Ever thought what this town could really use is a brief history of the rise of Afrikaner nationalism with the occasional Bacchanalian revel thrown in for good measure? The Gospel According to Jan Coetzee, written and directed by Wessel Pretorius, examines what happened all those decades ago when fear, poverty, insular tendencies, and religious fervour combined to wreak havoc on an entire country.
Players rush on and busy themselves on the delightfully cluttered stage. There’s the anxious actor (Emma Kotze) who ‘just needs to feel’ her character, the highly-strung director (Pretorius) who’s probably seen too many festival stages and would prefer his actors not to feel too much of anything and just get through their lines without having a spiritual crisis, and the perpetually late actor (David Viviers) who takes a few rehearsal selfies after mouthing a quick ‘sorry’ to the rest of the company. It soon becomes clear that the house lights aren’t going to dim —ah, we are watching actors prepare for a performance we won’t get to see.
A play about rehearsing a play has the potential to be unbearably tedious, but in the hands of Pretorius, Kotze, and Viviers, The Gospel According to Jan Coetzee proves to be wholly miraculous. The masterful text, with its sprinkling of Shakespeare and its subtle side-swipes at the state of the theatre industry, includes enough familiar references to make the concept accessible without needing to dumb anything down for audience members who don’t also happen to work in the theatre world, and the actors deliver such flawless, focused performances as they skip between various different characters —the archetypal policeman, the prophet, the Mary Magdalene figure, the Judas figure, the Judas figure’s gall bladder— that it would be hard for audiences to be anything but spellbound. What a privilege to see performers so secure in their work. (And a quick side note: I’d pay good money to see Viviers do an extended version of his Jan Smuts.)
The exceptional writing, direction, and performances —and the well-executed sound design— combine to make this play something not to be missed.
‘I’m telling the story because it fascinates me and I think it could fascinate others,’ the director tells one of his actors. Could there be many better reasons to spend one’s time and energy producing a stage show?
The Gospel According to Jan Coetzee is on at the Alexander Bar Theatre until Friday the 22nd of November. Tickets are available at alexanderbar.co.za and cost R120 when booked online.