Maverick Life

THEATRE REVIEW

The Visigoths, a potent play that’ll rock you to your core

The Visigoths, a potent play that’ll rock you to your core
Nicholas Pauling and Daniel Newton in Louis Viljoen’s new play, ‘The Visigoths’. (Photo: Supplied)

In ‘The Visigoths’, a harrowing new play by Louis Viljoen, the descriptions of human cruelty and a desire for darkest vengeance are underpinned by lustrous wordsmanship. The resulting assault on the senses is experienced physically.

Two men in black suits meet in a dust-layered room, a bottle of booze and two tumblers on the table. The space, somehow archetypal, says nothing about what’s about to unfold. 

The Visigoths poster

Poster for ‘The Visigoths’.

There’s been a short prologue, one of the men, chilling to the bone, giving us a rough lie of the land: harrowing words are coming, and there will be some serious attention given to the manner in which life plays out for a boy, now a man. In that prologue, we’re made aware of some deep chasm that has potentially torn through the fabric of reality, the man’s words setting the time-space continuum ablaze.

Playwright Louis Viljoen is just getting warmed up.

The historic Visigoths evoked by the title of Viljoen’s new play are most notably associated with having sacked Rome, an event that at the time was equated with the fall of civilisation itself. One imagines a band of barbaric marauders from an era when “rape, pillage and plunder” might have been considered the order of the day.

When Viljoen’s dialogue arrives at the terrible, terrifying events that underpin the psychology of the two men on stage you cannot help but connect the rawness and horror of what you’re hearing with the kind of antiquated barbarism most of us believe has no place in a civilised world. 

Like a word-wielding sorcerer, Viljoen employs literary sleight of hand to bend your ears ever so slightly so that the dialogue attains a kind of timelessness; the room and the two men in it might be characters from antiquity or figures from the future. 

That they are present in the here and now is neither here nor there. The matters they discuss have bearing that reaches across the ages.  

And it is unsettling, gut-wrenching stuff. 

There are descriptions of violence of a sort you might have witnessed in movies, felt rip through your eyeballs on various screens, seen play out in the shadows of thrillers and crime serials and awful horror movies, but somehow, as two actors stand on the stage a few feet in front of a live audience, the impact is more terrible, more hard-hitting than anything you’ll have watched on TV or in a cinema. Worse even than what you’d imagine played out in Rome in the year 410.

Viljoen’s project, his life’s work really, has been to demonstrate the power and heft of words. At times he reaches so deeply into a blood-filled inkwell in order to dispense phrases designed to shock that his words sever an artery, make our stomachs churn, put an ache in our hearts. 

And that’s the point. He wants us not merely to hear the words, but to feel them, to experience their physical force and fury. 

Notable in Viljoen’s play, which he also directs, is that the menace is almost entirely bound up in the language; he keeps movement to a minimum, instead asking his two actors, Nicholas Pauling and Daniel Newton, to let the wrath and rage well up from deep within.

the visigoths

Nicholas Pauling and Daniel Newton in Louis Viljoen’s new play, ‘The Visigoths’. (Photo: Supplied)

It works very well, not only because the words are so potent, but because the actors are so invested in their terrible roles. You somehow feel the earth trembling, the fires of hell being dredged up, get that metaphoric kick in the gut simply by experiencing the dread and menace and torment barrelling out of these two performers.

If this play doesn’t rock you to your core, scald your flesh and hackle at your internal organs, and then sit with you afterwards, you might need to check your pulse. Because Viljoen has deployed words that crackle with energy, that are filled with dark magic, and that make your being feel as though it might at any moment explode. His words are evidence of the pen’s power, and the two actors performing them have embodied them in ways that are terrifying, shocking and brave.

It is not a pleasant play to watch, but it rages and roils and is intent on getting a feeling out of you. I think that’s an important part of an artwork’s job: to make us feel, perhaps to anger and upset us. The notices up in the Baxter’s Masambe Theatre’s foyer carry warnings that the play is “triggering” – and boy does it live up to the caution.

It is brutal, and the dialogue is violent and harrowing, with descriptions of extreme abuse and degradation. There is no escaping the trauma, no sidestepping the unsettlingly vivid recollections of what has been done.

We are made to feel the ruin of a boy’s innocence, the fact of his undoing, and we are left with the idea that he cannot be brought back from the place his violators have taken him, a psychically unimaginable place where for 10 years he has waited for the chance to exact revenge.

There are moments in The Visigoths when you catch yourself thinking this play has gone too far, when Viljoen’s words contrive to make you visualise acts of violation and sexual violence that are beyond the pale, that you feel somehow should not be allowed. You feel your mind grasping at some sort of censorship, attempting to erase what your ears have just heard, remove from your imagination the vile images that have been conjured up.

But, of course, it’s in the very instant that you catch yourself grappling with the morality of what you’ve heard and you feel yourself squirming in your seat, that Viljoen has hit his target: he has crafted his words to coalesce with such force that they are felt physically. They undermine your equilibrium.

In that moment, you are pushed to identify with this victim, compelled to share his desire for terrible vengeance.

Viljoen explores not only the impact of extreme transgression on its victims, but also the corrupting factors that the recounting of such violence and abuse have on the world. In a way, the play is an investigation of the desire to eradicate the horrors of history – to enact furious vengeance against the offenders in an attempt to erase their actions.

But, ultimately, there is no force in the universe powerful enough to undo the evil that has already played out. We are stuck with the fact of history’s existence, its memory passed down through the generations. 

No dream, no fantasy, no therapy session, no eye-for-an-eye killing of the perpetrators of evil can undo the sins of the fathers.

Like the dust that lies across the stage and over the table and ultimately adheres to the two men on stage, the detritus of history clings to us for all eternity.

It is the weight of this message, this notion that we are destined as a species to stew in the awfulness of transgressions committed in the past, that makes it such a heavy play. It is the first work by Viljoen that I’ve seen that has not provoked me to laugh, that has not elicited giggles at the wordplay nor guffaws at the sheer gall and wily wit of a playwright willing to examine even the dingiest corners for dark comedy.

Instead, he sees here a topic so heavy and blood-drenched, so mired in the effluvium of human hideousness that there is no space for laughter; just as a boy’s soul has been plundered, so the subject matter has been stripped bare and all that remains is tragedy and bloody sacrifice.

It is a hard play to witness – the events are cruel, the writing hard as nails. But, oh my god, it is potent and harrowing and it will not leave you alone. DM

Written and directed by Louis Viljoen, The Visigoths plays at the Baxter’s Masambe Theatre until 24 June. Tickets from Webtickets.

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