The Promise on stage – adaption of Damon Galgut’s book

When and where:  

~ Cape Town:

September 14 to October 6, 2023 – at The Star Theatre at the Homecoming Centre in Cape Town (formerly The Fugard Theatre)

~ Johannesburg:

October 18 to November 5, 2023, The John Kani stage at The Market Theatre

Bookings for both cities: Webtickets

Scroll down to box with details of cast and creative team    

The Promise – on stage is an epic theatre experience. This production, adapted by Damon Galgut and Sylvaine Strike from Galgut’s Booker Prize novel of the same name, is extraordinary. I see the stage Promise as a companion piece to the book – igniting even more conversations and reflections triggered by the novel.

This staging conjures up – The Promise – as an absurdist tragedy which is transgressive- shattering in many respects – and yet in the end- there is redemption and accountability – and the possibility of making some kind of reparation. Within the absurdist rendering, there is a catharsis for the audience – through tears and screams of laughter.

The story starts in 1986 and ends in 2018 and is framed around a white family, the Swart family, living on a farm (if one may call it that) on the outskirts of Pretoria, grasping onto the family home.  Galgut’s novel is exquisitely crafted and  hinges  around four funerals which heighten the rifts and fissures in the family, juxtaposed against what is happening in South Africa – pre-democracy and through the hope of the New South Africa and then into contemporary times, when everything seems to be slipping away.

The Promise on stage – heightens the lunacy and absurdity of a family, coasting on its white privilege – no matter what – as they slip and slide (I repeat these words, yes) – literally across the stage – a raked stage – a series of rakes- “a sinking world” as Sylvaine Strike muses. The home of the Swarts is a sinking house. There are windows where the foundations should be. Broken chairs, hanging from nooses, dangle from above. Surfaces are not straight and the protagonists have to slip and slide across the stage as they narrate and witness the story. Astounding design by Josh Lindberg (set and lighting). For me, it is like the decks of a wrecked ship, unmoored and unanchored.

The home of the Swarts is without a base. Salome – who has looked after the family for decades – the family “domestic” cleaning up their mess – has a house and it is in ruins – but it is grounded. She is the only one who retains her dignity. Salome is poignantly channelled by Chuma Sopotela. I say “channelled” as Salome transcends the rupture around her, in her humanity and ability to forgive. Salome embodies “hope”. She is a much needed balm in this story and unlike the others, she does not unravel.

The Promise on stage – with its clowning and physical comedy is “funny” – often scream-out-loud- uncomfortably funny sure – akin to what is referred to in Yiddish – as a bittere gelegte – a bitter joke. It is a mirth which is a lament and a howl. However, as we laugh, we find release and that immerses us in the complex narrative. Strike’s background and training is in physical comedy (she trained at the Ecole Jacques Lecoq in Paris) and she charges this production with a visceral energy which is breathtaking. In the hands of another director, the Promise could have easily been a kitchen sink drama – a four decade chronicle of a deluded family, in a “realistic” and cluttered set- imagine. There are no audio visuals to depict shifts in time and location. Props are minimal. The narrative is illuminated symbolically and metaphorically.  In the hands of Strike and her creative team (sound design and original music composition by Charl-Johan Lingenfelder, set and lighting design- Josh Lindberg, costume design- Penny Simpson, choreography- Natalie Fisher ), the story wraps around itself in the shifting liminal spaces- seguing between book – words on page –and the peregrination on stage- across decades – aging and deaths.

Lindberg’s set of raked decks of the home at its tipping point is not only metaphorically resonant, but provides the framework for the narrative to unfurl visually. The set is like a character in its own right- a body with its own story- of displacement and desolation.

The Promise – on stage – is playful in its tragedy and absurd tragi-comedy and pings for me in terms of Strike’s direction of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame (August 2018) at the Baxter in Cape Town. Rob van Vuuren was in Strike’s Endgame. He plays Anton (and Father Batty) in The Promise. He is utterly mesmerising as Anton – the Golden Boy. Anton has squandered his privilege, reneged on a promise made. He unravels – physically and emotionally. Van Vuuren goes beyond performance – with his body as a conveyer of broken-ness: Family, the country; on a slippery slope. 

What comes next as they/we try desperately to stay grounded? Albert Pretorius as multiple characters (Dominee Simms, Oom Ockie, Dean de Wet, Rabbi Katz and Moti the new age guru ) is hilarious in his clowning and impressions – which brings about much laughter from the audience. This is fabulously visual humour which is a brilliant foil for the sadness and sorrow. The entire company delivers impressive performances,

What came across profoundly for me in the novel and in the play is this complicated country that we live in, as we try and make sense of it all- our love and despair. Ahh the beauty of the landscape; the violence which seems endemic to the fabric of our spaces and within that; the love for “this country” (that is a line from the book -“this country” – uttered by Anton and Lexington- the driver/chauffeur of the family. The line is not in the script of the play)

Many tag The Promise as a story of “white guilt”. Sure, the story is by a white writer about an ordinary white family, its banality and its choices. The Promise – on stage – as with the novel – invites us to take account and be accountable. That may not be possible – to make things “right” and give something back which wasn’t ours to begin with – as Lukas – son of Salome – conveys so achingly.  In reality, that has become wishful thinking.  Lukas is beautifully played by Sanda Shandu. He also plays Bob and the Politician. Within the spectrum of his roles, we get the brunt of the gaping divide in South Africa – rich and poor, advantaged and disadvantaged and those that are unlikely to never rise above the sinking hole of their lives. There is so much in this complex story – The Promise – and let’s hope as Anton (Rob Van Vuuren) ponders, as he sings, well not exactly sings; rasps; to the Beatles song – “here comes the sun” and “everything will be alright”.  Bravo to Sylvaine Strike, the cast, the creative team and importantly the funders for bringing a stunning novel to the stage- with love and care- and for telling stories that we need to engage with and talk about.  It is a magnificent production. I hope that it tours internationally.

No words: Chuma Sopotela and Rob van Vuuren in The Promise – on stage. Photo by Claude Barnardo . Supplied.
The Promise on stage – stage adaption of Damon Galgut’s book

Direction: Sylvaine Strike
Stage adaption: Damon Galgut and Sylvaine Strike

Cast: Rob van Vuuren, Kate Normington, Frank Opperman, Chuma Sopotela, Cintaine Schutte , Jenny Stead, Albert Pretorius, Sanda Shandu and Jane de Wet

Sound design and original music composition: Charl-Johan Lingenfelder

Set and lighting design: Josh Lindberg
Costume design: Penny Simpson
Choreography: Natalie Fisher       

✳ Pics by Claude Barnardo- supplied.

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