There are as many actors on the stage in Balbesit as adjectives to describe it. For the actors who ranted monologues that dug straight to the heart of sociopolitical issues: thought-provoking. For the actor who stripped down to his skivvies and rubbed lotion all over himself, while singing in a voice that could stop traffic: show-stopping. For the two actors who took us through a violent derogatory crime scene, while the rest of the team were chanting “Africa.. Africa.. Africa” in ominous baritones: unsettling. For the two actors being little boys, sitting cross-legged and gossiping in preadolescent voices about the rest of the team: comical. For the entire cast moving across the stage in a tour de force of talent: brilliant.
The state of South African politics, economics, racialism and the unanswerable question “What does it mean to be South African?” is one embedded beneath each of our differently coloured skins. It makes it way into the theatre, on to the stage and into our faces in the form of stand up comedy, dramatic plays or existential monologues. It’s clearly an issue with which our nation continues to struggle.
Through the masterpiece that is Balbesit, playwright Saartjie Botha and director Jaco Bouwer have taken that uncertainty of the national identity crisis and created something that has never been seen before.
Balbesit has much less to do with rugby than I had assumed; in fact using the actors as a rugby team becomes the starting point of a metaphor that stretches far beyond team sport. The rugby theme is just the patch of grass from which a much bigger debate is kicked off. Each of the 24 actors on stage – dressed in simple white shorts, white socks and white shirts – represents a different voice of the South African psyche. In particular, the voice of the South African male. And in this group, the focus is on the white Afrikaner male.
This is a demographic that once had the most powerful voice in South Africa. With the fall of apartheid – many would argue – Afrikaner men were emasculated. Much of Balbesit revolves around the lost and faded voice of the Afrikaner man and questions where he stands today.
Over and above the brilliantly executed political and social commentary, Balbesit has unparalleled onstage scenes. Clever choreography by Ina Wichterich allows the team to stand as one solid unit, blowing away the audience even in the opening moments as they sing operatic rugby terms in deep baritones (music by Braam du Toit) or when they split up in groups and use each other as props, organically moving and changing into scenes that depict a plethora of perturbing and provocative images – from the worship of rugby players as sex symbols to the collective silencing of those who dare to have an opinion.
Through the deeply metaphoric ‘South Africa as an uneven playing field’ the play asks what the game of rugby means in our country. Reflecting on the Boubulwereld and memories of Mannetjies Roux, rugby is inextricably Afrikaans. But with hypnotizing rhythms and tribal chanting there is an ubuntu spirit that makes it inextricably African.
One of the many monologues of Balbesit tells us that “We play to win. We play to inspire. We play not for ourselves, but for everyone who has nothing.” True to that rugby team spirit, the entire cast functions as a team which plays to win hearts and minds. The play digs deep, opening up old wounds and shining light on some essential questions. It’s not an easy play to watch, and it might leave you with uncertainty about who you are and how you fit into this whole picture. But it might also make you think about how to change things, how to change yourself to become a better South African. To quote from the play: “We are a dysfunctional and confused family that wants to make things work… but we don’t know how.”
Balbesit is performed mainly in Afrikaans, with English and some Zulu as well, and though the Afrikaans is absolutely necessary to reflect on the part of society it reflects, this is a play that should come with subtitles, if only because all South Africans should see this play, regardless of which language they use or which sport they enjoy.
Balbesit runs at the Artscape Theatre from 17 to 28 June 2014.