Johannesburg’s theatre scene occasionally feels like a roundabout, every so often hauling out old favourites, dusting them down and giving them their umpteenth re-run. By LESLEY STONES.
Like “Defending The Caveman” before it, “Nothing But the Truth” has reopened at the Market Theatre, a showcase for veteran actor John Kani, who wrote the script and made the lead character Sipho undeniably his own.
The play has bounced back so often it’s hard to believe it’s only been around for eight years, and although it’s set in a theatrical time-warp – a not-too-distant 2000 – time has moved so rapidly that the events it recalls seem forever ago.
By now the production should be flawless, and Kani himself absolutely is. But for the first 20 minutes the overall sound level was too low, making the audience pay more attention than necessary.
Kani holds your attention and tugs your heart with his restrained, but bubbling emotions, his perfect diction that lets some of the hurt seep out and his understated humour. Sipho is an old man who has to bury his brother, a dashing, adored and thoroughly self-centred man who fled South Africa as an exile. By comparison Sipho is the dependable though dull brother – a librarian, in fact – who lacks the struggle credentials of his glamorous brother, as annoying in death as he was in life.
The ashes are brought back to Africa by Sipho’s niece Mandisa, a Londoner who finds all things African rather quaint. In the middle is Sipho’s dutiful daughter Thando, a translator and a firm proponent of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee.
The undercurrent of untold memories, partially buried bitterness and a clash of cultures that inevitably make everyone examine their own beliefs, still has the power to grip an audience.
Being betrayed by his brother and now being betrayed by the government he elected as he is once again denied promotion gives Kani the fuel to criticise the political landscape and evoke audible agreement from the audience.
The opening night crowd was particularly reactive, with ripples of recognition running through as ideas were aired or African culture challenged by the uppity newcomer Mandisa.
That highlighted how Motshabi Tyelele as Thando and Welile Tembe as Mandisa need to tweak their timing and not start speaking while the audience is reacting.
I still find “Nothing But The Truth” a fascinating slice of history, but maybe that’s because as an ex-Brit I’m witnessing emotions that I never shared. It’s a beautifully written, well-performed affair, and it will be interesting to see whether it retains the power to be a crowd-pleaser as times change and memories fade. DM
“Nothing But The Truth” runs at the Market Theatre until 10 October.
Photographs by Ruphin Coudyzer.
Read more of Lesley’s writing at her great website.
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