A recurring nightmare from the past

A part of the set of Sleepwalkingland at the 2016 National Arts Festival, July 06, 2016, Grahamstown, South Africa. Adapted from the novel by Mia Couto Sleepwalkingland is set in war-torn Mozambique at the end of the civil war when the tension between rival political parties was at its highest point. Photo: CuePix / Jane Berg.

Anybody who’s ever had a nightmare knows how it feels to fear sleep, to fear the night. “We are sleeping,” our guide at the Drostdy Arch tells us before we embark on a bus ride to the derelict site where Sleepwalkingland takes place. “We need to open our eyes, but our nightmares follow us.

”I love productions that take us out of the safe space of the theatre, that introduce us to a place we’ve never been before. With the smell of gasoline fires blazing in oil drums, we weave our way through a corridor of a roofless building, out to a burnt-out bus. On the walls of the building graffiti has been scratched by local gangs. We’ve entered a world that is unfamiliar, and there’s already a veiled threat about the open space in the cold and dark of night.

I was glad there was at least one strong site-specific work at Festival this year, and was reminded of Brett Bailey’s legendary Orfeus of 2007, which he staged in the quarry. Something I appreciated about that production was the calm with which the narrator prepared us for the experience, and that they requested silence from the very beginning when we walked to the site. It ensured our other senses were heightened; it allowed us to become immersed in the world of the production. This would have been a good idea here as well – silence – and that in general more could have been done with the bus ride to prepare us for our experience, especially since so much of Sleepwalkingland’s story takes
place on a bus.

Nevertheless, the three sites of the show were visually stunning. And we certainly need more shows like this about our neighbouring countries to avoid our becoming deluded into imagining the Festival as an island bobbing in the Eastern Cape, connected by the umbilical cord of the N2 linking us to the Port Elizabeth airport.

Indeed, we need to be reminded of our kinship and connection with Africa. In an open letter to President Jacob Zuma two years ago, Mia Couto – the Beira-born author of the novel Sleepwalkingland is adapted from – urged him “to recreate the feelings of solidarity between our peoples” in order to “transform the pain and the shame” of the xenophobic attacks which were taking place against Mozambicans. He called for an understanding born “from a kinship of our common soul and shared history.”

While the visuals were a strong element of the production, sometimes it felt a little bit too safe. We were told that, although we would hear about horrors, we must remember always that it’s just a game, that nothing here is real. But this civil war which raged for decades right on South Africa’s doorstep was very real, and I think most people in the audience probably have very little idea of the horrors experienced. I’m certainly not advocating a kind of misery porn, but I think that in order to effect pathos, one needs to have created an affect of the loss experienced. It needs to be faced without deflecting it.

Also, in general, I thought the sound could have been better managed. I realise it was necessary to mic up the performers in the vast space, but the loud booming of the amplification tended to flatten the soundscape and make the dialogue feel detached from the characters. More could have been done with ambient, live sounds in the site – stones, sticks, tin buckets, chanting, singing. The large chorus of the dead could have been used to good effect in creating this ambience. We needed to connect more with them, and them with us.

More stories like this need to be realised, but they take time to sustain; to help many of us to face the reoccurring nightmare of our fraught past with courage and compassion.

Anton Krueger
Cue specialist writer