Monthly Archives: October 2016

Book review: Three Plays – Dream of the Dog, The Girl in the Yellow Dress, The Imagined Land by Craig Higginson

three-plays-and-glinkaReading a play is like listening to an opera on CD. Many would argue that both are best experienced on stage. There is nothing like a live performance, I agree. Yet, no matter how much I love going to the theatre or opera house, reading a play or listening to opera in the comfort of my own home can also be special.

I have never seen any of Craig Higginson’s plays performed live, but I have read most of them, a few several times. As texts, they are deeply satisfying and engage the reader on intellectual and aesthetic levels while giving voice to intimate, troubled spaces of the soul as well as addressing profound socio-political issues. Earlier this year, Wits University Press published three of Higginson’s most acclaimed plays – Dream of the Dog, The Girl in the Yellow Dress, The Imagined Land – in one volume, with a foreword by Jeremy Herrin and an incisive introduction by Michael Titlestad. Herrin speaks of Higginson’s “delicate psychology” in the “theatrical landscape, a place where the contradictions and messiness of contemporary life hold themselves up for inspection.” Titlestad points out “the plays’ common concern with the possibilities and limits of representation… Collectively they refract what has been at stake in this country’s transition, and they do so with a subtlety and insight that will ensure their longevity.” Despite their complexity, the plays are readily accessible.

dream-houseDream of the Dog was first written and appeared as a local radio play in 2006, and was rewritten and staged the following year in South Africa before transferring overseas. Its action takes place in KwaZulu-Natal. An aging couple sell their farm to developers. The man in charge of the project turns out to be the son of one of their former workers. As he returns to the place, he brings with him long-supressed memories of violence and death on the farm. The play inspired Higginson’s latest novel, The Dream House (2015), which won the prestigious University of Johannesburg Prize for South African Writing in English this year.

In The Girl in the Yellow Dress, a British woman living in Paris gives English lessons to a Frenchman of African origin. As the young people discuss gramma constructions, their carefully constructed personal stories surface and collide. The play was first performed in Grahamstown in 2010 before conquering stages around the world.

The most recent play in the collection, The Imagined Land, premiered locally last year. It is a stunning work in which a young black scholar decides to write the biography of an elderly white literary icon and simultaneously begins a relationship with the woman’s daughter. The unreliability of memory and the archive, guilt and desire complicate the highly charged action, set in present-day Johannesburg: “Not that I believe a narrative can represent a life. Imagined lands – that is all we are, all we have access to.”

There are no easy resolutions, but grace and redemption seem possible. In Herrin’s words: Higginson’s “characters invariably turn towards the light. They have an inclination for the truth, even if reconciliation might still be beyond them.”

 

Three Plays: Dream of the Dog, The Girl in the Yellow Dress, The Imagined Land

by Craig Higginson

Wits University Press, 2016

Review first published in the Cape Times, 28 October 2016.

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Blue light at Temenos

light

How often can you shatter and remain whole?

Death. Loss. Grief.

House break-in.

Cancer scare.

Institutions breaking you down by sheer incompetence and lack of understanding.

Death, again. And again.

Car accident.

And then…         . A void, a negation of time and space, of reality. How do you describe something or someone whom you tell, repeatedly: ‘I can’t breathe. I am in unbearable pain. I feel small. I am fragile. Vulnerable. Skinless. Please do not hurt me…’ And they violate your body and soul regardless? I do not know. Perhaps some things cannot be described. Sometimes words are too good to contain this, this…          ? blue-light-too

I care about words.

Another shattering.

Another loss.

What remains are the pieces. And a life-long illness. Deal with it, Karina.

turn-withinIn a corner, with no way out, when everything seems lost, broken, incomprehensible, a tiny light might save you. Holding on to that light is not an act of bravery. It is an act of compassion. I survive because I have kind people in my life. Perhaps recognising and reaching out for that kindness is courage? I do not know. I know that the sharing, the true care of friendship, have saved me from utter despair. The women in my life. I repeat: The women in my life. I do not know what I would have done without You. I salute and cherish you!

blue-lightThe first time I travelled to Temenos in McGregor, the retreat was recommended to me by my friend Margie. She knew what I was going through and said that the beauty and silence would be good for me. I fell in love with the place. One-and-a-half years later I went back, for the beauty and the silence. It is a silence punctuated by the outrageous screams of peacocks and the reluctant striking of the church tower clock. People smile, from the distance.

breakfast-at-temenos  sirloin  bemind

You can do things, or just be. Read. Sleep. Eat well. There is a bric-a-brac shop in the middle of McGregor which sells the best olives in the country. Tebaldi’s, the restaurant at Temenos, serves delicious meals. There are donkeys. Wine estates. Dusty heat. Tarot card readers and aroma therapists. Kindness, in the place and its people. The veld. And lazy sunsets which make you believe in tomorrow. It is all right to go to bed before 8pm. To read next to the pool for hours. To start brewing coffee at 5am and drink it on the stoep of your cottage while watching the light yawn and rise in the magical garden around you. Meditate, or just sit doing nothing at Temore, The Inner Temple of the Heart, with its soothing blue light.

reading-next-to-the-pool  falling

Wherever I go, I find coins. I call them my lucky coins. In South Africa, usually, 5c or 20c; 50c if I am really lucky. When I arrived in the gardens of Temenos, I found a R2-coin next to my car. Then, a few hours later, another R2-coin next to the pool. And the next day, while I was telling this story to my friend Helen (our stays at Temenos overlapped for one day and one night) during our sunset walk in the veld – in that very moment – I found another one next to our path. I want to believe that good things are coming. That despite the insanity of reality surrounding us in these troubled times, the kindness of people will prevail.

helen-in-the-veld-at-sunset

questions-from-the-seaDuring the last McGregor Poetry Festival a poem was inscribed on the walls of Temenos, my favourite one from Stephen Symon’s stunning debut collection Questions for the Sea. What synchronicity to find it there when I was returning home last night for the Q&A at Stephen’s reading/launch at Wordsworth Books in Gardens. On the way to the Gardens Centre, I stopped at The Book Lounge to pick up a book I’d ordered earlier, only to find out about the violence in the streets outside the bookshop just hours before. Louanne and Werner spoke about lost children and fear. They cancelled the event scheduled at the bookshop for that evening. The book I was buying was a gift for my friend Louisa who recently shared the remarkable Falling by Elizabeth Jane Howard with me. I started reading it at Temenos. Uncanny is not the word… There is a collective wisdom of women out there, to tap into it, to allow it to nourish and heal you, that is what I am reaching out to.

with-resident-catI arrived at Wordsworth Books rattled, but there were good friends, cheese and wine, and poetry – subtle, soul-restoring poetry. Beauty, like light, can save you. How precious that it can be contained in words. Thank you, Stephen and Nick, for caring about words.

My words are safe. I find strength in the beauty of peahens. I love my Friends. I can’t wait to share my McGregor olives with them.

peahens

And I am very curious what R6 of luck will gift me.

coffee-in-bed

Book review: Questions for the Sea by Stephen Symons

questions-for-the-seaQuestions for the Sea, the debut collection by Cape Town-based poet and graphic designer Stephen Symons is the latest exquisite offering from the independent local publisher, uHlanga. The sea, questions, light and poetry: an irresistible combination.

Divided in six parts, Questions for the Sea opens with poems about death and memory: “the ashes of dreams, / too fine for remembering // settle over a moonlit bay / and shimmer / into forgetting.” A surfer drowns and death comes to him “in a whorl / of cobalt and white.” A lover recalls the map of a beloved body: “And here I lie, / closer to fifty, / still lost within its darkest territories.” A couple visits a dusty dry dorp: “All this place comprehends is a vertical sun and a deficiency of clouds. Every house burns at the stake and every surface has long forgotten the taste of dew.”

Symons captures life’s instances in words which evoke all senses. The poetry is subtle, seductive, soothing – even when it tackles pain and loss. Or war, a tough theme to handle in any art form. The second part of the collection comprises of poems about conscription. “Call Up, February 1990” speaks about the biblical Abraham and Isaac, ending with these quietly shattering lines: “There, just the firm grip of sons’ hands / and the impatience of engines.” In “Wordless (Township, 1990)”, a man is “shot through in the dark, just twenty kays from my childhood”. In “Letter Home”, young men are “cleaning rifles, / or licking lies into envelopes.” A visit to the famous battlefield of Spioenkop in the poem by the same title ends with “light splintered / and still twisted, deep into the flesh / of this country’s history.”

The third and fourth parts of Questions for the Sea return to the intimacy of loss and love. Adultery is a theme: “the circumference of his lie / weighing down his finger” or “Over a stove / untruths are being told by a wife / of an afternoon spent / with a friend.” As is parenthood in poems like “Emma”, “Sleeping Son”, or “Fathers Are Mostly Absent”.

The penultimate section of the volume focuses on place. In meticulously crafted stanzas Symons travels across the Cape Peninsula and beyond, illuminating our longings for beauty and meaning.

The stunning titular “Questions for the Sea” forms the last part of the collection and includes snippets of seaside images and human existence as traced through the hours of a day and a night. In “16h30”, we witness the beach “stunned / by a day’s worth of heat – ”. Just before midnight, the poet asks: “Do you feel the ceaseless rubbing / of bone and timber / that lies wrecked / beneath your skin, // held under by a black tonnage / beyond maps / and human claim?” And finally at midday, we are left with the question: “How are these words / more or less / than prayer?” I do not know, but they are.

Questions for the Sea

by Stephen Symons

uHlanga, 2016

Review first published in the Cape Times, 21 October 2016.

invite-questions-for-the-sea