The one-woman play, Moedertaal, is the realisation of a collaborative theatre dream. It is built on the friendship that developed between Nico Scheepers and Sandra Prinsloo. Much like the character Nellie, there has been a life journey to this play too: From when they both worked on the Wordsmith’s Theatre Factory production, Verewig en Altyd, to when they showed the workshopped festival version of Moedertaal at the KKNK, until now with the fully evolved production finding its perfect theatre home at the intimate Fugard Studio.
Although Moedertaal was originally workshopped for the 2017 KKNK, it was way before Scheepers and Prinsloo even knew their creative vision would be called Moedertaal that they set off on the path to create theatre together. Scheepers relates that their friendship (which eventually resulted in Moedertaal) is rooted in them travelling together to the Bellville Civic Centre at that time of Verewig en Altyd, “because I’m poor and young and don’t have transport, so Sandra picked me up on the way to the theatre every day. We had long conversations in the car.”
Scheepers shares that he wanted to work with Prinsloo since that time already, because “we just talked a lot of nonsense”. “I thought our conversations were quite deep”, Prinsloo wittily interjects, revealing that they have a very special banter-driven, yet also caring and honest bond. Scheepers admits that he was once during their Moedertaal-journey “chastised by email" for wanting to reschedule rehearsals, "and rightfully so”. “It was a short one though”, Prinsloo says with a glint in her eyes. Scheepers retorts that actors tend to want to kill him for changing dialogue a few days before opening nights anyway, with Prinsloo responding: “Stout, stout, stout, but honestly, we’ve never struggled to work together. I never wanted to kill you though, not really.” Just witnessing this casual and comfortable exchange reveals that their personalities, perspectives and experience balance each other out in a very unique creative way.
Getting back to Moedertaal, Scheepers candidly admits, “at first this play was six characters and it was a big family drama, and I thought, ‘Awe it’s going to be amazing’, and it wasn’t.” Yet Scheepers and Prinsloo continued talking theatre, and the question was never if but rather when their collaboration would see a stage. “Then at the Free State Arts Festival last year, Sandra finally watched my play Rooivalk. That was the most stressful performance we ever had, because it was her, Hennie [van Greunen], Pedro [Kruger], Rolanda [Marais], Tinarie [Van Wyk-Loots], everyone. Everyone who is good in a row watching Rooivalk. Afterwards Sandra just came to me, bawling, saying, ‘Let’s just do a show! Let’s just do it. Write something!’.”
Intercepting the Moedertaal origin story for just a moment, Prinsloo firmly states that the award-winning “Rooivalk also needs to get into a theatre. Something like that, in a space like [the Fugard Studio], would be wonderful”. This statement being even more profound when one takes into account that it is Rooivalk’s development and staging that made it unequivocally clear to Prinsloo that she wanted to perform something written and directed by Scheepers. After Prinsloo’s response to Rooivalk, their theatre collaboration-dream gained new momentum.
Scheepers started playing with an idea that had been lingering: he wanted to write a play as tribute to his aunt. So it came about that his aunt, also called Nellie, inspired him to create the fictional Nellie that we meet in Moedertaal. He describes his creative process, whether it be Rooivalk or Moedertaal, as always using a bit of reality as the foundation for his plays. “When you look at Rooivalk there is fictional stuff and there is true stuff in it. I will never reveal which is which, but the true stuff inspires the story and then the fictional stuff takes over completely. So the person who knows, will watch it and know, but nobody else will – it’s like a tightly interwoven quilt of fiction and truth. It is the same thing with Moedertaal, where I got inspired by my aunt", who Prinsloo herself also knows from their days at the University of Pretoria.
It is actually thanks to Aunt Nellie that the theatre world has the privilege of experiencing the way in which Scheepers weaves words into stories. “I had to go live at their house when I was six years old. My Aunt Nellie did the ATKV Tienertoneel at the High School – she’s an English teacher – so she took me to rehearsals three times a week, and that’s where everything started. As I was six, and being in that environment, it was like making fire with flint…"
Reflecting on that time spent with his Aunt Nellie, Moerdertaal started taking form: "What I find most fascinating about her – which I’ve tried to emulate with this play, especially in its current incarnation – is that she is a very small person, and that it’s a very small story, but when you look close enough at any person’s story it becomes an epic. So that’s what I tried to do, to elevate her, to immortalise her in some way or form by telling a small story in such a way that it becomes something bigger.” Explaining how she sees the character Nellie, so inspired, Prinsloo comments that the Moedertaal Nellie “is not a heroic character, and yet in living her life there is something incredibly heroic about the way she lives and how she comes to terms with loss”, the loss both of her child and her husband.
With reference to that loss, Scheepers confesses that writing about the loss of her child was the hardest part of the play, “because you sit there going, ‘How do you put this to paper, whilst and without referencing what came before?'. Especially now, you’ll see how we do the scene, it is the only scene that has almost no light – it literally just happens, it’s just completely raw in trying not to guild it like the rest of the play.”
Both Scheepers and Prinsloo agree that the accentuation of that rawness is perhaps one of the most pivotal changes that flowed from the KKNK run. As a play, it is quite an emotional rollercoaster, but it does gift the audience small bits of humour as a form of relief in tension and tempo. In fact Prinsloo comments, “there is a bit more humour now”, while for Scheepers the impact is also better, as “there is a bit more brevity” while the rawness of her sadness “clings to her a bit like an odour”.
I comment that from the moment you meet Nellie, you sense that there is inevitable loss to be revealed. Though agreeing with that, Scheepers also qualifies, “she’s not nihilistic or pessimistic, but it’s more that she has her bricks [or stones]: she has the brick of her child, she has the brick of her husband. And because she’ll never let go of those bricks, she has the weight on her all the time.” That for Prinsloo is further emphasised in the way Scheepers structured the storyline, “because the story starts at the end, and then works back again. So when you see her for the first time, she is already in a very different space from where she would have been at the beginning of her story, when she’s young and in love. She’s already, as Nico said, carrying those stones in her pockets. She’s already gone through everything, and in fact she is ready to not live anymore.”
In giving expression to Nellie’s feeling of sadness, without a sense of melancholy, but rather a sense of finality, they have also tweaked the first scene’s monologue to better compliment Prinsloo’s physical gestures. “There is quite a bit of monologue that has been added to the beginning, which I think clarifies a lot” of Nellie's journey and progression from idealist to realist, explains Prinsloo. In a way, it grounds the audience to help them understand the loss to be revealed, but also hints to her “desire to no longer be here. And not because she is depressed, just because she thinks it’s pointless.”
For Prinsloo, Moedertaal is a reflection of “a big love affair. I mean there is a huge love story [between Nellie and Johannes] that starts when they are at school and only ends much later in life when they are both quite old.” The death of their son, Roelfie, hurts Nellie, but seeing her husband morn him (with Nellie almost looking in from the outside) and then losing Johannes (the love of her life), “is the most shattering experience, because she’s practically living with a dead person – everything that was is still alive, but no longer what it was. And she never actually lets go of him… she just wants to join him.”
“Yes, she would actually like to join him, because she clang to this man her whole life”, Scheepers agrees with Prinsloo, but also explains that Moerdertaal reveals truths through veiled parallels. He shares that in continuing to work on the script post KKNK, he himself “realised that Nellie deals with loss in a very Afrikaans way: an almost necessary guilding of pain in a sheen of nostalgia as a way of coping, to cling to what they consider safe… Nellie does that for as long as she can, but everything in her life chips away at that, at the romanticism, even the liberal way she tries to raise her child. At the end of the day, for me, it is basically a story about surviving for as long as you can.”
This all manifest in Nellie’s very solitary, intimate conundrum: “Why am I still here? What is there for me here? Nothing.” In dealing with this weighty question and emotional topic – one that subtly sees Nellie plea to the ocean for ways to euthanise her emotional pain – Scheepers and Prinsloo are of one mind that the Fugard Studio is the perfect setting for Moedertaal.
“Moedertaal greatly benefits for this space”, Scheepers explains while reflecting on the fact that festivals rarely have enough intimate spaces that compliment productions of such a very personal nature. The Fugard “is lovely”, Prinsloo responds, the play “really does benefit from this space; I can feel it too.”
Unlike festival scenarios where audiences came to see an emotive show like Moedertaal after nine other festival productions – which results in them not being as open to listening to the narrative as one would want – Scheepers (much like his Cape Town staging of Hemelruim earlier this year), finds creative solace in the fact that when audiences now come see Moedertaal at the Fugard, they are in the right frame of mind to experience it. They intentionally come out for a night at the theatre. With that mindset they sit, they listen, and the pay attention, which is what Scheepers believes ultimately allows them to be moved by Nellie in Moedertaal, as the story unfolds in the Fugard's hallowed theatre space.
To experience the very moving, poetic Moedertaal, which is powerful in its honesty of character and theme, book your tickets at Computicket to see it before run ends 2 December 2017.