On Tuesday night, I was fortune enough to attend a performance of Scorched at the University of Johannesburg’s Con Cowen Theatre. The play is written by Wajdi Mouward and is directed by Jade Bowers. Making my way there I had no idea what to expect. In the hopes of trying to reassure myself that I’m not making a mistake I decided to reread the synopsis of the piece.
is an epic yet intimate family drama by acclaimed Lebanese-Canadian playwright Wajdi Mouward. The play follows twins Jeanne and Simon Marwan on a riveting journey to the heart of their mother’s war-torn homeland Middle Eastern homeland in pursuit of their tangled roots and a long-lost sibling. In this land, where civil war, massacre and revenge constitute a way of life, the twins uncover shocking secrets about their mother’s history and also about themselves and their origins.
Oh dear Middle East? War-torn? I started questioning what I had gotten myself into. I even contemplated turning around on my way to picking up a friend who had unknowingly agreed to a slow and painful death. Nonetheless I soldiered on. I picked up my friend, gave them the “I’ve never seen the show so I don’t know how good it is” disclaimer and off we went.
Upon arrival we had both come to the realization that we were underdressed for the cold Joburg weather. We hurried our way inside,
bought some wine (to warm us up of course) and made our way into the theatre. Walking in we were greeted with music from a guitar, a constant Middle Eastern melody with simple variations repeating itself. On stage we saw the cast in tableaux waiting for the audience to find their seats and soften.
The set, designed by Nadine Minnaar, was intriguing. There were suitcases cleverly positioned on the stage and some even hanging from the ceiling. Each of these suitcases had a thick red piece of cloth connecting them to each other. Now I know the scene I’m painting on stage seems a bit messy, but it wasn’t at all. There was no clutter, and the suitcases were not overwhelming either. The visuals of the stage, the suitcases and the performers (still in tableaux), accompanied by the haunting Middle Eastern sound of the music started to draw me in. It was at this moment that I started feeling comfortable in my seat excited for what’s to come.
As I was falling deeper into the visuals on stage the house lights started to dim and just like that the world of the story came to life. The actors started moving in character and the opening lines were presented by Gopala Davis as Alphonse. The play starts off with the character of Alphonse delivering the last will and testimony of Nawal Marwan, played by Ilse Klink, to Simon and Janine Marwan; Nawal’s twins (played by Jaques de Silva and Cherae Halley, respectively) from there the story takes on an epic journey into past and present as the twins retrace their mother’s life back in the Middle East where she grew up. Little did we know of all the plot twist and the somewhat inconvenient revelations to come.
The piece was expertly directed by Jade Bowers. Bowers extensive experience in the South African theatre industry was evident in the directorial decisions she had made on stage. The staging was very smart and very clean. Without any tables and chairs on stage, Bowers had to be very clever about how she creates a world that we can also see. The biggest challenge about this is the fact that the play jumps between the past and the present. Bowers managed to get it right. The suitcases were used as chairs and were also convenient places to conceal costumes for when the actors changed characters. The transitions created by Bowers were absolutely amazing and seamless . Never did I ever find myself questioning whether we were in the past or the present. My favorite moment was when the piece transitioned from the past back to the present and we saw Janine in Alphonse’s office questioning him about the will.
Such impactful transitions were made even greater by the lighting, which was designed by Oliver Hauster. Lighting played a huge role in creating moments on the stage – moments such as the one mentioned in the previous paragraph. The lighting danced with the characters on stage and told its own story. A play is well executed when all its element develop with the plot. Hauster’s lighting design was of no exception. There were many moments where I’d find myself getting goosebumps as a slow fade would evaporate a character of the past whilst a special on a separate character would bring us back to the present. Okay I know I’m speaking a lot about the past and the present but you have to understand how difficult it is to execute smooth transitions between the two without using the archaic method of a placard that states “past” or “modern day”. This is made even more difficult without the use of sets and props that specify the era.
The actors did a really excellent job in bringing the characters and the world of the story to life. With such a stellar cast what else was to be expected? Jacques de Silva really stood out for me. His portrayal of the angry Simon Marwan who wants nothing to do with his mother was very convincing. A lot of performers mistake anger for an easy emotion to portray but Davies was able to get past that and execute the different levels of anger, hatred and disregard for his mother. Cherae Halley was just as powerful right by his side as Janine. Their relationship could have done with more work, but their give and take was on point.
The actors who showed a lot of stamina were Bronwyn van Graan and Mpho Osei-Tutu as the both of them had the highest number of character changes throughout the piece. Brownyn did an excellent job of carrying the piece by executing each of her characters to the T. There was a moment where my believability for one of the characters that Mpho played went out the window. Having had five characters to play, I think Mpho might’ve slightly dropped the ball on one. What was commendable, though, was his singing. Tutu pleasantly surprised me when he was given a song to lead. I’ve never known the performer as having a singing voice, but he could hold a note really well. Ameera Patel is also another one who enchanted us with her unexpected alto voice. Patel is another star I had not known as a singer but she held her ground when she played Sawda the singing woman.
The character which the whole piece is based on is Nawal and Ilse Klink lived up to that role. It was my first time seeing the performer on stage and she was as electrifying on stage as I’ve known her to be on screen. Klink’s portrayal of Nawal was very convincing. Klink was able to make me not only understand but also empathize for Nawal and the decisions she made.
The music, composed and played live on stage by Matthew MacFarlane was beyond exceptional. One could see MacFarlane payed attention to the literature and didn’t compose out of his own feelings. The music went well with the beats and rhythms created by the dialogue and staging. Transitions were made much more comprehensive by the music. I remember a moment from the piece where Nawal was talking to Sawda in the evening under the moon light. Their conversation was heated and intense and so was the underscoring music. The music then stopped for a while and the argument was just between the two ladies. When the music resumed there was a slight catharsis that took place within me. The music resumed at the right time of the argument and in so doing played with my emotions.
If there is anything I would improve about the piece it would be some of the staging elements. I feel the characters were in profile most of the time. I know how great it feels to be on stage and the person acting alongside you is feeding you by looking at you in your eyes. That being said, the piece is intended for the audience. I think this school of thought is rooted in my Musical Theatre background since musicals are a presentation style of theatre.
“Now that we are together everything is better…”
That line is a recurring motif in the play. For me it touches on the fact that all humans need to relate. It’s what we live for. That’s the driving force behind us staying or relocating to somewhere else. When we feel like we can’t relate we pack our suitcase and we leave to somewhere where we can. The suitcases and the red rope in the set design echoed this sentiment beautifully. What I could understand was that like Simon and Janine we are where we are because of those before us. Your story might begin in the now but it took the then and the people of the then to pack up their suitcases, make tough decisions and place you where your story begins… but in order to know where you need to take your suitcase, you have to retrace where the suitcases of the ones before you have been.
After a long night of pleasant surprises and unexpected plot twists my friend and I left feeling satiated. I really would suggest you watch this show before it closes on the 6th of August. The show will be performed every day at the Con Cowen theatre at the University of Johannesburg, Kingsway Campus. Tickets can be bought at the door or purchased at Computicke they only cost R80 – and it’s worth it!!!