Review: Sylvia Vollenhoven’s Krotoa Eva van de Kaap – astounding theatre –a lament and a rousing reclamation of Krotoa

What: Krotoa Eva van de Kaap
Where: Artscape Arena, Cape Town
When: December 8-18, 2021, Wednesdays to Fridays at 6pm and Saturdays at 1pm and 6pm

Writer: Sylvia Vollenhoven
Director: Basil Appollis
Performers: Bianca Flanders and Geon Nel
On-stage musicians/actors: Frazer Barry and Riku Lätti 
Lighting design: Fahiem Bardien  

I saw Krotoa Eva van de Kaap in 2019 at Artscape and was overwhelmed by Sylvia Vollenhoven’s script, evoking a vivid portrait of Krotoa- the young Khoe woman who was drafted into Jan van Riebeeck’s world. Bianca Flanders as Krotoa – was (in 2019) and is (2021), utterly mesmeric. She imbues her performance with the power of a formidable woman. No matter how Krotoa is crushed, she retains her dignity and fighting spirit – to the end. Flanders is breathtaking. She deserves an award for the achingly nuanced portrait of Krotoa- inspirational – even through the utter loss she endures. This production was commissioned by Volksoperahuis, a theatre company in Amsterdam and this staging is a collaboration with the company. The Dutch contingent was unable to get to South Africa for this season because of the Rona travel ban which meant that director Basil Appollis had a week to re-cast the actor who plays Jan van Riebeeck as well as one of the onstage musicians who also take on acting roles. The lighting designer was also unable to get to Cape Town and so lighting designer, Fahiem Bardien was brought on board. He has lit the production with chiaroscuro– like Vermeer, Rembrandt-with flashes of neon and edgings with animal skins – and images that evoke Krotoa’ s world- very different to the contained Dutch interiors of Jan van Riebeeck. The South African actor – Geon Nel – does a fine Dutch accent as van Riebeeck and conveys a hyper sense of bafflement that I did not get in this character first round. He also plays Krotoa’s Dutch husband. The two musicians – Frazer Barry and Riku Lätti are fabulous. Watch out for the song- “Blame it on van Riebeeck” (like ‘Blame it on the Boogie’).

On my first viewing in 2019, I was bowled over. Second time round and the play is even better. For me, it as if everything has been heightened – the moments of humour are more intense and so are the darker and very difficult and uncomfortable aspects of Krotoa. The play, as Bianca Flanders said in an interview , is about death and loss. [] However, within that there is release and taking ownership of Krotoa’s story which was whitewashed by historians. Krotoa was colonised. In the play, she is de-colonialised. Flanders brings pathos to Krotoa and to the parallel character that she plays- keep reading- she brings lightness and a sardonic Cape Town insouciance- ‘it’s a beautiful city- let’s celebrate being alive and enjoy our city’.

This season is short, so here are extracts from my review from 2019- to provide insights into this inventive and exquisitely crafted play. What I wrote in 2019, holds. The 2021 staging takes the drama and mirth further- the folding and wrapping between Krotoa’s time and now is- as I say – heightened and also more fluid:

Extracts from my 2019 review of Krotoa Eva van de Kaap

Vollenhoven unpacks Krotoa by setting the play on a film set. Two actors- one Dutch and the other South African-are shooting a film, on location, close to the coast in Cape Town. Flanders plays Sam who is taking on the role of Krotoa, the Khoe young woman who was co-opted into van Riebeeck’s household. Geon Nel plays Thijs who takes on the role of Jan van Riebeeck- the VOC colonial merchant boss who set up the refreshment station at the Cape in 1652. Nel also plays Krotoa’s husband, Danish Surgeon Pieter van Meerhoff. 

Vollenhoven has drawn on her filmmaking vocabulary in order to visually bring past and present into focus – blurring in fits and starts – through the overlapping of 1650s Cape and contemporary Cape Town. Film footage and surtitles are projected onto a painted black wall. There is a sense of splicing images from one era onto another. In between, the musicians are onstage and they alternate between singing, announcing scene changes on the film set and tossing in spurts of Weimar style German cabaret.

Van Riebeeck was a disgraced merchant sent to the Cape by the VOC. A dutiful company man, he recorded everything in his journal – except the stuff he left out or distorted – which has become the predominant narrative of Krotoa. The Dutch stole and plundered the land – the ultimate land grab. Krotoa – called Eva by the Dutch – when baptized – became “translator, peacemaker and negotiator” between the Dutch the Khoe. In order to survive, she had to keep her wits about her as she dangled between multiple worlds – the transactional colonizing Dutch and her own community. She was a “mattress” for Van Riebeeck’s men. And at the end, she was left with nothing: Damaged, abandoned; stripped of her identity and children.

The Dutch landscape is ordered – a still life with a pleasing composition: Dutch obsession with keeping things just so: “Dutch sensibilities”. Within that, there is disruption and rupture. The Thys character quips at the end that it is difficult to contemplate that at the time of Van Riebeeck’ s atrocities, the Dutch nation was regarded as one of the most progressive and liberal nations in the world. He then goes on to muse: “Reparations for South Africa? That makes Europeans shudder:” The audience shuddered in 2019 and behind our masks, in 2021; that line, again, brought gasps.

Great theatre- lament and a rousing reclamation

Krotoa Eva van de Kaap is essential viewing. It is a poignant play; a play which is about death, loss, rupture, dispossession, objectification; erasure of history – and a lot more. However the folding of past into present, imbues the narrative with humour and fun moments (yes, we laugh and we need those moments of release). The beautiful lighting and music; superlative performances by Bianca Flanders and the other actors, makes this play an immersive experience. It is not a chore to sit through. It is not a history lesson. It is not a morality play – coming across as flat and didactic. One feels gutted watching but there are moments to smile and tap along to the songs. The play is a lament and a rousing reclamation of Krotoa. This is great theatre.

Rousing theatre: Eva van de Kaap – December 2021 season, Artscape, Cape Town. Centre- Bianca Flanders. Left Geon Nel and right, Frazer Barry.

❇ Images supplied.

Related coverage on TheCapeRobyn: and