Life, etc

Delirium review: nutty as a fruitcake, but not nearly as satisfying

By Lesley Stones 31 August 2012

Delirium, which opened at the Market Theatre this week, showcases some great acting and a clever concept. But it ultimately falls flat, and the chaotic atmosphere gets just a little bit silly. By LESLEY STONES.

When one heads off for a night at the theatre, you hope for some kind of awakening, or that specific kind of searing delight only a brilliantly executed live performance can bring.

Yet the last few shows I’ve seen have left me feeling somewhere between ambivalent and downright discontented. They’ve all had some features worth admiring, and some aspects that weaken them, leaving the audience muddled in the no-man’s land between ‘like’ and ‘dislike’.

Delirium made its world debut at the Market Theatre this week, and was no exception to the trend, delivering a perfect salt-and-pepper mix of good and bad.

It’s written by Ariel Dorfman, a Chilean-American human rights activist, to highlight the destructive and indefensible nature of wars provoked by ethnic differences.

It’s set in a ramshackle house that is abruptly split in two when peace is declared and a new border is drawn between two warring countries. Atom Roma (David Dennis) is shoved to one side and his wife Levana Julak (Fiona Ramsay) thrust into the other when a border guard strides in to mark a new territory through the marital bed.

The plot blends comedy, tragedy and farce, heightened by the ridiculous situation of a border dividing the couple and a guard post erected behind the bed. There must be no cross-border copulation, they are told.

Ramsay is gloriously disheveled as the feisty wife whose duty is to account for and bury the dead until their families can come to claim the bodies. Dennis is admirable in the role of the baffled husband, a little cowed by his fiery wife and his spirit fractured by 20 years of war.  

But it’s Fezile Mpela as the guard who seems most at home in his role, stomping with bluster, then fighting off a yearning to be wanted when the dotty couple mistake him for their long-departed son.

The plot unfolds mostly in English, but Dorfman has also incorporated a made-up language into the dialogue. It’s an interesting but largely pointless tactic, since we already know from their accents, garb and mannerisms that these are people of foreign lands.

That’s the good news. On the bad side, smoke trickling out of a stove filled the theatre with an unpleasant fugginess – needlessly, because there’s no theatrical benefit in a fire smouldering in the corner.

The stage set by Denis Hutchinson is deliberately cluttered to impede easy movement, allowing the characters to emphasise the stupidity of having to clamber over the bed or chairs to reach the toilet. Hutchinson’s lighting, coupled with Mark Malherbe’s sound effects, also does an excellent job of unleashing a war beyond the walls.

Dorfman’s script attacks the senselessness and stupidity of wars fought over religion, ethnicity, land or colour. He also highlights that while there is no money for the citizens, there will be money for landmines, border posts, barbed wire and bulldozers to demolish houses that stand in the way of man-made divisions. Too often, however, the anti-war message is bombed out by the madcap clutter around it, even though director Greg Homann tries never to let the madness get too annoyingly manic.

Ultimately Delirium left me unsatisfied, as this farce about a serious subject surrenders to the daft rather than emerging as a deft and funny conqueror. DM

 * Delirium runs at The Market Theatre until September 20, then at the Hilton Arts Festival in KwaZulu Natal on September 22 and 23.
Photos by Ruphin Coudyzer; article courtesy of


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