Wednesday, 25 July 2007

Better to dig up memories than keep them buried, says theatre production

How do we deal with memory and the past? Is it possible to simply bury unresolved issues and move on? And if we dig up the memories, do we get closer to the truth; and how certain can we be that we will then be able to get on with our lives?

These are questions that surface in the political realm, for sure; but they crop up just as easily in human relationships. These issues are probed in Dream of the Dog, playing at the Market Theatre, Johannesburg. The play, written by Craig Higginson, is directed by Malcolm Purkey, a leading voice in the SA theatre world, and features the acting talents of Vanessa Cooke and Mncidisi Shabangu.

Dream of the Dog is a story that is set somewhere at a farmhouse. An old couple and their domestic worker are pulling down the shutters, packing the boxes and preparing to leave the farm for good. A visitor, a former ‘garden boy’ but now “a success,” returns to the farm in search of some answers. He appears to be haunted by an appalling incident that happened many years before and in which someone had died. The visitor, provocatively named Looksmart, is here to confront the lady of the house about this. Although he does not seem entirely sure why he returned after all the years, and what he wants out of this engagement, one gets the sense that he wants to clear the air in some way.

Dream of the Dog is reminiscent of the work of Athol Fugard. It is layered in conversation that variously rises in anger, becomes tension-filled, turns reflective and subsides into a vivid stillness; and so the play leads the audience to a deeper understanding. For the characters, the layers are peeled away until all is bared; there is a movement toward the depths of pain and ultimately, from there, towards some form of awkward acceptance and a gritty calm.

The story unfolds with twists and turns. One person seeks the truth, while another knows what happened but conceals it (and his deceit) behind a curtain of amnesia. The third person, the lady of the house, has seen but neglected clues to the truth but has (until now) not wanted to countenance the possibility of what really took place. She must wrestle with herself; she engages in a dance of justification, regrets, recounting the good things she has done, and eventually faces up to the truth, as terrible as it is.

Dream of the Dog underlines how people have different perceptions of a common event. The hurt or pain a particular person experiences sharpens remembrance of certain aspects rather than others. In the same way, people’s deepest fears shape what they select to recall.

The play emphasizes the centrality of truth-telling which helps forgiveness, but which also forms part of restoration. Truth liberates. It is better to exhume and examine the truth than to keep it buried.

Dream of the Dog demonstrates how those who have been violated or hurt in the past want/need to talk about what they have been through. More than anything else, they want validation. They want to know that the truth of their experience has been acknowledged. The play notes the irony that, in many cases, the injured party wants acknowledgement from the very person that caused the hurt; and so the “survivor” has a rather odd bond with the perpetrator.

In such a context, the word sorry functions as that validation, even though, as one character asks, “Can sorry ever be enough?” The honest and open engagement around the past does not erase all the hurt, but it does allow the traumatised to move on. It allows them to "let go" so that those who imposed the evil do not go on destroying their lives. In turn, those implicated as perpetrators of the wrong have a chance to face up to reality, to feel the force and fire of anger from the other side, and to gain greater congruency and truthfulness in their lives.

According to Dream of the Dog, reconciliations after gross injustice are less than perfect, even fragile, but one gets the sense that the resolution depicted in the play will hold because, at a psychological, moral and deep human level, some form of breakthrough has been achieved.

Blog readers are encouraged to respond to this entry. What are your views on how we as South Africans need to deal with the past?

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