Featured A subtle, finely crafted production

A subtle, finely crafted production

“All criticism is a form of autobiography,” said Oscar Wilde, according to the programme note. Gulp! Playwright and novelist Craig Higginson at his best is a beautiful writer, and he’s at his best in The Imagined Land, promoted as “a new state of the nation play”.

Quotable lines abound. Images pepper his dialogue but never preciously, and always characterappropriate. Set and lighting designer Denis Hutchinson has dozens of open books, suspended like bird mobiles above the set – a sitting room in the opulent Johannesburg home of internationally-acclaimed Zimbabwean writer, Bronwen Blackburne. (The name bears some examination.)

We are back in the territory of Higginson’s The Girl in the Yellow Dress, sensitively directed by Malcom Purkey, who is also at the helm of this production. Characters lie their way to the truth, as the playwright expresses in the earlier play. There’s very little action in either of these plays, yet they never feel “talky”. Oh, there is a sex scene (aborted) and much happens between the scenes, but on stage Higginson is more interested in how language, whether spoken or written, can conceal more than it reveals.

Fiona Ramsay performs in The Imagined Land at Vicky’s, Grahamstown, 10 July 2015, at the 2015 National Arts Festival. The Imagined Land is a new play by acclaimed writer Craig Higginson in which a Zimbabwean novelist, modelled on Nadine Gordimer and Doris Lessing, is confronted by her biographer with difficult memories from her past. Photo: CuePix / Jane Berg.

Fiona Ramsay performs in The Imagined Land at Vicky’s, Grahamstown, 10 July 2015, at the 2015 National Arts Festival. The Imagined Land is a new play by acclaimed writer Craig Higginson in which a Zimbabwean novelist, modelled on Nadine Gordimer and Doris Lessing, is confronted by her biographer with difficult memories from her past. Photo: CuePix / Jane Berg.

Academic Emily Blackburne has returned from the United States to care for her mother, Bronwen, who has a brain tumour. The play shows us the writer pre-op, and post-op. Her scattered mind – remembering some things, distorting others, forgetting plenty – is the play’s central image. Although our broader political landscape is seldom directly referenced, Blackburn’s brain represents South Africa’s damaged memory. She’s at pains to point out to Edward Smith, the man planning to write her biography, that there is a difference between an imagined land and an imaginary one. The play doesn’t labour the social resonances.

Fiona Ramsay has all the acting skills and talent to play Bronwen in various stages of mental acuity. She is perfect casting, and Purkey capitalises on his choice. From the sardonic, slightly arch repartee in her pre-op scene to her vacant moments later, and her last moments of delight as she reads out a children’s story she has written, Ramsay delivers.

There’s also the suggestion that maybe Bronwen is not always as blank as she appears. There’s no attempt to clone Doris Lessing or Nadine Gordimer, obvious role models for the character. The wigs Bronwen wears are visual markers of her mental state – coiffured initially, then short hair sans wig, then a curly, cartoon-like granny wig. Oddly, there is no costume credit.

As the conflicted, often angry daughter, Emily Blackburne – who believes her mother sacrificed her on the altar of success (or her art, maybe) – Janna Ramos Violante, an actor unfamiliar to me, is entirely at home. Occasionally she reminds one of a young Diane Wilson, while looking credibly like the daughter of Ramsay’s character.

Nat Ramabulana plays the complex role of Dr Edward Smith, the son of a gardener, who has possibly suffered from a similar childhood incident to Emily, with whom he has a sexual relationship. In the interests of avoiding a spoiler, I won’t elaborate, which means I can’t express slight disappointment in an element of his backstory. No matter. Ramabulana is a fine actor. I loved his work in The Girl in the Yellow Dress and in twohanders with Atandwa Kani.

Here he occasionally strains vocally when expressing anger but, that aside, he fully inhabits the character of a man whose motives are opaque, and whose researching of his book unleashes hidden stories. His character is also a good chance for Higginson, through Bronwen, to voice sceptical views on researchers and critics.

The National Arts Festival and Daphne Kuhn should take a bow for staging this sort of theatre – it’s subtle, finely crafted, not for the mentally lazy, and, in its own way, it’s rigorous without wearing its considerable heart on its dramatic sleeve. Hope I haven’t given too much of me away…

Nigel Vermaas
Cue contributing editor

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