The Return of the Repressed: Die Reuk van Appels

Gideon Lombard in Die Reuk van Appels. Photo: Jan Potgieter / National Arts Festival

Questions of identity, masculinity, race and psychological trauma haunt this stunningly sensitive Afrikaans language adaptation of Mark Behr’s award-winning apartheid hangover.

“Pa! Pa! Hoekom het jy my nie gehelp nie?” Young schoolboy Marnus lies slumped on stage crying. He’s been trying to prove his manhood to his father by reeling in a sandshark. After pushing himself to the point of breakdown for over an hour, he finally drops the fishing rod. His father, a “vierkantige-ken” military general in the old apartheid South African Defence Force, lets his son know in no uncertain terms: he’s failed. The young boy is shattered — both physically and emotionally.

The psychological impact of such a powerfully simple scene is registered throughout Die Reuk van Appels in its minimal use of props (a chair, a torch, a military jacket), augmented by a hauntingly vintage soundtrack (Springbok Radio, Mimi Coertse operatic arias, military walkie-talkie transmissions).

Relax. Apartheid nostalgia this isn’t. Instead, director Lara Bye’s theatrical adaptation plays out as a requiem for a lost dream. A boyhood dream. A song of youthful innocence and yes, the shadow of adult experience.

Produced by Kayla Roux

Die Reuk van Appels is not all snot en trane either. Actor Gideon Lombard delivers a bravura one-man performance as the protagonist. Through his delightfully quizzical first person-perspective we get to meet patriarchal Pa, compassionate Ma (a retired opera singer), cheeky sussie (a conscientised student), foolish Frikkie (his best friend) and even a dodgy Chilean military dictator. All these characters are seen through the curious, confused and yes, comical eyes and ears of this white adolescent boy trying to make sense of growing up in apartheid South Africa.

Kitchen sink scenes ranging from rugby and boxing kaskenades to navigating the moral problem of playing with his “piel” all capture the wide-eyed joy of a young boy coming of age. Elsewhere, micro-meditations on understanding race — the domestic worker who “will go to heaven, even though she’s coloured, because she’s a Christian” — a voyeuristic sexual encounter and his own ‘boetie gaan border toe’ terror are played out with just the right mix of nervous hesitation, sinister confusion and downright existential angst.

But what method is there in the madness of rehashing any such traumatic narratives of white masculinity? How exactly does Die Reuk van Appels speak to contemporary questions of identity, patriarchy, race and so on? Well, in its evocation of the importance of memory, the play returns these repressed questions so central to our democracy to where they belong: centre stage.

By Miles Keylock

Catch Die Reuk van Appels at the Hangar on July 4 at 7.30pm, July 5 at 2pm and July 8 at 5pm.