The pump room.
I like Allan Kolski Horwitz. He's done great things for independent publishing in South Africa. Through his company, Botsotso, he's probably responsible for publishing more poetry, prose and drama than any single person in the country today. The industriousness of his one-man operation has generously sponsored and nurtured thousands of pages of local literature over the course of many years. This is why it makes me so uncomfortable to say that I really don't like this play. It gives me no pleasure to write a negative review, and especially not about books written by people I like. If I hadn't already committed myself to writing this review, I would have avoided it. Nevertheless, I had, so I won't.
I think that Ifone is writing political satire, one needs to locate one's work within a very particular time, because political arenas keep changing; but this play is very hard to locate in terms of an era. This may not be a necessary requirement for every play, but according to the introduction and the back blurb, The Pump Room forms part of a lineage of South African 'protest theatre' and announces itself as such. The two white characters (Mike and Lombard) are in their 30s and 40s and we are told that they used to be apartheid agents; however, Mike could surely not have been younger than his 20s when he worked for the apartheid government, which means that if he is in his 30s, then the play must surely be set in the 1990s. And yet, he uses expressions like 'ek se', 'lahnies' and 'youse,' which seem better suited to the 1960s than the 1990s. This is a problem with all of the characters, that their tone and manner of speaking is often hard to distinguish from each other, and most of the time they end up sounding like a hip English white guy of Horwitz's generation.
The main problem for me, however, is that I found the play terribly confusing. Perhaps it's only me, but up to about halfway through I hadn't yet been able to quite figure out what these people were all doing in the pump room. I'm not sure what watching this play being performed was like, but as a reader I had a very hard time getting my head around what the main conflict was about. Every now and then something happens--somebody has a dream--which seems to have enormous symbolic meaning, but in terms of exposition there's little to go by. I had to keep turning back to the synopsis provided with the introduction to try to make sense of it.
Finally, about halfway through, the action picks up. Now there's a dramatic change in style and there's a scene where, for no apparent reason, the actors directly address the audience as though they're members of a Greek chorus. And then a steady stream of information about the past emerges in a series of statements--about the struggle, mixed-race affairs, incarceration and so on. In the second half it all comes out: who seduced, betrayed or locked up whom for what reason. Now it's all drugs, prostitutes and politics. The plot is narrated, rather than revealed, and it all wraps up very quickly. Whereas the first half of the play feels mainly like circular banter, now it's all action. It almost feels as though there's an information overload; but the information doesn't necessarily advance the character development. I'd have preferred to learn about these characters by seeing how they react to each other, how they behave, how they change, rather than hearing bald statements about what happened in the past.
The book's introduction describes the play as 'a combination of soap opera and Greek Tragedy,' but soap opera requires a long time in which to build familiarity with characters, so that when they do start revealing pregnancies, abortions and spells in prison, we've invested in their lives. To have these rather extreme elements crop up seemingly from nowhere is a little alienating.
Then, some of the dialogue is not really essential to the story which leads to a curious situation in that, although the play feels at times over-written, a lot of the action seems unsubstantiated. It's as though lines are sometimes used in and for themselves, as revelations of clever ideas, rather than to specifically advance plot, character or theme. For example:
Lewis: Why you worried about George? He can look after himself. Peter: No one can look after himself. Lewis: You two certainly look after yourselves. (3)
Other times there is too much extraneous dialogue, which can sound like a stuck record.
Lewis: [To Mike] We got to talk. Come outside. Lombard: What? Talk here. Lewis: [To Mike] Come. Lombard: Talk here, man. Lewis: [To Mike.] It won't take long. Just you and me. Lombard: What's the fucking secret? Talk here. (6)
And some of the dialogue seems overblown and confusing, as characters change tack in the middle of a speech:
Peter: You've got me again Lombard! You've got me. But you haven't finished me. And you won't because I'll kill myself before you manage. Damn you. [pause.] No, I won't ever kill myself. I know what I fought for. (47)
It's as though Horwitz wants to do two things. On the one hand, he's structured his play like a Shakespearean tragedy in five acts and has also included (as already mentioned) allusions to epic Greek theatre. He references Chekhov and has a subtheme emerging about how political players are also actors performing a role, which leads to a self-reflexive take on the theatre of politics. Horwitz has read his classics, and yet he also wants to deal with gritty realism. He wants to incorporate an elegant turn of phrase, but he also wants the drugs and the fucking. But the mixture doesn't really work. It's hard to have ponderous high-flown lines when one is also resorting to the kitchen sink.
To return to my main complaint then--I found the play baffling. I couldn't seem to stay focused on what really matters. The wonderful metaphor of the pump room is not fully explored in terms of why the characters all happen to be there and what the implications are for their shared future. The trope is used as a general statement on the build-up of pressure, and then at the end the sluice gates are opened to wash away all the drek and misery and confusion of their lives.
If I had read this play as a draft, I would have said it's a wonderful idea, resonant with potential. I love the concept, but it needs a lot of work in the delivery--in terms of character development, plot structure, dialogue, pacing. Maybe it did work in performance, maybe I just didn't 'get it'; but my feeling is that The Pump Room needs a good deal of re-structuring, trimming and a few rigorous edits. Sorry Alan.
[c] 2012, Anton Krueger
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|Publication:||South African Theatre Journal|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 1, 2012|
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