The Magnet Theatre trainees are set to shine in Frederich Dürrenmatt’s classic tragicomedy The Visit. Co-director Mark Fleishman shares some thoughts on this rare opportunity to see the Swiss masterpiece, which will be performed by seventeen members of the next generation of South African performers (all in their second and final year on Magnet’s Training and Job Creation Programme) on 15 and 16 June 2018.
Fleishman was involved in performance and the performing arts throughout his school years, but it was only once he left school that he decided to turn his love of theatre into a career. ‘I left school and realised that I would probably never do it again unless I did it as a career. It wasn’t something that you did in your life if you chose another career.’ It only seems appropriate, then, that someone with Fleishman’s deep-rooted passion for theatre be tasked to teach others how to turn theatre into a career.
The Magnet Theatre is also a very special theatre space within which to do such a passion and skills transfer. As a training hub, Magnet Theatre focuses on the enhancement of theatre, as well as the development and empowerment of performers.
‘Most of the trainees and graduates call Magnet their home, which I think explains a lot about what we manage to do here,’ Fleishman elaborates. ‘Magnet Theatre is the only bridging program of its kind in theatre in the Western Cape. It brings young people who would have difficult access to tertiary training closer to those institutions. We have managed to get 25 first-time university attendees in their families into university and [we have] increased employment radically for the other graduates.’ By opening industry doors to young talent, Magnet Theatre ‘affirms the individual voices and creative talents of the participants so that they feel that their own stories have value and are the stuff of theatre’.
In sharing his teachings with Magnet Theatre trainees, the focus falls on physical theatre as the preferred style. ‘I am interested in the idea of the collective and the idea of the chorus, working together in an ensemble.’ As a company, Magnet Theatre players are known for their preference to present work they have made on the floor themselves. While still valuing the performance character of the company and his personal style of theatre, Fleishman explains that their staging of The Visit sees a departure from their normal approach, as it presents a production that has been ‘devised or adapted from somewhere else’.
As the second major 2018 production task for Magnet Theatre trainees, Fleishman sees their The Visit staging as ‘an opportunity to challenge the trainees to work in a different way; a way they will encounter when they leave the training programme and are working in the industry.’ The production calls on the trainees to truly engage with the script; interpreting it and considering how to work with it. ‘That was the starting point of the class task,’ Fleishman shares; ‘a challenge to the student, the actor in training’.
The need for trainers and trainees to break out of their comfort zone aligns with Dürrenmatt's dramatic style. ‘Dürrenmatt was quite clear, even though he had written a very well-made play; he wanted the style of staging to break with the normal conventions of staging, of realism. So, for example, in the 1950s, having the actors change the set in front of the audience or having actors playing birds and animals in the forest was considered to be quite avant garde and groundbreaking —today it is less unusual.’
So, by departing from the norm for both the company and the text, the Magnet Theatre trainees (under the guidance of co-directors Fleishman and Warona Seane) will present The Visit as a relevant and relatable story for South African audiences.
‘The Visit is a play about justice,’ says Fleishman; ‘about what to do about events that happened in the past that continue to have an impact on the present. It’s also a piece about women and men, and how men treat women. It speaks to this moment where issues of historical abuse are coming out. And there seem to be more consequences now than there have been in the past.’
That past-to-present philosophical angle is woven through the narrative of ‘a woman who is badly treated by a man’, but who, thanks to a change in circumstances, can now ‘seek reparation in some way,’ to quote Fleishman. In unpacking this narrative, The Visit addresses question of vengeance and restitution.
‘All of these are clearly questions that are relevant in relation to our own history as a country coming out of Apartheid,’ says Fleishman. ‘How do we deal with our unresolved past? Is there a statute of limitations on what has happened? But the play also deals with the question of corruption and how money corrupts —how people’s principles and values change when money comes into the question. It asks questions about poverty and what lengths people might go to.’
In engaging with these themes and questions, Fleishman asserts that The Visit is ‘a challenge for the trainees to have to imagine themselves in another context’. ‘There has been a gradual realisation of the power of the story, and that the story makes sense to them in some kind of a way. The richness of it is that it can belong to any context.’
Along with a versatile context and providing the trainees with the opportunity to engage with these ever relevant questions, it must be kept in mind that in addressing the drama, Dürrenmatt penned The Visit with a comedic stroke, too. In pointing out the serious and dark points through comedy —a genre of theatre often misunderstood as only presenting frivolous entertainment— the play uses that style as a powerful theatrical conduit to highlight important social issues.
‘I like the play because it’s kind of in this moral in-between place,’ says Fleishman. ‘It’s funny, it’s not just this heavy tragedy … It’s tragic, but also I’m laughing while I’m doing it. And then it hits you —why are you laughing? This isn’t funny.’
Fleishman hopes that ‘like any theatre’, their presentation of The Visit —in addressing reality in moments where comedy meets contemplation— will call on audiences to ‘recognise aspects of their own lives and context, corruption, need, greed, and the desire to cover up and forget a crime,’ because ‘it’s a story that follows through its logic to its extreme’.
Although The Visit doesn’t reach an explicit ‘Ah! We’ve all learnt our lesson now’ moment, Fleishman emphasises that it also ‘doesn’t let anybody off the hook’.
‘We try to implicate the audience in this as well so that they can understand that we are all responsible. We are the people; we are responsible. The audience will make their own conclusions about where it fits in their world. For some people it might be about their local councillor and how they operate. For others it might be about broader questions about the governing elite; for others it might be about world capital and its impact on the neocolonial state of the country.’
Without giving too much away, Fleishman leaves theatre lovers with one last thought in the hope that people will book through Webtickets to see the Magnet Theatre trainees perform The Visit on 15 & 16 June:
‘I think [in] more than just one aspect, it is such a well-made play, beautifully written … and the story really carries the audience along. There are many wonderful lines and moments.’