After working together on Louis Viljoen’s acclaimed play, The Pervert Laura, Emily Child and Nicholas Pauling reunite for Viljoen’s latest psychological mystery, The Hucksters, which premieres at Alexander Upstairs on 22 July 2019.
Child and Pauling play Beth and Fred who run into each after a number of years. What starts off as a romantic, booze-fueled, casual sexual encounter, slowly begins to unravel as their history catches up with them. One would then assume that it’s not only a fervently expressive play, but also an emotive one with characters who cut into each other with the witty, gritty and rapid monologues associated with a Viljoen text.
The emotion that comes from the text, both Child and Pauling agrees, is not something they add to the play, explaining that when it comes to a Viljoen play they don’t bring anything more to it than appreciating and embracing the text itself.
‘If we place emotion on top of Louis’ description, I think it takes away from the clarity’, Child explains.
‘Everything is so specific and written so clearly that if you just say the words the audience will feel what your character is saying —because it’s written so specifically, written so carefully. The image is clear without you having to place additional feeling on top of that… the feeling comes out on its own.’
Pauling has a similar perspective, because Viljoen’s style —as reflected in The Hucksters— is so exact. He equates it to something like a Pinter, Albee, or Shakespeare in distinctive style.
‘It’s not just a random selection of words. The repetition, the alliteration, the stacking of images and the stacking of arguments in The Hucksters is so much part of Louis’ style with the back and forth that you don’t need to add any more emotion to the pictures created. If you utilise his words, then it really kind of sings; there’s a sense of it just being.’
For Child that’s all key to Viljoen’s heightened style, which she believes is not something you should try to naturalise: In The Hucksters it’s simply ‘real-time, in the moment, two people talking’. It’s the sense of urgency that this brings to the play that Child finds exciting. Pauling also finds that this heightened excited sense clearly reflects in Fred and Beth’s exchange:
‘No one is that smart, no one speaks that clearly. The characters are very clever and that’s why they’re very dangerous. If you try and naturalise how they are speaking you undercut the impact and the story. I also like the fact —as in most of Louis’ plays— that neither Fred nor Beth is stronger than the other.’
The equal standing of both characters is an important element for Child too:
‘I think Louis writes in a way that makes the characters equally as fierce, but also equally as vulnerable. Fred and Beth are both vulnerable in different ways and they balance each other out in a way you’d never think is possible considering the circumstances.’
Exploring the fact that The Hucksters doesn’t play out in a setting where a dominant character overpowers and undermines a weaker one, Pauling explains that that neutrality is actually the beauty of it all. Even though Viljoen’s writing can be seen as aggressive by some, that's not to be confused as aggressive through a masculine lens.
‘It’s just a very graphic, very human lens. To say women don’t talk like that, or people don’t talk like that, that’s not the point. The point is not about how humans talk, it’s about how they interact. And this is the language where these people in Viljoen’s plays live’.
Child finds that Viljoen’s tone allows you to engage with his subject matter:
‘He speaks to the human condition. Fred and Beth are just two humans in a room dealing with something as a matter of urgency. It’s not about being a man or a woman. Both sexes are equally driven, equally sexed, equally confused, equally vulnerable.’
In addition to their cleverness and the equal stance of the characters, Pauling believes —as reflected in the title of the play— that Beth and Fred are dangerous because they ‘are not to be trusted… they have information and they use it very carefully to get at each other’.
In that lies the psychological mystery for Child:
‘You’re never entirely sure what the truth is. Even though we as the actors will try and speak in the style of the truth of the moment for Beth and Fred, it’s completely unpredictable. You never completely side with just one. Beth and Fred are in a metaphorical ring and they’re essentially fighting to the death through their arguments. I think it’s interesting for the audience to explore that with them, because you very rarely get this level of openness. That’s why it’s such a riveting play!’
Although both characters may be selling lies to each other, clear perspectives do reveal themselves in a twisted way. For Child, Beth’s perspective is about taking ownership of the past, each on their own terms, ‘as opposed for being told how to deal with memories’.
‘The memories that underpin their verbal sparring is quite controversial, but I love the argument around it because it affects everyone in many different ways.’
Pauling finds that the lies they’re selling also go beyond just what they’re each trying to sell the other:
‘It’s also about what they sell to themselves and how their history informs their present: What do you choose to ignore? What do you choose to absorb? How do you define yourself?’
Although the arguments raised by the characters may be heavy, driven by what Child describes as ‘two opposite sides of horrifying events’, Pauling believes that it’s not simply all dramatically dark, as ‘the play is fun, grimy and great’.
Because of all these overlapping facets and facades, Child describes The Hucksters as ‘a riveting, edge of your seat drama. It’s urgent, it’s enthralling, it’s immediate, it’s confronting… not all darkness and doom; it’s actually quite funny in parts,’ with Pauling adding:
‘You know what, it’s funny until it isn’t. And that’s what theatre should always be.’
The Hucksters run at Alexander Upstairs at the Alexander Bar, Café & Thetare from 22 July to 3 August 2019. For more information on the play, visit www.thehucksters.co.za. Tickets available online at www.alexanderbar.co.za.
Please note that the play contains strong language and sexual content. Herbal cigarettes are also used.
(Photos by Alma Nel.)