Die vegetariër 

Where and when: Baxter Flipside, Cape Town – February 28 to March 15, 2024
Cast: Melissa Myburgh, Tinarie van Wyk Loots, Eben Genis and Wilhelm van der Walt
Language: Baxter season – performed in Afrikaans, with English surtitles

Original script: Han Kang’s Booker Prize winning, The Vegetarian
Afrikaans translation and stage adaption: Willem Anker, from the English translation of Han The Vegetarian, by Deborah Smith

Direction, set design and technical management: Jaco Bouwer
Lighting design: Wolf Britz
Costumes: Bridget Baker
Music: Pierre-Henri Wicomb

Running time: 96 minutes
Age restriction: No under 16s
This production has been made possible US Woordfees, NATi and The Baxter

Yeong-hye, the protagonist in Die vegetariër, has a dream and this is the catalyst which spurs her to radically cease eating meat. Die vegetariër is a stage adaption of Han Kang’s novel, The Vegetarian, which won the 2016 Man Booker Prize. Direction, set design and technical management is by Jaco Bouwer. The brilliant Afrikaans translation and stage adaption is by Willem Anker. He worked from the English translation of The Vegetarian, by Deborah Smith.

For the season at the Baxter in Cape Town, the play is being performed in Afrikaans, with English surtitles. The actual words are used from the English surtitles. I saw Die vegetariër at Woordfees in Stellenbosch, last year (2023) and was bowled over. I felt that it could do with some trimming but was wowed. This was an Afrikaans production, without English surtitles. My Afrikaans is not great but because I had read the book, I was familiar with the text and because of the visceral performative staging, I was easily able to follow. During that staging, I was struck by the violence, violation and sheer degradation in the narrative. Han Kang is Korean and the story is set in Korea.  Yeong-hye is an ordinary woman and dutiful wife and ticks almost every box for her husband when they are courting (except that she refuses to wear a bra when he first met her which he though was a bit weird but it turned it on, so whatever).

Yeong-hye gets her husband and extended family in a tizz, when she refuses to eat meat and submit to their strictures and expectations. Dovetailed withYeong-hye trajectory is her older sister, In-hye. She is super woman – running a business, being a mother to her young son and a wife to her no-goodnik husband, a video artist. He has artistic licence and freedom and she holds the house together and is the glue in her extended family. She is dutiful daughter and sister personified. Then  younger sister stops eating meat and I won’t plot spoil but suffice to say that it is the uprooting of the whole family unit and the sisters are left, clutching on to each other.

Melisa Myburgh (Yeong-hye) and Tinarie van Wyk Loots (In-hye are extraordinary as the sisters, with breathtaking physical theatre and drama. The tension cuts through this intense production and is amplified by Jaco Bouwer’s striking minimalist set- which conjures up hospital, morgue, abattoir, place of nightmares but also of dreams and imagination. Plastic screens with vertical slats, frames the action, conjuring up a terrifying space of the mental health institution that the Vegetarian submits to after her exhausted sister cannot look after her younger sister. There is the guilt that goes with that – stashing a loved one in residential care – at the behest of the medical fraternity. The staff in the institution are creepy, terrifying, menacing; masked-up and bent over, thrusting, prodding and jabbing their patients, like cattle.

Watching the stage adaption at the Baxter in the triple volume Flipside, I still felt the harrowing thrust of the piece which is deeply disturbing, but I felt that it had deepened considerably and transfigured into an elegiac and lyrical piece of theatre. Within the horror, it has its own beauty and wonder.

In my first reading of The Vegetarian, my take-home – and here is a plot spoiler – so if you don’t want to know- stop reading – was of someone who wants to die. The body is the last bastion for control and in the society as depicted by Han Kang, it seems to me that this is a very conscious choice that is made. Trees wither and die in nature. We are ultimately like trees – back to the earth, eventually. When I watched Die vegetariër at Woordfees, the violation, sexual violation, degradation and horror was what I was left with. Watching the play at the Baxter, the leitmotif of nature in the book was amplified for me. For example, we read in the book that when the older sister, first encounters her husband, when he come into her shop, she describes him as “skinny as sorghum”.

When they arrive at the mental health facility, Yeong-hye immediately remarks on the trees in the country setting. Desire, sex, affirmation gratification, betrayal is core to this story but beyond that is the hard reality of life and navigating our world, as best as we can. After the crunch in the narrative, when older sister, In-hye is betrayed by her husband, Han Kang muses: “But what she saw in his eyes was neither lust, no insanity, regret, nor resentment. There was nothing there except the same terror that she herself was feeling.”

We grapple with the terror and fears that bind and tether us in; in connection and disconnection; grasping at the threads which can so easily unravel in physical and mental meltdowns: Psychosis and mental health, sexuality; the need for artistic expression and connection and being rooted in world where we have lost our foundations. Ahh, there is so much in Die vegetariër/The Vegetarian. Bouwer has heightened and extended the performative imagery in the book and it makes for exhilarating theatre.

This production received best production at Woordfees – so deserved. The overlaying of the Afrikaans with English surtitle makes for an unforgettable theatrical experience. I hope that this production will tour abroad. It speaks universally of the search for the meaning in life, the fragility of mental health and so-called “normal”, the power of art and nature to push through one’s fear; maybe. Die vegetariër is a brilliant production, brilliant staging, design (visually and music) and mind blowing performances.

After the Baxter, Die vegetariër  tours to KKNK 2024, which is on in Oudtshoorn. March 23 to 31, 2024 (Afrikaans, no surtitles). https://kknk2024.kknk.co.za/produksie/die-vegetarier/

Visceral theatre: Die vegetariër – stage adaption of Han Kang’s 2016 the Man Booker Prize novel, The Vegetarian. Direction and design by Jaco Bouwer. Pics by Nardus Engelbrecht.

Die vegetariër – stage adaption of Han Kang’s 2016 the Man Booker Prize novel, The Vegetarian. Pics by Nardus Engelbrecht.