Damon Galgut’s ‘The Promise’ makes magical leap from page to stage
Those who have read Damon Galgut’s Booker Prize-winning novel will not be disappointed. Those who have not will be thrilled anyway.
What landed Damon Galgut the Booker Prize in 2021 was the literary key he turned to open a vista, a collective perspective centred on a pinpoint — a promise.
In the novel The Promise (for those who might not yet have read it), Galgut places on that pinpoint a carousel of characters, including members of the Swart family: patriarch Manie, his wife, Rachel, their son, Anton, daughters Astrid and Amor and their long-serving domestic helper, Salome, and her son, Lukas.
The promise is one Rachel makes on her early deathbed that Salome will be given the house on the farm that she has lived in all her life. It is a pledge that is overheard by the young Amor.
It is a promise that takes so long to be realised that in the end it is threadbare and tattered. Rachel’s death draws to the Swart family farm the scattered and shattered family and this is where the action unfolds, back and forth over several decades.
Alchemy on the stage
The alchemy between Galgut and visionary theatre director Sylvaine Strike, in translating the text for the stage is matched in this production by a stellar ensemble who shine in their roles, large and small.
In the book, the narrator occupies a liminal space, darting in and out of the unfolding story while the characters are split open, their inner thoughts, desires, shames, yearnings, inanities and disappointments revealed.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Striking the right tone — Booker Prize-winning novel ‘The Promise’ reimagined for stage
A dark humour underpins Galgut’s novel and in this stage adaptation it is what drives the action. When the “comedy” isn’t bubbling underneath, it spills all over the place and it is delightful.
Set designer Josh Lindberg’s superb and versatile sloping set with ramps and hatches allows for the physicality required to bring that which cannot jump from page to stage. Here, movement provides a demanding and sublime net for the narrative.
Kate Normington is a seasoned comic actress and she is in her element here as Strike and Galgut have created portals for an array of fantastically funny characters. She superbly channels Galgut’s keen sense of the absurd.
Rob van Vuuren too, tightly coiled like a spring, plays a menacing and damaged Anton, burnished and driven mad by compulsory national service. Van Vuuren also gave brief life to Father Batty’s most memorable moment in the book.
This is the Catholic priest’s inner monologue while releasing his boiling and exploding bowels in the parish toilet.
Those who have watched Chuma Sopotela on stage will have experienced the depth she brings to her characters. Sopotela is able to bear the rage and the betrayal Salome expected would play out among the dysfunctional family with huge presence.
Sopotela conjures a Salome who knows each one of these family members all too well but remains trapped by them all. Their promises are worthless.
Sanda Shandu, as Lukas, transforms from the eager, happy-go-lucky young boy growing up on the farm with the Swart children to a bitter man denied a future.
Frank Opperman as the weatherbeaten Manie embodies the frayed-at-the-edges old conservative who feels life and land slipping away.
Albert Pretorius is always a pleasure to watch on stage and he and Cintaine Schutte are great comic actors and delightful in various roles in this marvellous tale of unwisdom, laced with wit and insight.
Jenny Stead and Jane de Wet as Astrid and Amor also play superbly a palette of pain and resentment, lies and greed between the sisters and Amor’s insistence that Rachel’s promise to Salome be honoured.
The Promise ended its run at the Star Theatre in Cape Town on 6 October and will open at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg from 18 October to 5 November. DM