Review: The loneliness of freedom rings out loudly in 2022 in The Bells of Amersfoort, directed by Dintshitile Mashile in Cape Town, at Theatre Arts
|The Bells of Amersfoort by Zakes Mda|
When: November 1-5, 2022
Where: Theatre Arts, Methodist Church Hall, corner Milton Road and Wesley Street, Observatory, Cape Town, 7925
Director: Dintshitile Mashile
Cast: Abongile Ntshuca, Buntu Ceza, Ydalie Turk, Thulani Nzonzo and Aidan Scott
Sound design: Dintshitile Mashile
Lighting design: Motlotlo ”Mac” Makhobotloane
Tickets: R100 and R80 for students
Bookings: Online at www.theatrearts.co.za or purchase at the door
Direct booking link: https://theatrearts.co.za/show/the_bells
The Bells of Amersfoort, the play by Zakes Mda, directed by Dintshitile Mashile, is on at Theatre Arts, Observatory, Cape Town, until November 5, 2022. Mashile is the first in the cohort for the 2022 Emerging Theatre Director Bursary, awarded by Theatre Arts. It is a very short season. This play was written in 2002 – commissioned by a Die Nieuw Amsterdam Theatre Company, a Dutch theatre company and Sibikwa Arts in Benoni. It hinges around a South African woman, Thami Walaza, who goes into exile and ends up in Amersfoort in Holland. I didn’t see the play in 2002. It was not staged widely. Twenty years later, in 2022, we are presented with a play, which as Theatre Arts’ Caroline Calburn mused to me, is “strangely prophetic” and very un-PC. It is an intensely uncomfortable play. There is a lot I need to think about and process. This is a quickie review.
The Bells of Amersfoort is profoundly about exile and home; the pull of our ruptured South Africa; the hope for redemption and forgiveness and is that possible? In 2002, Madiba was with us and it was still The Rainbow Nation. In post democratic South Africa, we were on the cusp of a lot that was to come. In 2022, there is widespread unease and anxiety with a massive divide between rich/privileged and poor; race and class, identity, nationhood. Sure, this is a global thing. The Russians are wrecking Ukraine. Inflation, poverty, climate change is universal. There is traffic with throngs of people seeking refuge and safety; going ‘somewhere else’. For many home is where the heart is (a bit mawkish but okay) and for others, even with freedom in exile; there is the pull to return – no matter what.
One of the characters in Bells, ponders if there is a place for him in a country [South Africa], filled with “anger, bitterness and vengeance”. Plot spoiler – in the end, there is redemption of sorts with Thami returning home and re-calibrating in an unexpected direction (I was rather flummoxed by what happens), doing her best to embrace ”the loneliness of freedom”.
That is unspeakably sad: “The loneliness of freedom”. Wherever we are – that is not an easy one at all. This is why I love the writing of Zakes Mda. He always stirs the pot in his work- sod politically correct conventions. This play stirs up a great deal with scathing jabs at issues of the lack accountability, rampant corruption in South Africa and “selling out”. As they say in the classics, forgiveness is overrated. However, if you are truly sorry and make amends, does that not count? Conciliation/reconciliation is not an easy gig. How does one move on? Can one move on? And in the end, many don’t care. Heck, we should all just get on with living; get a makeover, acquire a mountain bike. Zakes dives into a stinging nest, with the bells pinging loudly. Writing in 2002, he was achingly prescient of 2022.
Mashile’s direction is lyrical and vividly imaged – visually and aurally. Her sound vocabulary is astounding- with soundscape, voice, music. The staging is beautiful- in the round- in a sand filled beach. It’s like a playground, a sand-pit, an arena for struggle, some resolution, with the grains of sand sifting and shifting. I loved the set and the way the theatre space has been configured, so that we as viewers, are sitting in the narrative. We are not merely watching. We are immersed. It feels like a sacred space, where this bunch of people are playing out their stories. This is all down to Mashile’s direction – creating theatre as lived and visceral experience. We get sprayed by grains of sand and sweat from the performers, jolted by sound, voice, lights, physical movement. It is a play embedded with disruption. Disruption is heightened in the staging
I was chatting afterwards to people and the general feeling was that the production is too long; that the play could do with a trim. I think that this is because it is 20 years after it was written and we get the point about a lot of the stuff. I feel that there is too much – too much about alcohol abuse and the clawing Dutch do-goodniks, doing their social responsibility to Black South Africans in exile. That was then. I would like to see this play, developed further, with possibly tweaks to some of the casting.
Dintshitile Mashile is a director with a distinctive voice and vision. She has taken a difficult play from 2002 and draws us in to the stickiness, as we navigate our way in the morass of 2022. We must not look away. We must engage and think. The selection of The Bells of Amersfoort by Mashile is a brave and audacious choice and I look forward to seeing this production, staged again. Theatre holds up a mirror – cracks and all – and The Bells of Amersfoort- is calling us to think deeply – about a lot – including- home, humanity, accountability and complicity. On until November 5, 2022. Don’t miss an uncomfortable but totally immersive and compelling production.
✳ The Bells of Amersfoort, the play by Zakes Mda, directed by Dintshitile Mashile, at Theatre Arts, Observatory, Cape Town, November 2022. Images © TheCapeRobyn/Robyn Cohen, November 1, 2022.