The Good Dad by South African born playwright Gail Louw who lives in the UK

Staged in South Africa by Unlikely Productions (South Africa), first as Die Goeie Pa (20220 and then The Good Dad (2023)
Performer: Erika Breytenbach-Marais
Direction/adaption: Paul du Toit
Lighting: Lize van Rooyen
Sound design: Jahn Beukes  

The premiere of The Good Dad – a South Africanised version of Gail Louw’s script was presented August 16 and 17, 2023, by Unlikely Productions, at The Drama Factory in the Strand, Western Cape, as part of its Women’s Month Festival. Another version of the play – in Afrikaans – was also presented by Unlikely Productions as Die Goeie Pa, in 2022. Erika Breytenbach-Marais was nominated for a Fleur du Cap Theatre Award  

The Good Dad by South African born playwright Gail Louw – was staged last week- for two nights- August 16 and 17, 2023, at The Drama Factory as part of its Women’s Month Festival. This was the world premiere of the South African version – in English. Read on and I will explain.  Erika Breytenbach-Marais delivers a riveting performance in a nuanced psychological thriller of a family, snared in a cycle of abuse, complicity and delusion. What lurks behind closed doors of “family” and those who are victims and perpetrators? The publicity bumph for the play, states that it is a “happy family” with a dark secret but from the start of the drama, it is clear that this is not a “happy” family and that the young woman restrained in a prison cell, did not get there through playing “happy families”.

This production is intriguing as it was first staged by Breytenbach-Marais’ company, Unlikely Productions, in Afrikaans, as Die Goeie Pa. Paul du Toit adapted the play into Afrikaans and directed. Breytenbach-Marais received a Fleur du Cap Theatre Award nomination for the Afrikaans version of the play – her 2nd FDC nomination. By the way, du Toit nabbed the Fleur du Cap for Best Director (productions in 2022), for the excellent play, The Unlikely Secret Agent – produced by Unlikely Productions.

They went to their Afrikaans translation of Die Goeie Pa and did what my friend and theatre maven, Raymond Rudolph describes, as a “reverse translation”. When du Toit translated the play into Afrikaans, he South Africanised Gail Louw’s text (with her permission). In taking the play back to English, the Afrikaans was translated into script to English – rather than simply using Gail’s text. So for example, Louw referred to a Sunday roast in the play and it is presented as a braai (barbeque) in Die Goeie Pa and now in The Good Dad.

For me the South African accents and references, contextualise the play, viscerally in a SA frame – pinging in terms of accents and people in our landscape. There is tremendous debate when it comes to staging plays from abroad in South Africa- to localise or not. The power of this play is that it could be set anywhere. The story is sadly universal. Gender based violence is everywhere.  I think that the injection of South African accents and references makes it far more relatable than if it was transposed in a British frame. I have not seen a UK version. I did not see the Afrikaans version.

A lot is unpacked in the play and it leaves one reeling, asking: How can a family perpetuate abuse and violence? And how can others stand by and enable the abuse? Breytenbach-Marais is superb and achingly evokes the sense of the protagonists being utterly flummoxed by their own story but apparently powerless to put a halt to the horror.  They are in it – until they are not. It is horrifying to contemplate that the play was based on transcripts of a real-life horrific case. I am about to plot spoil – and it was in the media information for the Good Dad at the Drama Factory. There are three protagonists- the abused girl/woman, her mother and her twin sister. The young girl/woman is groomed (she is ‘special’, the chosen one) and then sexually abused by her dad. She has three children with him. He is supposedly a “good dad” as he provides for both his families” In order for the status quo to continue, silence enables the perpetuation of violation.

Hopefully the Good Dad will be staged again. I would like to see the staging developed- perhaps with a revolve to show the passage and cycle of time and entrapment of the people, staying shtum as the “good dad” is enabled to continue.  Perhaps the set could include flickering images of the family (as in the poster for The Good Dad, South Africa), with the eyes of the family blacked out with strips of tape, perpetuating the illusion that are blind to what is going on. Of course, the blacking out of features is also about protecting the identities of victims; keeping it confidential, so to speak. However, in doing so, horrific stories are often not engaged with enough. The Good Dad asks us to engage and not look away.

I have not seen the Afrikaans version, Die Goeie Pa. My theatre friends, who accompanied me to the performance at The Drama Factory, have seen it in Afrikaans (they saw it twice- yes they were so intrigued). They reflected that they felt that the Afrikaans version was more intense and raw.  This they attribute to the Afrikaans language. Okay, so sound out ‘pa’- ‘paww’ – ‘paahh’ and even within that it sounds more menacing than ‘dad’. Somehow ‘pa’ pings with irony and sarcasm. There is ‘pa’ in a context of the omniscient patriarch and provider and think about a ‘pa’ in a closeted family- location, belief system; whatever. Perhaps, it would be an idea to consider ‘daddy’, ‘deddy’, instead of ‘dad’ in this South African version of the play. A ‘dad’ conjures up affection and a term of endearment, whereas ‘pa’ is loaded in many directions.  Daddy also invokes up ‘sugar daddy’ and other creepy associations. Perhaps- the language – English language – in this South African version – could be heightened to harness the brutish father in this play. I see that the UK version is tagged as – A Love Story. I don’t see the ‘love story’ in this drama, at all, even if one accepts the use of irony in that title.

Bravo to Breytenbach-Marais – performer and producer for staging this play – and for doing two versions – Afrikaans and English. It segues into language and translation and the politics of translation.  It would be great to see it performed in isiXhosa. Perhaps theatre makers need to consider doing different versions.  It not only brings in access for people who do not understand a language but the language brings its own texture and nuance. I think that alternative translations also touch on the concept of witness testimony and memory- the way that stories are remembered and narrated. Language and place may shift how a story is presented and received.

The Good Dad could have been an “issue play” around GBV but this carefully crafted play, scrapes deep into the emotional journey of the protagonists. The production by Unlikely Productions, in a South African frame, takes ownership of the narrative, through our lens of argot and references. It is an uncomfortable play sure, harrowing and ugly, but Erika Breytenbach-Marais, conjures up their grief and sadness so vividly that one feels emotionally immersed in the narrative and the characters.  She prowls around the stage – a caged animal – like a lioness – staking her territory – protecting her cubs from predators.  I use the word ‘flummoxed’ again. There is a sense of the abused woman being stumped by her own role in the story. Breytenbach-Marais nails that in her solo performance- playing different characters who are also entrapped in their collusion and complicity.

The Good Dad is not an “enjoyable” play but there are moments of humour and lightness which lifts it out of the dark, dark sphere of its orbit and the tender performance by Breytenbach-Marais, brings tremendous care and caring to the narrative. I loved the soundscape (Jahn Beukes – birds chirping – no matter the turmoil in peoples’ lives- there is the possibility to listen to the birds and find solace in nature.

It is interesting that the Good Dad – Gail Louw’s UK version was on at 2023 The Edinburgh Fringe – performed by Sarah Lawrie– same play – from different cultural gazes – presented at the same time – on two continents.

✳ Pic of Erika Breytenbach-Marais in The Good Dad, South African production – pic by Jeremeo le Cordeur – supplied.