The Smell of Apples was Mark Behr’s debut novel, published in 1993, as South Africa was just getting a taste of democracy and the ideals it encapsulates. That same year saw it translated and published in Afrikaans as Die reuk van appels. This translation has now made its way to the stage, courtesy of Theatrerocket Productions, with the award-winning Gideon Lombard impressing audiences with this, his debut solo performance, under the direction of Lara Bye. We asked Lombard about his creative journey to become the character, Marnus Erasmus, (the conflicted 11-year-old son of a South African Defence Force general) in this coming of age story.
Following its debut performance at the KKNK 2017, audiences have been raving about this emotive production. But given the context and setting it's not an obvious choice for an audience favourite, or so one would think. Isn't it very dated, with this 1993 novel giving expression to a story set in the late 1970s and early 1980s of South Africa's history? “I think one can contemplate that question in relation to the things and conversation that still have not happened”, Lombard reflects. And he is right, whether this production touches the heart or hits a nerve (or both, as it sometimes should), it ultimately all makes sense, as audiences do see it unfold in the context of a bygone era, but primarily experience it through a very specific set of eyes.
“Even though there is a lot of documentary information about the grensoorlog (border war), it is the conversation about where it leaves us today that still needs to happen. The consequences of a very violent history is still being revealed and the truly difficult conversations are only starting now. I actually wish the themes weren’t relevant anymore.” Unfortunately, the brutal consequences of apartheid, the militarisation of South African life and related conversations are regularly ignored and suppressed, so the unspoken keeps coming back stronger every time. This is where Lombard believes the power and impact of this play lies, in encouraging that conversation to happen… even if years delayed.
In facilitating this conversation, Johann Smith, adapted the book for stage, extracting most of the dialogue to stay true to Behr’s vision, while transforming it into a theatrical narrative. No small task to turn “a novel into a play when reworking the themes and choosing which of those must stay and which are lost along the way”, Lombard contextualises the process. To allow for further depth in the development of the text, “the creative team was allowed to make some structural changes too. Here and there some aspects where merged together to make the dramatic contrasts more theatrical and immediate.” Other than that, Lombard ensures that the play stays true to the novel.
This being Lombard’s first solo performance project, he professes himself very fortunate for the guidance of director, Lara Bye: “It was absolutely wonderful to work with Lara. She created a very safe framework within which I could play, make mistakes, and discover the piece.” As this was not the first time the Theatre Fates placed Lombard and Bye on the same project, this preparation journey was extra special for Lombard, as there already existed a common theatrical vocabulary with which Lombard and Bye could easily communicate – strengthening the creative connection between performer and director, resulting in a shared vision. “From the start we both wanted Marnus to be very authentic." Instead of focussing on Lombard bridging the age gap between him and Marnus, they decided to "focus on the psychological aspects of his child-like character. We focussed more on his innocence and his fascination with the world around him, from his age perspective, rather than me merely trying to play an 11 year old.”
As Marnus shares his experiences with the audience through his eyes, he also introduces other characters as he perceives them. But which of these ‘interactions’ influence Marnus and his coming of age experience most meaningfully in Lombard’s view? “That’s a difficult question”, Lombard declares. “Continuously, throughout the piece, everyone gets an opportunity to stand out and highlight their specific role and purpose in the development of Marnus. Only when considering the collective contribution of all the characters can one really appreciate their full impact on the story. I will however admit that what stands out for me more and more is the change in the relationship he has with his parents.”
Apart from that, Lombard reveals that what personally strikes him most in the text and the staging of Die Reuk van Appels is the specificity with which the age of Marnus is accurately portrayed. “One can only create a complete character if you are given a detailed map. The text has been written with so much insight that it has made me remember things I experienced at that age – things I have completely forgotten about.”
The use of a child-narrator grants the audience a unique opportunity to approach the story from that perspective. Reflecting on this Lombard shares, “I actually think the story is constructed to move between Marnus’s perspective and the viewer’s knowledge of what is actually happening. The audience is also a few steps ahead of the main character. In other words, what is an everyday, innocent experience for Marnus, the audience already identifies as something with possible consequences. I think perhaps the frustrating part of the piece is that one is observing a child (as he is given complex, even dark, information), and as the audience you are helpless to do anything about it.”
Ultimately, Lombard wants the story to linger with audiences. “I believe the work is so strong that I don’t need to force my personal opinion about the material on others. I actually don’t like it when theatre tries to force an opinion, but I must admit that this piece has made me pause and reflect on the responsibility society and parents have towards children. Children have the capacity to take in everything and quickly make sense of the world around them. So, we have a responsibility to surround them with healthy, stimulating and beautiful things in life.” Die reuk van appels highlights this societal responsibility by displaying the contrast: What happens when people, especially children, are threatened and betrayed?
South African, and especially Cape Town, theatre-lovers have had the privilege of seeing Lombard grow from his first days onstage in Miskien to the impressive solo performer that now takes on the award-winning role of Marnus in Die reuk van appels. Lombard admits that every role he has had the pleasure of playing – including everything from the very successful to the more trying experiences – has presented him with challenges and lessons that has brought him to this moment, a journey for which he is very thankful.
Catch Gideon Lombard in Die reuk van appels, as it premiers in Cape Town at the Fugard Studio from 17 October 2017. It will be staged in Afrikaans with English surtitles. Tickets are already available through Computicket. Bookings can also be made at the Fugard Theatre box office on 021 461 4554. There is a generous 15% discount available for the Friends of the Fugard members. Please note that the production carries an age restriction of 16 (sex, nudity, strong language, violence and prejudice).