For those who support home-grown writers, Herman Charles Bosman is one of the great literary legends of our country. Regarded by many as the best Afrikaans writer who wrote in English, Bosman is often seen as South Africa’s greatest short-story writer. More than 60 years after his death, Bosman’s stories are still very much alive, their spirit made immortal by the vividness of their characters.
Early in his adult life, Bosman worked as a teacher in Groot Marico, where he found the inspiration for his range of short stories starring Oom Schalk Lourens. Fast forward to the present day, and here we are at the Kalk Bay Theatre, and Oom Schalk is alive and well and standing before us. The instantly likeable David Muller takes on this khaki-yet-colourful character with his wide-brimmed leather hat and worn-out Boer gear, and transports the audience back to another world, a simpler world where people had time for each other and the community of Boers was strong, steadfast and stubborn in its beliefs. David Muller retells these timeless stories of Bosman’s with such warmth and familiarity that you would think he wrote them himself.
In the opening moments of Oom Schalk, from the Heart, David Muller says two things that stay true throughout the personable play: the best stories are those of what happens between men and women, and it’s not the story that counts, but the way that you tell it.
Granted, we are not in Groot Marico in the 1920’s, and relationships nowadays encompass rather more than just those between men and women, but Oom Schalk’s days were nothing if not conservative. In the first of his five stories, ‘Veld Maiden’, he relates the curiosity inside the conservatism and how the local farmers (and their wives) reacted to a luscious painting by John de Swart. He then takes us ‘In the Withaak’s Shade’ for a close-up encounter with a leopard, close enough to count the spots, while during ‘A Bekkersdal Marathon’, he whisks us into the sacristy for an epic tale of the Bekkersdal church congregation where we meet Billy Robertse, the organist with a curious ailment that requires constant swigs from his pocket flask, and Dominee Veldhagen who, that one unforgettable day, fell into a trance.
After a short interval, ‘Oom Schalk’ came around handing out some peach brandy like an old friend. As it happened, one of the last stories featured a lot of peach brandy fuelling a much younger Schalk’s brave resolution to impress Grieta, a finishing school graduate, at a dance party. Whether he stole her refined heart or not, I urge you to find out for yourself.
As Oom Schalk said, it certainly matters how you tell a story. With David Muller under the direction of Celia Musikanth, I felt like I was sitting on Oom Schalk’s stoep, somewhere in the Karoo, listening to him relate stories of days gone by. But I would hazard to add that the content of the story matters as well. And the rich characters which Oom Schalk describes as each one goes through his own unique experience are not only highly entertaining but endlessly amusing. Herman Charles Bosman’s talent as a master storyteller lives on. And as with each of his stories, he has left the best for last.
Oom Schalk – From the Heart runs at the Kalk Bay Theatre from 26 March to 6 April 2014.