With What Remains, playwright Nadia Davids tells a story that reveals how the amalgamation of colonialism, capitalism and ignorance resulted in the unearthing of the human remains of slaves… their ghosts still whispering about their lost liberty. To quote Buhle Ngaba, who plays the role of ‘The Student’, the play tells of “[b]ones, truth and revolutions”.
It is a narrative of lives – lives buried but remembered thanks to the tellings of four main characters who highlight the conscience-cost of withholding respect from the unjustly slain. These performances are commanding. The cast, guided by the direction of Jay Pather, convey a poignant narrative and conjure a striking picture in the mind’s eye.
Denise Newman, as the straight-talking 'Healer' with an off-beat sense of humour, brings just the right balance to Faniswa Yisa's opinionated yet naïve 'Archeologist' who struggles to deal with the stories told by the bones she unearths. Their experiences are threaded together by Ngaba as the narrating 'Student' who witnesses the reactions to the uprising that tremors through soil and soul, as the ghosts of the past call for the humanity they were denied so many years ago.
Though all three these performances are impressive, there is another that ‘speaks’ louder. Shaun Oelf steals the show as the mesmerizingly mournful 'Dancer'. He captivates as he expressively communicates the silent yet deafening call of the slaves from their unmarked graves. His execution of Pather’s symbolic choreography is reason enough to go see this stirring tale.
The fusion of movement and dialogue, through rhythm and pace in 12 rapidly succeeding acts, is captivating. All four creatives fully embrace their roles as they command the empty space of a starkly white (yet anything but pure) stage, with but a few camouflaged chairs as props.
The play embraces the fluidity of time, history, and the connection of people through their ever-echoing life stories. However, the stark lines of the set – which does to a degree successfully provide a blank canvas to showcase the lighting (by Wilhelm Disbergen), stills photography (John Gutierrez) and videography (by Sanjic Muftic) – do not completely mirror the same sense of infinity that resounds through the text and is amplified by the outstanding performances.
Ultimately, What Remains is a visceral, poetic, movement-driven theatrical experience with a clear voice. The play culminates in a reverential retrospective silence, as the ghosts of the slaves echo through the stunned hall.
This translation of Davids’ text to stage is artistic and tasteful. It invites, rather than summons, the audience to partake in this moving experience. The delicacy and respect with which the play treats the history it unearths, allows for the powerful and memorable unfolding of the message: the more we ignore the ghosts of the past, the louder their cries will reverberate through the fabric of society.
What Remains only has a few shows remaining in its very short run until 12 July 2017. Seating is limited, with tickets available online at Webtickets.