Maverick Life


‘The Sin Drinkers’ — It’s not the liquor that’s sinful, but the drinker’s darkness

‘The Sin Drinkers’ — It’s not the liquor that’s sinful, but the drinker’s darkness
Emma Kotze and John Maytham in 'The Sin Drinkers'. Image: Claude Barnardo

A window into the toxic compulsions of a couple of broken souls, Louis Viljoen’s latest play is a potently written two-hander that works as brutal commentary on the state of our broken humanity. It may leave you needing a drink.

On the day South Africans woke up to the news that New York’s top appeals court had overturned that state’s conviction of Harvey Weinstein, perhaps the world’s most notorious living sex offender, I also happened to watch The Sin Drinkers, the latest play by Cape Town playwright and director Louis Viljoen.

I’m not sure if I was ready to deal with both on the same day.

I left the Baxter Theatre centre feeling slightly overwhelmed by the play’s numerous reminders of the sheer awfulness of it all, by the way it often feels as though we’re going backwards (a point, incidentally, that was made by the three dissenting judges in the Weinstein appeal).

I couldn’t help but think that it’s time to convince Viljoen to return to lighter, more comedic fare once he starts working on his next play.

I don’t mind all the swearing, the dark ideas and sense of menace and dread. I kind of like the ugly characters who speak so abrasively and yet use such magnificent vocabulary and self-assuredly clever turns of phrase. I’m all for theatre with a sharp edge, and I love the brutal force of Viljoen’s frequently violent language, his ability to turn poetry into weapons that leave a sting.

And, of course, I have great respect for Viljoen’s interest in exploring the absolute worst in humankind.

However, I would very much like to roar with laughter again, the way he compelled me to laugh with his earlier works, like Champs. Even his political drama, The Kingmakers, was blisteringly funny.

Read more in Daily Maverick: ‘The Grass Widow’ offers a transgressive take on psychological trauma – and the ensuing acts of revenge

But the heaviness of The Sin Drinkers consumes the comedy, drowns most of the pitch-black humour with the sheer weight of the subject matter. The way alcohol is meant to drown sorrows.

And that’s the point, really.

Emma Kotze in ‘The Sin Drinkers’. Image: Barbara Loots

This play has at its core a host of ugly sins and omissions. They linger just below the surface and the treatment used to get at them is both candid and sobering.

The question is not whether or not Viljoen’s writing manages to entertain, nor which emotional buttons he presses, not even the extent to which his words might trigger us. Rather, it’s if his play, a portrait of human awfulness and self-loathing, can help us to process the effluvium of the real world. And, if so, to what extent?

In other words, does it provide an opportunity for our collective catharsis — or is it mere self-indulgence?

Demanding dialogue

The play itself is beguilingly simple. A woman (Emma Kotze) and an older man (John Maytham), strangers who are nevertheless bound by their mutual relationship to a third character who is no longer alive, meet in the woman’s apartment and begin to drink.

Both have a serious knack for boozing, in fact.

When you watch alcohol being consumed on stage, you invariably wait for signs of mounting ineptitude and drunkenness to set it. The shakes, the outbursts, the stumbling, the radical changes in personality that hard liquor causes.

But when the drinkers are practised drunks, something else happens.

These two, it turns out, drink to reach a baseline, simply to meet one another on equal terms. Viljoen’s concept here appears to be to have the characters sink into a kind of altered state where they’re at liberty to reveal their darkest secrets. They don’t so much drink their sins away as use the grog to flush the festering truths from the depths of their pitiful souls.

The play’s structure is to first use words as a kind of verbal tennis match, cleverly crafted snatches of dialogue bounced back and forth with a deliberate, metronomic rhythm.

It almost hypnotises you, and I had to concentrate quite hard to tune in to the meaning underneath the cadences of their banter. It’s like listening to music so satisfyingly smooth you don’t quite bother to listen to the lyrics.

Later, though, once the alcohol has relaxed their tongues, this playful warm-up gives way to juicy speeches, including a couple of very long, very heavy monologues during which disturbing truths are revealed. Here’s where the material becomes borderline indulgent, as though we’re perhaps being strung along for a wild ride through a landscape of taboo and tragedy and of memories with a transgressive sexual bent.

This is where it gets tricky, too, where these characters’ moral bankruptcy bubbles to the surface. But it’s also where there’s a sense of their world being elevated above the mundane, the stage transformed into some sort of sacred — or profane — space.

Viljoen’s heightened language and the charged atmosphere it creates alter what we’re observing into a form of ritual. It’s akin to a Catholic confessional — a place where what’s being said serves a purpose greater than the mere sharing of information.

Kind of like a courtroom, albeit one in which the guilty feel compelled to tell the truth, no matter how dark. And it’s within this hallowed context that we hear about terrible and disturbing events that have played their part in the demise of the third character whose tragic death hangs like a dark cloud above the stage.

These confessions, shameful stains on human consciousness, are hard to listen to. And their impact on us in the audience is unavoidable. One cannot hear these things without feeling their burden.

Emma Kotze and John Maytham in ‘The Sin Drinkers’. Image: Barbara Loots

Grim crescendo 

My only real gripe, perhaps, with this short, sharp, harrowing, and very intense play is the tidiness of it all.

These characters, both of them truly messed up and quite broken inside, never quite muster the impulse to erupt into rage or real physical violence. They seem to almost revel in their awfulness, and yet at no point is the booze bottle smashed, the table overturned, not even a cheek slapped. The play’s gambit is to have these two unlikeable characters dance around one another, engaging in a psychological war of words that never quite reaches a tipping point; it’s as if there’s just not enough drama to cause their internalised anguish to burst over into action. Even if that’s what it all feels as if it’s leading up to.

Then again, this sustained control, the characters’ reining in of their worst animal compulsions, may in fact be the play’s true source of menace. Frankly, it’s rather spooky observing just how calmly these characters listen to the awful sins that are confessed. Perhaps it’s their silent consent — their tacit culpability — that’s most unsettling of all.

It’s why, presumably, I walked out feeling slightly shattered, helpless, uneasy, and quite overwhelmed by this sense that terrible things happen in the world and there’s such a glut of resigned acceptance.

We hear the stories, we read about them and see them splashed across our news feeds and social media — confessions and horrible descriptions everywhere — and yet so little, too little, gets done.

That unease I felt is precisely why we need theatre to kick us in the gut once in a while, and hopefully make us uncomfortable enough to be angered into action. 

Because, even though it is a work of fiction, this play refers back to a world in which Harvey Weinstein’s lawyers get to gloat while scores of women whose lives have been destroyed must continue to live in darkness.

And this reality is no laughing matter. DM

‘The Sin Drinkers’. Image: Supplied

The Sin Drinkers, which is charged with sexual, violent and profane language and therefore not for children or sensitive viewers, is showing at the Baxter’s Masambe theatre in Cape Town until 11 May. Tickets from Webtickets


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Niels Colesky says:

    So the thing is this… One of Harvey’s sentences is overturned. He is still very much in jail and the overturned sentence will be re-tried. Don’t be so dramatic.
    Also, why do a review if your purpose is to put me off from seeing it.
    Maybe I skipped the paragraph where you say: “All in all, despite the difficult subject matter, this is a play I am glad I saw. Be warned though, you may well leave the theatre a little raw.”

    • Andrew Marsh says:

      Excellent point. Mark Steyn explains that Mr Weinstein is not necessarily a person with great morals, but in law, as tried, the judges have brought the case back to court due to questionable prosecution. Let’s hope the prosecution don’t drop the ball again.

    • Louis Viljoen says:

      Thanks for noticing that omission, Niels. Come and watch The Sin Drinkers and make up your own mind. It might leave you raw, but we endeavor to entertain nonetheless.

  • Lorna Johnson says:

    Such a brilliant review. A pity we live on the South Coast and don’t have any theatres close by so your reviews keep us updated. Thank you

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