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Vermaak | Entertainment > Teater | Theatre > Resensies | Reviews

Clever, but cold: A review of Truth in Translation

Anton Krueger - 2006-10-02

Truth in Translation
Conceived and directed by Michael Lessac
Music by Hugh Masekela
Book by Paavo Tom Tammi

Eleven translators and a cameraman experience the traumas of translating the horrific stories which emerge from the TRC process. They begin to identify with both victims and perpetrators, and veer between volatile emotional states ranging from fear, paranoia and anger to a cold numbness. Despite this, the show is essentially a comedy about the TRC, with some feel-good music thrown in for good measure.

Michael Lessac is principally a television comedy director, and has directed episodes of Taxi, The Drew Carey Show and Everybody Loves Raymond. It seems strange that he decided on a deeply serious project such as this one, and his effect on the production is, ultimately, rather peculiar. It's a fluidly directed show, conveyed in an abstract style with an innovative set design; combining Hugh Masekela’s township tunes with a hip text crammed with great one-liners. Perhaps this contrast between humour and horror is an accurate rendition of the neuroses experienced by the translators who had to hear every gruesome detail of every story told, but it also has the effect of amputating one’s sense of empathy.
There’s no plot as such (which isn’t necessarily a problem), as we’re shown brief incidents along the two and a half year journey of the Commission. When trying to represent types, one often has to resort to cliché, but here the characters are each refreshingly flawed and none of them is without weaknesses or personal idiosyncrasies. And yet, the characters seem to represent the harsher margins of their respective cultures and it’s difficult to relate to them. In this ensemble style, the small fragments we’re allowed to see of the lives of the characters (one is gay, one a preacher, one a lonely white girl, etc) are not really enough for us to connect with their lives and their situations. An all-star cast, including Andrew Buckland, Quanita Adams, Nick Boraine and Bongani Gumede, turn in spirited performances, but I’m not sure that the overall staging did justice to their talents.
Mixing song with documentary material is not new, and has been used effectively in the past by John Adams in The Death of Klinghoffer, as well as by Beryl Korot in Steve Reich’s Three Tales, amongst many other productions. Something similar happens here in that the actual transcripts of the commission are put to music; but I wasn’t quite sure what to do with this music, and I felt the piece could well have done without it. I realise it may be sacrilegious to say anything against the legendary Hugh Masekela; however, I have to say that although one or two of the pieces are quite beautiful, the overall experience is, unfortunately, rather bland.
The problem is that there is little correlation between form and content, and when they’re singing about horrendous atrocities, the music detracts from the meaning. Surely the music is not meant as an ironic comment on the material (as in the Jerry Springer opera, or the beautifully sung renditions of complaints screened recently at Ars 06 in Helsinki), and yet the musical interventions sometimes seemed too playful and almost deliberately unsentimental, which made it difficult to take these sorrows seriously.
These stories are important, but there’s nothing new here if you’ve already read Antjie Krog's Country of My Skull.
I spoke to a Brazilian recently who claimed that not having had a Truth Commission worked for the Brazilian people and that, as a result, they’ve been able to put the past behind them. This made me wonder about the viability of enforcing a constant remembrance of one’s historical past. Is “never forgetting” not in some way antithetical to the aims of trying to attain resolution? I agree that it's important to build a sense of collective memory, and that this might give citizens a boost in terms of their confidence in the system and feelings of solidarity, but it can also lead to a resistance to change.
It’s wonderful that we have a production written by a Finn and directed by a Hollywood director about to tour the world representing a uniquely South African process. The injection of an outside style is interesting, but, to be honest, I’m not sure how effective the piece will be when it soon embarks on its tour of conflict zones (including the Western Balkans, Colombia, and Northern Ireland). Overall it’s a clever piece, and it is, at times, very funny, but it fails to move, and it left me somewhat cold.