Scene It: Sainthood, a Dead Poet Society type SA look inside the locker-room of the all-boys school culture

February 8, 2019

Sainthood, currently onstage at the Baxter Theatre, is a cry for and by the youth of South Africa. It provocatively and evocatively interrogates all-boys school culture by following a series of locker-room, dorm-room, and classroom interactions from the multiple perspectives of five fictional matric boys (in the fictional private school of St Gabriel's School for Boys) through a non-fictional narrative.


As the Sainthood press blurb states, this is not a play that tries to tell a new story; it aims to highlight social-issue scenarios that are sadly still prevalent in our schools (and specifically unisex school) culture. The play's fictional telling takes the form of an overlapping multi-plot narrative inspired by real-life stories from books, newspaper articles, and anonymous interviews by ‘saints’ boys.


Written and directed by Tiisetso Mashifane wa Noni, the play is intentionally provocative in its focus on the South African contextualised issues of sexuality, race, and history. Sainthood addresses these issues by taking a look at the relationships of its five fictional high school boys with each other, as well as their relationships with authority figures, parental influences, and the outside world and it’s social pressures to ‘be a man’ and ‘be one of the boys’. 

Without giving too much away about the reveal at the end of Sainthood, the chosen plot twist exposes questions to be answered, rather than providing any form of resolve. The final scene leaves the audience with a sense of unease as the main indictment against the status quo... because, as the saying goes, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men [and women] to do nothing". The unspoken question lingers: What can society do to address the injustices running through the schools system and (literally and figuratively) breaking the young voices we're supposed to be supporting into adulthood.


It would be interesting to see how that injustice angle could be further explored if the focus of this succinct multi-perspective play were to be placed on one of the fictional boys as the main protagonist (as champion of the broader cause and idea) and his plot then be further explored and given more depth through the experiences of the other boys providing context for the main plot.


As a play that relies heavily on physical theatre and choral elements, there is strong emotive expression in the simultaneous execution of the ensemble’s Sainthood message both in choreography and in spoken word. The opening scene in particular is striking as it reveals that undertone of fear and confusion in an almost angst-driven 'dance'.


While watching the play, I kept thinking that the premise of Sainthood reminded me a lot of the movie Dead Poet Society, that is, if the boys in the movie did not have the guidance of Mr Keating’s supportive presence, but rather a power-driven bully as a teacher that did not protect them from the tradition- and image-driven headmaster, Mr Nolan (a character that has a mirror echo in Sainthood). In fact, there are strong Neil Perry, Knox Overstreet, and Charlie ‘Nuwanda’ Dalton character traits at play in the interactions of the school boys of Sainthood. These traits become more and more evident as the dramatic ending, implied at the beginning of the play, fully reveals itself throughout the course of its 55 minute run.

Pair those type of dynamics with the presence of songs from The Social Network movie soundtrack, and one can see the appeal and standing of Sainthood as a strong theatrical voice for a specific age group and view point. This movie-soundtrack link left me with the impression that that association brings into the Sainthood mix a reminder of the fast-paced online presence and pressure that the youth these days have to deal with, in addition to the family and school demands to toe-the-line, achieve, and not fight-the-system.


As with most issue-theatre productions, the ideal audience for Sainthood is not necessarily the people who will go see it out of their own accord, but rather the ones who should see it and will shy away from the spotlight it places on all-boys schools culture and the negative developmental impact of that culture on the human rights and dignity of our youth. One hopes that this play will tour schools too after its Baxter Theatre run, to reach out to those who want to be heard and those who must hear.


Sainthood, starring recent UCT Graduates Mphumzi Nontshinga, Simphiwe Shabalala, Cullum McCormack, Tevin Musara, and Adam Lennox, runs at the Baxter Golden Arrow Theatre until 23 February 2019. Tickets are available online through Webtickets.


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