Scene It: Eviscerating 'The Hucksters' a blistering masterpiece

July 23, 2019

With his signature blend of obscenity, acerbic wit and penetrating socio-political comment, Louis Viljoen has again created a blistering masterpiece, and this time the theme is broadened to include psychological drama – further intellectual fodder for the audience.

 

The protagonists of this eviscerating two-hander are hucksters in more than one sense of the term: they earn a lucrative living from marketing, persuading consumers to buy products no one suspected were essential to their happiness or survival, and the most efficient tool for this is what they call “the perfect lie”. That is ignoble enough, but it becomes far more pernicious when the technique is applied to human beings as well as commodities. The resultant dishonesty is so corrosive that it can wreck an individual’s life forever.

So we meet Beth and Fred as they embark on what seems to be a cosy post-coital chat over a cigarette and several drinks; their interaction is more edgy than affectionate, possibly due to the fact that they have only recently re-connected after a period of several years (in fact, on the very evening of their current sexual congress at Beth’s residence). It does not take long before a hint of venom creeps into their dialogue, with reference to a man named Lucas, sometime friend of Fred… Then begins a veritable tsunami of verbal violence, self-flagellation, defensive parrying and denial as the past is revisited, and recollections of a shared incident haunt them; it builds slowly with concentrated viciousness as the pair excavate past turpitude in what becomes a competition in evil-doing mainly associated with sexual deviance.

 

Apart from the nature of “the Incident” emerging from the mists of a decade or so, we also discover the bruising anatomy of Beth’s one-sided love-affair with Lucas, its consequences, and the part played by Fred in the whole sorry business. This is not, however, the simple narrative of a woman wronged. In typical Viljoenesque fashion, its presentation raises more questions than answers, chief of which is: “Where does real culpability lie?” Beth herself seems to think responsibility belongs as much to the victim as to the perpetrator of sexual abuse, a belief which triggers a further shocking revelation of her adolescent callousness. Did she bring it on herself? Is her past humiliation some form of retribution for vile conduct when she was 15? Fred hovers somewhere between father-confessor and co-accused in this regard. Until he in turn embarks on a torrent of unedifying confessions of his own.

Predictably, the language is not for the faint-hearted, nor are the situations it describes conducive to joy. But the articulate quality of the dialogue, and the polish with which Child and Pauling deliver it, are the stuff of which great theatre is made. The two show their enviable thespian ability as they tackle this exceedingly difficult material with aplomb, both of them turning unheroic, villainous characters into credible people, to reflect the surface ordinariness of their names, social status and circumstances. Viljoen’s direction also plays a significant part in this exercise.

 

These hucksters take their audience into some very murky places, but the ride is worth every one of its 60 minutes.

 

The Hucksters

Written and directed by Louis Viljoen

Cast: Emily Child and Nicholas Pauling
Set and lighting design by Niall Griffin

Venue: Alexander Upstairs, until August 3

Rating: *****

 

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