Maverick Life


‘The Grass Widow’ offers a transgressive take on psychological trauma – and the ensuing acts of revenge

‘The Grass Widow’ offers a transgressive take on psychological trauma – and the ensuing acts of revenge
'The Grass Widow'. Image: Claude Barnardo

In playwright Louis Viljoen’s new one-woman black comedy, an unreliable narrator uses cool, clever language to win us over as she takes us into her taboo world.

The plays of Cape Town writer Louis Viljoen have always made me laugh. Sometimes the comedy is uncomfortable, often it’s violent and/or sexual and/or dripping with freewheeling hardcore swears, the sort you might associate with works by David Mamet or Steven Berkoff. 

There’s always been a strong whiff of Quentin Tarantino, too, ear candy for those of us who feasted on his films in the 1990s.

But movies are very different from live theatre. Whereas you can be in a cinema listening to Samuel L Jackson belt out mother-effing insults and slurs without taking it too much to heart, when you’re confronted with actors describing intimate sex acts using the most provocative and seemingly antisocial language while breathing the same air as you, maybe making direct eye contact as you watch from the front row, the discomfort level goes up a few notches.

I personally like it when a playwright dips the quill into the murky depths, opens a vein to make me squirm. There’s no denying that rough language in the middle of a lyrical monologue makes the ears prick up. Like skewering your finger on a thorn while sniffing a rose, it momentarily alters your brain chemistry. 

So, by all means: when you’re describing sexual behaviour that borders on a kind of atrocity and is charged with violence, is meant to signify a sort of outrageousness that culminates in horror, then let the swear words fly. 

Uttered on a stage, those words – particularly when they’re linked together with clever turns of phrase and prose that borders on poetry – have a way of jolting us into a different way of hearing. Especially when they’re uttered by a young, clean-cut actress who is well spoken and eloquent, rather than, as Trump reminded us, by a misogynist in the men’s locker room. Such a smattering of vulgarities sends a signal that something is off, that trouble may be on the way. 

Perhaps our shock at a woman letting the bad language loose tells us something about our expectations with respect to gender roles, about how society expects women to behave, talk, think. 

In Viljoen’s latest play, The Grass Widow, the unhinged sex talk and sudden, swift volley of swears signal that our narrator may be coming apart. A kind of personality rift, separation, or split. 

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The play is an almost terrifyingly intimate one-hander in which a woman (Emma Kotze) reveals a few poignant details from her, or someone’s, sex life. 

Despite the vividness and shock value of the sexual transgressions and the hardcore descriptions of what this tongue or those fingers did to which body part and penetrated that cavity, it’s the callousness of the language that we should be worried about. 

At times, Viljoen uses a kind of unflinching pornographic prose to create a clinical (and comedic) atmosphere around the acts being described. The scenarios concocted are gross, transgressive, taboo and so vividly detailed that you can’t help but picture them playing out in front of you. There’s a badass kink, but you laugh nevertheless, even when the shit, literally, hits the fan.

It is as though he is desensitising us to physical sex and violence in order to make room for the gorier reality: the emotional and psychological disorder that is emerging from beneath the innocence, the narrator’s hard language serving as scaffolding upon which to build a picture of the real horror at the heart of the story. 

'The Grass Widow' poster. Image: Claude Barnardo

‘The Grass Widow’ poster. Image: Supplied / Claude Barnardo

A “grass widow” is traditionally a term used to describe a woman who spends extensive time separated from her partner. In the context of Viljoen’s play, however, the narrator fleshes out a different kind of widow-making, and uses sometimes cutthroat language to express the emotional torment and psychological meltdown that unfolds when men mess with the wrong woman.

There are dark comic twists and turns – acts of vengeance that are macabre and cruel and executed with relish. But the point of the play, the attention to psychological expressiveness in the writing, has parallels, again, with Tarantino whose storylines invariably take us into a universe of upside-down morality. In these alternative literary spaces, fictional characters operate at the fringes of what is ethically right, enabling us – the audience – to root for the underdog and the outsider, no matter what awful thing they’ve perpetrated in the name of exacting their perverted justice. 

It is funny, yes, but only because Viljoen has such a firm hold over his craft; the sentences are polished, the imagery almost cinematic, and in moments the story is pretty troubling. But the reality being examined is emotionally painful, and for that Viljoen has ample poetry.

It’s a kind of morality play, a cautionary tale, a look at how even fairly familiar acts of teenage cruelty can have unimaginable consequences. Except, of course, here the playwright has imagined what those consequences might be, and he spells them out for us, brings them to life using words you cannot unhear, descriptions you will see in your mind’s eye. If you’re squeamish, you might struggle. This is no Hallmark rendition of the facts of life; this is psycho-sexual trauma unflinchingly examined, dark despite the clever comedy and the rich prose.

It is a short play, but it is dense, the words hold you in their grip all the way through. You are in turn charmed by it, repulsed by it, entertained and – finally – left in a state of unease. 

Because what Viljoen has dug into his soul to write is only one woman’s tale. You leave the Baxter’s Masambe Theatre deeply aware that there are countless other women whose stories you did not just witness. 

And you can’t help but wonder just how gruesome those stories – the real ones unfolding every day – might be. DM/ML

The Grass Widow is playing at the Masambe Theatre, Baxter Theatre Centre, in Cape Town, until 11 February. Tickets are available from Webtickets.


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  • Vivian De Klerk De Klerk says:

    This is a very though-provoking review. Thank you! The play sounds ‘awfully’ good. I hope it comes to the Gtown Arts Festival later this year.

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