Theatre Real life re-imagined

Real life re-imagined

Books suspended in mid-air are part of the set for Craig Higginson’s new play, The Imagined Land. In this way, Southern Africa’s literary past and present looms over Higginson’s new work, figuratively as well as literally. The production, which follows the story of a biographer who befriends one of his favourite writers and tries to write her life story, is inspired by the lives of novelists Doris Lessing and Nadine Gordimer. According to Higginson, the play is partly informed by true events. “Some years ago Gordimer had a young biographer from Trinidad, and she agreed to let him be her official biographer, but then their relationship went sour and she withdrew from the project,” he says. “That was the trigger for the play, but I wanted to make sure that it was not about that particular situation, so I’ve actually drawn a lot of my own family backstory into the play for the context of the story.”

Idolatry and the idea of a younger writer and their relationship with an older writer is one that is close to Higginson’s own life story: he was mentored by influential playwright Barney Simon when he was a young writer. According to Higginson, this is part of the reason why he identifies more closely with the character of the biographer, Edwards Smith (Nat Ramabulana), than that of the novelist Bronwyn Blackburne (Fiona Ramsay).

Speaking about the process of writing the new work, Higginson says he was conscious of not using the lives of black people, particularly that of Edward, as a stepping stone for his own posturing. “A lot of white theatre practitioners recently have been accused of appropriating narratives from black South Africans, and then getting mileage out of those stories and building whole careers out of them,” he says. “So in relation to that, the play is very much concerned with narratives and how we represent ourselves and each other. It’s a very difficult thing in this country because you also add race to the mix, and questions of who represents who become very complex.”

Higginson adds that he views The Imagined Land as a state-of-the-nation play and indicative of the mood that South Africa is in. He says he wanted to make sense of this transitory period in our history, as opposed to picking the side of unrelenting optimism or terminal irony, as most local stateof- the-nation plays tend to do. “It’s too early to condemn or to redeem ourselves, I think. That is the mindset that I was in when I was thinking about this play.”

Veteran director Malcolm Purkey directs the play, which also features Janna Ramos Violante as Emily, Bronwyn’s literary critic daughter. Speaking about how Purkey got involved with the project Higginson notes that although he has previously directed plays, he wanted to work with Purkey because he could bring a new dimension to the work. “It’s healthy as a writer to have a director who can bring a different energy and perspective to the play. I am often about subtlety and Malcolm is more about a robust approach. We’ve worked well together to find a middle space for those two things in this production.”

Sihle Mthembu
Cue specialist writer

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