Four Small Gods, currently running at the Magnet Theatre, turns out to be as riveting and enjoyable as any mainstream feature in the city. Just when I began to worry that our theatre scene was rapidly becoming a place of dramatisations rather than original drama, along comes director Joanna Evans with a fresh and impassioned moral debate. The play was the winning entry for the Imbewu Trust’s 2014 SCrIBE Scriptwriting competition, with the top prize being a professional run in Cape Town. Although only 25, Evans is already a celebrated theatre maker: she won a Standard Bank Silver Ovation Award for The Year of the Bicycle, the 2012 Mavis Taylor Award for Theatre Making and Best International Show at the 2015 Iran International Theatre Festival for Children and Youth. And you can see why: there’s immense beauty and power in this tale, which delves into deep philosophical themes such as the lifeboat dilemma and the conflicts of human nature.
Much of the pleasure of Four Small Gods lies in the performances. Amy Wilson’s Emma dominates the play with her likeable but repressed demeanour. Clad in haggard attire, with a perpetually worn expression, Wilson instantly strikes a nerve as the self-righteous de facto leader of the pack. The virtue of the production is that it still gives due weight to the other characters. Evans’ anthropomorphised traits are quite apparent at first, with a stoic Rhino, gullible Dog and malevolent Tiger, but eventually all of them display qualities shared, envied, and reviled by humans. As the Rhino, Iman Isaacs flaunts her comedic brilliance with hilarious mannerisms. Isaacs takes liberties with accentuated prose and displays an unforgettable, raw-boned study of a cloaked comic mired in uncertainty. The Dog’s character requires a marked degree of dexterity, and Richard September immerses himself in the role of the naively credulous canine. And the Tiger, played by Siya Sikawuti, is full of raw anger while delivering his lines with the calculation and precision of a plotting villain. So many of the characters’ personal relationships reveal flickers of unspoken depth: they seem to deal effortlessly with the unadorned language of everyday emotions, but struggle with the riddling rhetoric of moral negotiation.
Evans succeeds in a glorious line-up of symbiotic technical talents. The lighting design, mastered by the skillful Jon Keevy, instantly creates an inauspicious setting on the Magnet Theatre’s spacious stage. As the show progresses, slivers of crystal-white LEDs and glowing cocoons surrounded by the uncertain dark create a bare, almost apocalyptic platform. To amplify this brave new world, Francois Knoetze’s stage design serves as an interesting throwback to Hitchcock’s Lifeboat. Using simple wooden structures to give the impression of both a makeshift raft and a comforting haven, Knoetze makes the nautical experience utterly real. Musician John Withers boasts a vividly atmospheric sound production that further alludes to the oddly dystopian setting through the expert use of jazz and religiously infused music.
Four Small Gods is definitely a play of the moment. It is serious-minded with a philosophical touch, but not pompous or tedious. The story doesn’t push an agenda but leaves its layered allusions open to interpretation. What Evans does is paint an explosive animal allegory over the true story of human savagery. As Emma confronts thirst and starvation, finds a modus vivendi with her bestial shipmates, and ultimately mutates into an enigmatic anti-heroine, she commands the very Darwinian component she initially deplored.
But what does Four Small Gods have to do with our contemporary sphere? There’s definitely something in the show’s delirious, almost abstract beauty and matter-of-fact syncretism that relates to our diverse world. Though I suspect the true answer lies Emma’s closing monologue – the most moving ‘survivor’s guilt’ coda I have seen in a while. It suggests that even the most self-serving actions are accompanied by remorse and regret. And what we make of it probably tells us more about who we are and how we rationalise our beliefs.
Benn van der Westhuizen
Four Small Gods is currently running at the Magnet Theatre from 30 October to 10 November 2015.