As you walk into the Baxter Golden Arrow Theatre, you encounter the anime-inspired presence of Rehane Abrahams (in a blue wig and high heels) dancing, or rather slinking, around a pole to sounds that remind you either of a casino or of a games arcade. The character on stage comes across as playful, almost coquettish, until you realise that this is a woman on display as a commodity. Then, in stark contrast to the kittenish opening, the playfulness is stripped away and Abrahams clings upside down to the pole –the womb– enveloped by darkness, not knowing what's waiting on the outside...
Womb of Fire, directed by Sara Matchett, is an epic that weaves together contemporary elements with the various trials of the mythical Draupadi, the banished slave Grote Katrijn van Pulicat, and Zara, who was sentenced by the VOC. You are first introduced to the feisty Draupadi who's father, King Drupad, simply wants to get her married (and make her another man's problem), as she is too opinionated for a woman. You soon realise, however, that you are actually listening to three voices from different times and places, all bravely making the same united plea for dignity.
Abrahams delivers her monologue without skipping an emotive beat. She moves between the pole-acrobatic and silk-wrapped expressions of her characters without ever sounding breathless. Not only is Abrahams captivating on stage; she is the epitome of a performance-fit actor. Through her commanding embodiment of Draupadi, Katrjin, and Zara, the actor challenges the audience to acknowledge the power of the female body and spirit, even when disruptive masculine power (in the form of religion, culture, government or simply the individual ‘master’) tries to suppress female self-determination and will. In the end, you want to cry out with these characters in a chorus of feminine rebellion, to make sure that their voices are forever heard as a deafening echo every time some injustice threatens to reduce another woman to mere commodity.
Craig Leo's design is minimalism taken to its insightful extreme. In fact, what you see is the absence of a set; there are merely props on this stage. Every single item has a definite purpose –there is no clutter. This stark emptiness and absence of possessions, expose Draupadi, Katrjin, and Zara as exactly that –possessions.
The same goes for Abrahams's text –every word has been considered, weighed, and measured for impact. There is nothing unjustifiably over the top in this play. It respects the narrative, and positions the three women's stories at the centre of it all in order to give a voice to those who were not heard, even though they were judged.
Although Womb of Fire is billed as a one-woman play –with the exceptional Abrahams delivering an award-winning performance with astonishing fluidity– I want to be a bit unorthodox in my view and respectfully disagree. Personally, I think there are two performers on stage; two storytellers that give form to Womb of Fire. The vocal accompaniment by Lukhanyiso Skosana is a powerful supporting presence to Abrahams's acting. Had the play merely made use of recorded sound, this would not have had the same impact. Without saying a word, Skosana sings a hypnotic story of frustration, heartache, and pain that ultimately shakes you out of your comfort zone and accentuates Abrahams’s words and movement. Together, these two are an unstoppable force that sweeps you along and makes you gasp for breath at the end of this moving play.
Womb of Fire delivers a powerful message of dignity denied without ever having to shout the moral of the story at the audience. Rather, the play allows the audience to experience the full impact of the journey themselves.
You have until 5 May 2018 to experience this impressive piece of uncluttered theatre and the great talents of Abrahams and Skosana. (The production's recent WoordTROfees awards for Best Actor, Best Director and Best Theatre Production will attest to this last assertion.) Tickets to see this epic play at the Baxter Theatre are available online through Webtickets.