Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Memory and the present clash in The Pump Room, a dynamic new play

Allan Horwitz’s play, the Pump Room, which just finishes its run at the Theatre in the District in Cape Town, should have attracted much greater attention from audiences and reviewers alike. But this small production, lacking a big budget and the marketing muscle of the big theatre houses, has for now made only a tiny blip on the theatre scene. Pity.


The play has interesting structural elements. The narrative is built around the central metaphor of a pump room – around the sluggish but rhythmic work of pumps to depollute, clean up and freshen out water so that it can be fit for public use.

Although the specific comment is about how former security policemen have reinvented themselves and function (in often toxic ways) in the new dispensation, there is an implicit reference to wider comment about corruption in society.

At one level, the play throws light on how emotions, issues and trauma of the past have washed over into the present. At another level, it shows how the evil deeds, manipulation, terror and human exploitation, including exploitation of women, continue into the present.

Horwitz juggles the characters between crosscutting lines of conversation, between the male and female poles and between the claustrophobic pump room setting and the sea-view location. He manages to maintain the balance (and precariously so) without letting it all collapse in confusion. The banter between characters becomes fast-paced; everyone struggling for some control of their situation by defending who they are, using verbal sniping, pushing their view of life and all too often sticking the knife into each other's flaws.

In the end memory and the present jar but also, in a strange way, work to form a coherent whole. For the characters, the memories opens wounds and surfaces unresolved issues. But for the audience, as the past is revealed, it helps to explain the distorted relationships and the strange bonds. The information about the past brings a frame of understanding and even empathy.

The play is political but also invokes the personal dimension. It skillfully raises the question: what is it that prevents the individual from breaking out of paralysis so they can move forward with some sense of future and purpose? How much of the 'stuckness' is due to external forces, and how much is due to the demons, often un-named, that we carry with us?

It was a pity the show attracted such small audiences, as I said. The powerful piece forms part of a broader phenomenon. There is currently a flourish of new works, in literature and the theatre, that focus on the past (the days when apartheid reigned supreme) or show how the new democracy is still shadowed by ghosts of the past. The Pump Room links particularly to works that show how individuals, including those who were involved in the struggle, were traumatized and brought close to breaking point by what they went through. For a good number of such people, while many aspects of life in Mzansi move forward, they remain on the sidelines, trying to reassemble their life. Although the social situation cries out for selfless champions, for the kind of value driven activists that they were, they are unable to bring themselves to drive the dynamic social change agenda that they fought for in earlier times.

Horwitz, in his guise as a playwright and director, is an important new voice - one that believes in the vibrancy, ongoing relevance and life-giving quality of politically-oriented theatre. Skillfully directed and well acted, the Pump Room’s brief run is over; one hopes that it will be staged again in the near future.

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