fact that “Suddenly the Storm is a universal play because it ticks all the boxes of relationships: the complexities in relationships, dysfunctional relationships and identity. We had a group of Americans in our audience recently and they completely identified with the play even though the story and context is so completely South African. This story transcends the borders of this country.”
In this transcendent manner, Suddenly the Storm aims to give audiences a theatrical experience that takes them through the full range of emotions. “They will laugh until their stomachs hurt, they will be moved to tears and they will get a slice of truly South African life”, Stuurman captures this journey.
It is however not only audiences that gain a lot from the Suddenly the Storm experience. The play has influenced Stuurman too, both personally and as performer.
“Getting under skin of Namhla Gumede has been a beautiful journey of creativity for me. The complexity of unraveling Namhla from the page to developing the fully-fledged character on stage, under the expert guidance of Bobby Heaney, our director, has been an immensely rewarding experience for me both professionally and personally. It has allowed me to grow as an actor and it continues to do so. As actors, you never know who you're going to be cast with and I feel on this production we've been quite blessed by the combination of play, cast and director. We have a wonderful chemistry, we understand each other's working processes and so it's been a very nurturing and trusting exercise.”
It is clear that Stuurman has truly connected and invested in the production and her character Namhla, and she brings that strong connection to stage every night as she connects with the audience (and their reactions) to this “compelling, riveting, hilarious” play at the Baxter Theatre until 8 July 2017. Book at Computicket to share in her Suddenly the Storm experience.