An old woman alone, living with the voices in her head and the memories in her heart. A play built on those bare bones can only succeed with a strong script and a riveting actress, and The Sewing Machine has both. By LESLEY STONES.
The legendary poet Charles Simic once wrote, “Wanted: A needle swift enough to sew this poem into a blanket.” It’s the cold comfort of words that one is left with after The Sewing Machine has ended, however, as the bleak picture is painted of this ageing protagonist with her mind intact and her body betraying her.
The play slightly underplays its hand, finishing after only an hour and exploring a mere fraction of the rich stories that writer Rachelle Greeff could have given us.
However, Sandra Prinsloo had us captivated as Magdaleen as she doddered around her room, painstakingly rising to make tea and caressing the ancient machine that had been her confidant for decades.
The Sewing Machine was written in Afrikaans and this English version received rave reviews at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe last year. It’s perfect festival fare, short and poignant and giving an insight into another lifestyle without laying on too much history for those not overly familiar with South Africa. As the main entertainment for an evening it may feel slightly lacking, although a few people were wiping teary eyes as they left, and that’s always a sign that a show has hit the mark.
I felt strangely unmoved, enormously impressed by Prinsloo yet somehow not touched on the emotional level I would have relished.
The Sewing Machine was translated by Hennie van Greunen, who also directs the work, giving us a gentle tale that moves at the speed of its octogenarian character. That’s the only way it would work, drawing us into her life as she builds up a picture of her now absent or deceased family.
Prinsloo is highly believable as the mentally sharp but physically declining pensioner, battered but not beaten. “An old woman in a new world, a artifact without a museum,” she muses.
At one point the trolley holding the sewing machine gave an ominous lurch to one side, and Prinsloo was forced to stop the show and have a stagehand come to fix the errant prop. “’n Boer maak ‘n plan,” she quipped, out of character but still commandingly in control.
The voices of her husband, children and a couple of other characters come at us through recordings. That worked for me, although hearing Prinsloo giving voice to their comments herself may have felt a little less intrusive.
More intrusive by far was the endless seasonal coughing among the audience, because this is a play of reflection and reminisces, not action, and demands attentive silence so you don’t miss any of the words.
As Magdaleen recalls her past she gives us a few saucy quips, a couple of comments about the changing political landscape and the strange world inhabited by today’s generation. But I wanted to hear more of her other children, not just the one favourite son her sad story focused on. The play’s short length could easily have accommodated more memories if it were fleshed out more, along with context-building comments on the broader social changes that inevitably affected their family unit.
I’d love Greeff to revisit her script to embellish Magdaleen and give her longer to share her memories before she says her last goodbye.
The Sewing Machine runs at Montecasino’s Studio Theatre until October 27. DM
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