Not since seeing Conor Lovett standing in a spotlight and narrating three hours of clean Beckett prose at the Rhodes Theatre a few years ago have I been so completely captivated by a man simply speaking.
Dead Yellow Sands is a masterclass in voice and text, illuminated by nuanced lighting by Guy de Lancey and under the restrained, yet powerful direction of Bo Petersen. Carpeted in his flowing beard, Weir appears equal parts sage and vagabond.
His stories fall somewhere between Bosman and Beckett, combining cruelty and kindness in an array of characters caught up in painful situations, from which a sense of both their resilience and their frailty emerges.
The first story Weir tells jogged my own memories of when a model of the Dromedaris came to park at the Glenfair Mall in Pretoria, which might be an indication of the generation who would particularly appreciate these stories. I thought also of Denis Hirson’s memoirs and reflections. And yet, there is something which resonates more widely here than any single generation.
Weir tells a story of growing up in Benoni, a city which has since become a staple term of ridicule in South African comedy as a backwater ‘burb. But Weir reclaims the beauty of the name, reminding us that, in Hebrew it means Ben Oni – “Son of Sorrow.” In this way Weir salvages the sacredness of South African names and places, using them to weave a series of stories together about those relegated to the margins of power – children, the infirm, the old, animals.
There are stories here of youthful bravado, of working men, of vagabonds, of blindness and an aging impresario. In each brief life there is an intimacy, something tender. These are stories about acceptance and letting go, of facing the sometimes unimaginable pain which life can insist on, without self-pity.
Every tale serves as a reminder that there is ultimately, eventually, nothing to hold onto and that “our little lives are rounded by a sleep.” In this way, each story is in some way a reflection of decline, of a passing into silence, sustained, thematically, like a series of cello suites – with De Lancey’s innovative lighting maintaining the rhythm.
Under Petersen’s steady direction there are no broad strokes or blunt physical gestures here. Instead, the stories are told with a quiet calm, and great care. This stillness is conveyed to the audience, who become steadily more settled, silent, and are gradually drawn in as the show progresses.
Weir’s voice is never showy, and there are no dramatic dives or thrusts in volume, no need to underscore his stories with overt manipulations of emotion. In fact, he never needs to leave his chair, using his voice as a finely primed instrument, revealing a reservoir of resonant energy kept filled to the brim.
Sometimes he slips into soft, lilting song, and the humour, where it occurs, is gentle, sly, quiet; but the main tones are of an everyday valour required to just keep going.
When I look up the name “ben oni” afterwards I find that “oni” does not only mean “sorrow”, but that it can also mean “vigour”. And this is the greatest triumph of this piece, that it shows that within the suffering and the sorrow of the very ordinary tragedies of very ordinary lives, there is also great resilience and courage.
By Anton Krueger