In his yuppie daughter’s sterile suburban house, Gregor Samsa is slowly turning into an insect. If you are familiar with The Metamorphosis, the 1915 novel by Franz Kafka, the concept as well as the name of the main character will ring a bell. Samsa-masjien, the award-winning Afrikaans play, draws on the Kafka classic as a foundation, but is an entirely new and brilliant story that begs for dialogue to evolve around issues of family values and relationships, the struggles of dementia and the superficiality of modern capitalist aspirations.
The strained relationship between four family members takes place in the suburban dream home of career-driven couple, Grete (Illana Cilliers) and Tjaart (Ludwig Binge) whose outwardly happy relationship is tested when her parents move in. Grete’s father, the Kafka-inspired Gregor Samsa (Gerben Kamper) is in his seventies and is slowly losing his original self to dementia. Or so Grete’s psychologist says, and her psychiatrist husband agrees. As Gregor slowly changes, only fragments of his previous self remain. A source of irritation and disgust for his own daughter, Gregor is dutifully cared for by his wife Josephine (Antoinette Kellerman) who feeds and bathes him and even indulges his hallucinations that insects are constantly crawling over his body. Her commitment to her partner of 50 years is so great that she slowly starts transforming as well, joining him in his madness.
Samsa-masjien presents all four actors with immensely challenging roles, both verbally and physically. The dialogue takes place on ground that is hard to tread, where emotions are raw wounds suppressed by fear and expectations. Having teetered on the precipice of insanity, the inevitable collapse comes in a spectacular visual and aural assault that leaves the viewer exalted and numb at the same time. Unapologetically exploring the darker side of what it means to be human, Samsa-masjien comes with a helping of nudity and sex which add an even deeper dimension to the brutality of living with dementia and misplaced values.
There are so many layers of brilliance in Samsa-masjien. On top of brave and flawless acting, the music and stage design strike straight to the heart in their simplicity. Dreamed up by Jaco Bouwer (designer and director) and Willem Anker (writer), in this production every element matters. The snow-white stage creates a blank canvas, cleverly divided into two rooms in which the audience can see different scenes playing off. While Gregor Samsa is growing ever more infantile and insectile on the one side, Grete is cynically working through sessions with her psychologist, which narrate the daily struggles experienced in the house. When the plot starts unravelling more seriously, Gregor and Josephine move into the basement area, where Gregor obsessively builds a noise machine, smears himself with dirt and mourns the losses of his human life. Relegated to life below stairs, he lives like an insect.
For the latter part of the play, the divide shifts from left and right to top and bottom. In their sterile suburban house, Grete and Tjaart put on their game faces and run through the mechanics of a yuppie dinner party – one of the most hypnotising and powerful scenes in the production – while downstairs Gregor and Josephine fall deeper into their insanity. Director Jaco Bouwer describes this horizontal divide as the visual representation of the rational versus the irrational, which highlights the question – which is the true insanity: the lost humanity of old-age senility or the lost humanity of furthering our capitalist interests through forced relationships?
With this second highly memorable Afrikaans production following fast on the heels of Balbesit, Jaco Bouwer is proving himself a director to watch. His carefully choreographed scenes linger in the mind’s eye and he constantly asks questions that drift on the edge of our comfort zones. Bouwer’s plays are not only entertainment. They open new spaces in the collective consciousness. Samsa-masjien is Afrikaans theatre at its macabre best.
Samsa-masjien runs at the Baxter Theatre 16 to 31 January 2015.