Review: The Outlaw Muckridge by Louis Viljoen, starring John Maytham

What: The Outlaw Muckridge
Where: Baxter Golden Arrow Studio When: October 13 to 24, 2020
Time: 7pm. Extra performances: 4pm on Saturdays, 3pm Sunday Oct 18
Tickets:  R100-R120    Booking: Webtickets

Writer: Louis Viljoen
Performer: John Maytham
Director: Alan Committie Design: Niall Griffin

The Outlaw Muckridge was written by Louis Viljoen, during lockdown. Radio journalist and actor John Maytham commissioned Viljoen to write the play. Working with Maytham, the creative prompt was to write a play which would be “inspired by the lockdown, but not about the lockdown” and “that the emotional cost of isolation and loneliness would drive the story…”  The Outlaw Muckridge resonates with a profound sense of isolation, loss, confusion as we watch a man who is struggling to make sense of his life. He has been trapped, confined in these rooms (evocative design by Niall Griffin). His is a life marked by abuse and torment; regret. He may be tethered to his aging and ailing mother who he loathes but he yearns for her acceptance and wishes that she will watch cowboy films with him; on the frontier. Perhaps it is place that he can be free – a swashbuckling outlaw- speaking in the lingo of Westerns.

John Maytham, with his long hair evokes the torment of this tortured hermit like man, who shuffles across the stage, telling us his story. He reminds me of the photos that people were posting on social media, during hard lockdown, when hair salons were not allowed to operate. There were a flurry of images of long haired, bearded and bleary eyed individuals, bemoaning the fact that they couldn’t get their hair “done”.  That is what The Outlaw Muckridge conjures up for me –shaggy haired -mired in the muck of his existence. He is a recluse who has been shackled in his co-dependent relationship with the person who has caused him so much pain. Although there is no reference to the pandemic, this scenario reverberates in terms of people I know who have been in lockdown with spouses, siblings or others who they can barely tolerate but through circumstance have to live with them. Before lockdown, it was manageable as there was respite from the intensity by going out and escaping for a while. In lockdown – the hard lockdown months – people were stuck with each other – without release and relief. The Outlaw Muckridge can only transcend his physical situation through his imagination and Maytham brings about the transformation with tenderness and pathos – and flickers of mirth. He may be a sad and broken man who charts the inequities that he has come against but we see moments of triumph and joy. Maytham uses his distinctive modulated voice as an instrument to convey the angst and complexities of this individual who is a wreck. He still has a voice to wrestle with his choices; to articulate his feelings.

The Outlaw Muckridge is the first drama that I have seen on stage, since lockdown on March 26, 2020. This week, returning from watching a performance dance piece in the city, I heard Maytham speaking on his radio show on Cape Talk. He was asked how the preview of The Outlaw Muckridge had gone. He said that it was strange (words to that effect – I am not quoting verbatim) to be playing to a masked audience. As a person sitting in the audience, I also found it strange, sitting and watching The Outlaw Muckridge. The Outlaw is man who has probably masked a lot of his emotions as he slid into his role as dutiful son. Here we see the unbridled rage, unmasked, revealed for us. We are watching, masked up.  That becomes part of the reception of this play – watching – from behind our masks.

This play is ultimately about isolation – being forced to confront core relationships. There is no doubt that many people have experienced and will continue to confront this reality- particularly in the context of the pandemic and lockdown. Acutely observed, intense and tightly constructed narrative by Viljoen. Superb, gritty solo performance by Maytham. Director Alan Committie tempers the pace– the sadness, despair dovetailed with a lightness and self-deprecating humour- that is lurking in the man who is on the edge of breaking free – or not. It was great to be back at the Baxter, masks and all. It is treat to see a new play by Louis Viljoen, John Maytham on stage; Alan Committie directing and the finely tuned design of Niall Griffin.

Image credit: Alan Committie, John Matham, Louis Viljoen. Pic by Mark Wessels.