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Visit the active LitNet platform at www.litnet.co.za

Vermaak | Entertainment > Teater | Theatre > Resensies | Reviews

Grootboom’s Cards –A tenderly violent sex spectacle

Anton Krueger - 2007-03-02


Written by Mpumelelo Paul Grootboom and Mothusi Mokoto
Directed by Mpumelelo Paul Grootboom
Venue: Drama Theatre - The South African State Theatre, Pretoria
Currently showing: 27 February – 18 March 2007
The programme to this second run of this popular play promises sex, nudity, violence, swearing and drugs – and the show doesn’t disappoint. It’s a grand-scale sex spectacle of the first order, using multiple levels, blaring music (of a quite extraordinary range) and gratifyingly large dollops of complete nudity and simulated sex.
I remember being in high-school and sitting  in the auditorium of the main Drama stage at the State Theatre almost twenty years ago, when the complex was still nicknamed "Die Status Teater”. Back then,  an audibly displeased mutter could still be heard to rustle through an audience whenever a character so much as mumbled a profanity on stage. Looking on now as six couples in various stages of undress came to the climax of an orgasmic dance, I was again reminded of how completely things change, and how they keep on changing. 
Gone is the stiff formality of years gone by, when repressed whities dominated these plush maroon seats, pausing only momentarily from perpetually maintaining their composure to whisper haughty admonitions about people who were clearly “nie van ons kerk af nie”. In this crowd, people arrived well into the play and cell phones chimed out agreeably throughout the show. A constant interplay of commentary between audience and stage went on, with frequent cheering, clapping, and chirping. I loved this crowd. I love black audiences. This is what theatre should be, a communal event, something shared, not a movie where you’re sitting there alone in the dark; and also not a preachy lesson in politics or high culture.
In Paul Grootboom's characteristic style a large cast combines expansive ensemble movement pieces with smaller, more intimate moments, juxtaposing callous violence with scenes of tenderness. The play takes place in a Hillbrow brothel, but where it occasionally broke off from the generally action-packed narrative to offer philosophic musings on the sex industry, these were not always entirely new. These are themes which have been broached before, perhaps with more complexity in Deon Opperman's two productions (Whore and Nipple Caps en G-strings) and with more raw vigour in Ken Russell's film Whore, and yet, none of those could beat this show for its high-speed dash between the ecstatic highs and deathly lows of the business.
According to Anne Duncan in Performance and Identity in the Classical World (2006), for the Romans, actors and prostitutes were confined to the same social category, since they were both pretending to be what they were not (124). Actors also "aroused fears of gender instability, fears of deception, and fears of corruption" (188). But if there was any fear in this audience it was expressed only in terms of gales of laughter and applause whenever anyone –and especially the male leads – got their kit off.
So the audience loved the nudity, and hooted with laughter at the violence as they enjoyed the ridiculous situations into which sexual obsessions lead men and women. But whether this laughter was a liberatory freeing up of the moral order, or whether it acted as enforcement of the status quo is difficult to say.
It may be impossible to write a neutral piece on the subject of the sex industry, since the field seems fraught with paradoxes. On the one hand, it’s hard to make a truthful show which is also critical, because the show in itself becomes a seductive and titillating gesture which then defeats its own arguments. Then, the predictable debate of whether it’s a form of women's liberation or women's enslavement is not easily resolved. And it’s also paradoxical that those who advocate against the sex industry want to make it forbidden, which would probably make it so much more attractive. Surely the most damage one could do to the industry would be to normalise it, since it maintains much of its allure due to the mystique surrounding the forbidden.
Although it is not directed as “realism”, this production does at times come across as very realistic. And yet the “reality” that is revealed is that prostitutes are not necessarily very interesting people. (So one finds that literature about fringe types – sex workers, drug addicts, criminals and so on – often also reveals the banalities of their existence, and shows that just because somebody does something which is counter to the normal flow of ordinary life, they’re still most often ordinary people, with very ordinary aspirations.)
I’ve wandered off the subject of whether this is a good play or not. To summarise, then: the directing is innovative, the spectacle is grand, and yet there’s not always that much to go on in terms of personal relations and identifying with characters and their situations. But then again, maybe that’s not always the point. The production is filled with energy and emotion; and the bodies are beautiful.