The Good Dad/Die Goeie Pa by Gail Louw

Performer: Erika Breytenbach-Marais
Director: Paul du Toit
Sound design: Jahn Beukes
Where: Baxter Masambe Theatre, Cape Town

The Good Dad (English) – February 13 to 18, 2024
Die Goeie Pa (Afrikaans)- February 20 to 24, 2024  

Producer: Unlikely Productions 
Age advisory: PG 16 – Mature content GBV    

Erika Breytenbach-Marais is mesmerising  with her searing and visceral performance in The Good Dad/Die Goeie Pa, by Gail Louw. The season is currently on in Cape Town, in the Baxter’s Masambe Theatre.  Breytenbach-Marais evokes numerous characters in this harrowing and powerful play- based on the case notes of a real-life case of a woman who was abused by her dad. She had three children by him. He maintained two households and the family was complicit in maintaining the illusion that he was a “good dad”.  It is a performance which is drenched with anguish and yet there is a sense of hope; that the cycle of abuse may be halted and that a process of reclamation may be facilitated. The season runs until February 24, 2024, at the Baxter, with the Afrikaans version, Die Goeie Pa. The run of The Good Dad has finished.

In the play, Louw (acclaimed South African born playwright who lives in the UK), excavates the trajectory of a mother and her twin daughters, and the psychological anguish of their abuse and the all that goes with that – complicity, denial, guilt, jealousy, delusions. The play transcends being an issue play and makes for extraordinarily stirring theatre. The nuanced writing of Louw and the tender performance of Breytenbach-Marais, transfigures the play from being “about” abuse, incest and complicity.

The Masambe is a basement theatre, with no windows. There is air conditioning and ventilation in this intimate theatre which is a vital platform for independent theatre in Cape Town, but for me, in this production, the theatre resonates in terms of a hermetically sealed space. This heightens the horrifying narrative of the story and that those caught up in the snare of abuse – unable to pierce the sealed space of their abuse.

Breytenbach-Marais embraces the complex of emotions and co-dependencies that enable this story – the cycle of generational abuse and the way women are sealed in a situation which they cannot break out of. Call it Stockholm Syndrome or whatever.  Why and how can a horrifying situation be allowed to continue? What about social services and friends and family who stand by and do nothing? Could have, should have; didn’t. Perpetrators tend to be charismatic and charming. They groom their victims to feel special and chosen – like we see in the play. The joy of the abused of feeling “chosen” and “loved” is dovetailed with her being crushed and violated.  For much of the play, Breytenbach-Marais lies curled up in a foetal position on a platform (set design by du Toit), retreating into herself. I will not plot spoil. One can feel the palpable sense of her being crushed and weighted by her abuser, pushed down into the confines of her life. Du Toit as director has masterfully conveyed the violation and defilement in the movement of the violated body in space.

For this season, Breytenbach-Marais (she is the producer of the play, through her company Unlikely Productions) has partnered with Matla A Bana – A voice against child abuse. The an award-winning NGO was founded by Monique Strydom after her four-month ordeal as a hostage of an Al Qaeda group in the Philippines and has implemented 42 child friendly reporting facilities in seven provinces and has trained more than 6000 officers of the law and doctors in special skills needed to help abuse victims and also hosts a child protection school education program. A portion of the proceeds of this season, will go to Matla A Bana to assist it do its work. According to Matla A Bana, “one in three people will experience sexual abuse by the age of 17” and “half of the perpetrators are under 18”. Mull on that. Beyond the statistics and the mantra of “breaking the silence”, is the need to image abuse and incest so that we can be emotionally immersed in it and not look away. Theatre provides a safe space to do this.

The Good Dad premiered in 2023 at the Drama Factory. Since the premiere of that season, the production has brewed into itself and has been elevated to another level – a seamless integration of performance and narrative, framed by the sealed space that the Masambe conjures up, with striking lighting. See picture of set on this page. The sound design by Jahn Beukes, with beautiful lyrical birdsong provides a respite from the crushing reality.

The Good Dad was first performed in 2022, by Erika Breytenbach-Marais. at the Drama Factory, translated into Afrikaans as Die Goeie Pa. The director of the production, Paul du Toit translated the play into Afrikaans. Breytenbach-Marais received a Fleur du Cap Theatre Award nomination (her 2nd nomination) for that season. The play was then translated into English, with Du Toit working from his Afrikaans translation, rather than from Louw’s original script. When du Toit, translated the play into Afrikaans, subtle references placing, the play in a South African context were included and these references were retained in the South African production of The Good Dad, which premiered last year [2023] at the Drama Factory- the production which I saw.

In addition to the English and Afrikaans versions for this season at the Baxter, there was also a performance of the Good Dad, with South African Sign Language interpretation by Marsanne Neethling from Jazz Hands – Signs of a Language. It was a privilege to attend this performance. Not only is it about making the play accessible for Deaf and hearing impaired audiences but this performance evoked the metaphorical implications of silence, being muted and cut off, without a voice; sealed off from others. I love the idea of multi-language versions of a play. In the play, there is a sense of trying to find versions out a shocker of a situation. The lament in the play: “Why didn’t you do anything, say anything… I would have. I wouldn’t have.” But maybe, you watching this play will speak out and change the trajectory of horror and abuse in your midst. This for me, is the ultimate take-home of this play. The Good Dad is an excellent play; a howl to pierce the wall of silence around abuse and incest and this production makes for exceptional theatre.

In the family way: Erika Breytenbach-Marais in The Good Dad/Die Goeie Pa by Gail Louw, in Cape Town at the Baxter Masambe, February 2024. Pic by Jeremeo le Cordeur. Supplied.

✳ The Good Dad/Die Goeie Pa, Cape Town in the Baxter Masambe, February 2024. Set design by Paul du Toit who also directs Erika Breytenbach-Marais in Gail Louw’s play. Pic by Robyn Cohen/TheCapeRobyn