Brent Meersman


Orfeus. Author: Brett Bailey. Direction: Brett Bailey. Music: Bebe Lueki. Soundscape: James Webb. Production: Third World Bunfight. Theatre Venue: a secret location.Framework: The Holland Festival, Amsterdam, 2009.

The syncretic work of South African director Brett Bailey has never felt comfortable within the frame of the conventional theatre. Since his first productions in the early 1990s, he has sought to transform such spaces―to unseat the audience slumped comfortably in their chairs, to shake the aseismic proscenium arch. He recently contended that conventional auditoriums and the institutions that run them are inherently incapable of releasing the “energy” (his word) of a diverse, multi-cultural, often anarchic, South Africa.

Although Bailey has presented his work in alternative spaces before, since 2005 he seems to have made the artistic decision to break with the stage. Orfeus (his most recent textual work) is a pivotal work in the development of Bailey’s artistry, and a departure in several novel ways from his ‘plays of miracle and wonder’, such as iMUMBO JUMBO. These earlier works were characterised by ritual and ceremony that placed the audience in extreme tension with the conventions of European theatre. His dramatic narratives followed the dependable trajectory of building towards an apocalyptic climax that would sweep the audience with it. His works were aggressive―about fire, blood and bone. Bailey broke down our defences with drums, screams, knives, and broken glass. He immersed the audience in a bacchanalian energy. One left his theatre charged up by the adrenalin of the experience, renewed through catharsis, and liberated by the irrational.

Since Orfeus, Bailey has been in search of softer tissue―not the bone, but the marrow; our vulnerabilities; the chasms in our souls. His coup de théâtre has been to minimise the need for the suspension of disbelief, the implicit theatre conventions and all the manipulation that goes with it.

I will describe the first mounting of Orfeus at the Spier wine farm outside Cape Town in 2006, to show how later presentations of the same work completed Bailey’s shift in his conception of performance. At Spier, one witnessed Bailey’s first steps at finally freeing himself from the frame of theatre; by the time the work was staged at the National Arts Festival (NAF) in Grahamstown in 2008 and at the Holland Festival in Amsterdam in 2009, he had radicalized this transition.

All three productions were set outdoors and commenced shortly before sunset. On arrival at Spier, one of the performers, the Frog―played by the highly accomplished third world bunfight stalwart Abey Xakwe―fetches the audience at a predetermined meeting place. He is first seen approaching from a distance with a listing gait, staff in hand, bare legged, sandaled feet. His hair is braided with white Congolese cowry shells; he wears a dusty old, purple tailcoat. Xakwe is less than five feet tall with a uniquely formed―some would say deformed―body. He has an intense stare and a commanding presence. The Frog instructs the audience to observe nature, not to talk to one another at anytime, and to “never look back.”

The audience follows him, walking for ten-minutes in total silence, strictly enforced by Xakwe. We stick together, but we are solitary. It is the start of a dream.

There was no walk to the site in Amsterdam. Instead, the audience was placed in a bus with the windows blacked out and driven for about 30 minutes. No talking was allowed. The location was at a decommissioned armaments factory beside a canal.

Unfortunately, the site had none of the power of nature that is so central to Bailey’s Orfeus, the mythical figure that brought music to the world, entranced the wild beasts and awakened beauty.

In Grahamstown, the work was performed in an old quarry. Here, we engage directly with nature and the beauty of the landscape―the craggy face of the surrounding cliffs, the trees outlined against the rocks looking like fossil ferns, and two giant eagle owls―as if perfectly choreographed―swooped over us, one with a dead mouse hanging from its beak.

Xola Mda as the Broken Man, in Orfeus (Spier Farm, Cape Town), 2006 © Courtesy of Third World Bunfight.
Xola Mda as the Broken Man, in Orfeus (Spier Farm, Cape Town), 2006
© Courtesy of Third World Bunfight.

At Spier, we emerge from the reed-lined path at a dam. Across the water, we have a perfect perspective of a small beach on the water’s edge. Underneath an isolated clump of gum-trees, there are grey figures lying prostrate, stirring slightly; a woman in a red dress, limping, is collecting water with a vessel, and appears to be nursing them. We think of refugees, castaways, Odysseus’ shipwrecked sailors. It is a timeless scene, picture perfect in its configuration.

The limping figure is Alice (inspired by Lewis Carroll’s creation). She lurches about in a polio survivor’s boots with metal braces on her legs. Arriving at the beach, we see the grey figures are slug-like creatures crawling in the dirt, moaning in low tones, identical, anonymous, heads covered with mud-caked body-stockings, over them black rimmed spectacles―myopic, like mole rats. Bailey describes them as the ‘baboon people’.

Alice (played by Faniswa Yisa) begins to relate the story. The script is mostly a narrative poem, told by Alice, with only one other speaking character―the King (also the Lord of the Underworld). The Frog speaks, but only to interpret or to instruct; Euydice (Bailey’s derivation of ‘Eurydice’) sings one song; Orfeus (Bailey’s derivation of ‘Orpheus’) also only sings, but in the mellifluous Lingala language, which his audience is unlikely to understand.

Narration is in theatre high-risk, and it has not been a strong point in Bailey’s theatre. It forces us to abstract ourselves from the action, to visualise what is told instead of composed before us. But, by toning down the performances, Bailey created a delicately balanced tripod between the story told to the audience by Alice, her interactions with the King and other characters, and the ensemble casts enactments of her narration. It is both a story-telling technique with traditional African roots, and a post-modern poem illustrated rather than acted out. As we shall see, Bailey will further simplify this structure in later versions and with greater success.

The audience is seated under the trees on bales of hay around a small stage of distressed cement blocks, pockmarked by bullet holes. On a platform to the side stands the King (Luthando Mthi) dressed as a composite of those African kings who have as their royal wardrobe poor parodies of the Western crowns – a sort of tin-pot dictator in a ghastly dry land with the power of life and death over his subjects. He is the antithesis of Bailey’s charismatic despot Dada (from Big Dada); this man is dull, his cruelty all the worse for its banality; a charmless nobody with the big gold key to Hades hanging around his neck.

Centre stage is a seated figure, covered by a white cloak. When Alice finally removes the cloth, it reveals Orfeus, with gold paint streaking his face, dressed in broderie anglaise. Alice washes his feet, one of several messianic gestures in the play. In later versions, white pebble are poured over his head, inspired by the gold coins rained on Ivan the Terrible at his coronation in Eisenstein’s 1944 film.

Orfeus starts to play his guitar; he swivels, facing the lake, playing to the trees, incorporating all. His beautiful melodic lines awaken the baboon creatures and they hearken to him. Soon, the King accuses him of sedition, but the power of the music is such that a brief insurrection chases the King back to his podium. Alice snatches the fairy-book styled key from King’s neck. Orfeus, defiant, plays on.

Bebe Lueki (Orfeus) and Nondumiso Zweni (Euydice), in Orfeus (Spier Farm, Cape Town), 2006 © Courtesy of Third World Bunfight.
Bebe Lueki (Orfeus) and Nondumiso Zweni (Euydice), in Orfeus (Spier Farm, Cape Town), 2006 © Courtesy of Third World Bunfight.

The music builds, but not the frenetic drumming of iMUMBO JUMBO; this is soulful, harmonious. The baboon creatures are worked into a trance, banging river stones together. Yet there is something threatening in their worship of Orfeus and their reverie, like the petting aggression of cats.

What follows is a spectacular moment―out of one of the grey chrysalises, emerges Euydice, also in virginal white. In later versions, she emerges from among the audience. Nondumiso Zweni who plays Euydice is a perfect counterpart to Bebe Lueki’s Orfeus. They both have the same instantly attractive, delicate naivety and otherworldly air. (They reprised their roles in Amsterdam).

The music rises in celebration. This time a member of the audience becomes possessed, ripping off his clothes. Alice places a red stocking over his head, and he is wrapped in a patterned cloth. He skulks behind the audience in amongst the hay, hissing menacingly. “Go away snake!” says Alice and in one of those rare full stop moments in the script, she adds, “But snakes don’t take orders.”

In what should be a climax of transcendent and sublime love, Euydice sings Nick Cave’s Are you the one that I’ve been waiting for? This was a weak moment in the piece and a missed opportunity. The lyrics are quite feeble in the context of Bailey’s writing, and the tune has a dreadful commercial stage musical quality to it. It was removed from later productions, as Bailey pared his work down to its most poignant essentials.

Orfeus and Euydice fall asleep. Orfeus suffers sleep paralysis; he has one of those horrific dreams from which one cannot wake up. He dreams of the snake―played by the magnificently built dancer Michael Alfonso Dias, who creeps onto the stage naked except for his underwear. He bites Euydice, rapes her paralysed body, tongue flicking grotesquely, and carries her off to the underworld. The choreography here was effective, but it felt like a set piece, too conventional for Bailey. This too was removed from the NAF and Holland Festival productions.

Alice pleads with Orfeus not to wake up; not to reach out for his love; not to find out that the dream was real and happened beside him.

On awakening and discovering his love has gone, Orfeus loses his will to sing. The dull, menacing, drone of the background track in the opening moments returns. More than in any previous production, Bailey focuses on sound. Together with engineer James Webb, they created a unique soundscape installation on site with speakers hidden in the grass and trees.

Before we proceed with Orfeus to the underworld, I must interrupt the narrative to outline other radical changes that Bailey made to the work when he re-‘staged’ it in Grahamstown and at the Holland Festival.

At the Holland Festival, the storyteller, played by Jane Rademeyer, holding a large fairy-tale sized book, meets us at the story-telling circle of hay stacks. She is a soft-spoken reader of the story. There is no paraparetic Alice, no actress, no role. Instead, we respond directly to the myth and the archetype of the story. I have never experienced story telling as successful as this. The words acted like subtitles as we watched the story played out before us. Bailey had finally achieved a near seamless mode of narration.

Gone too are the baboon people, the King, and with them the semi-formal cement stage. With the removal of the king, Bailey moved away from Africanizing the myth. It became universal, referencing Africa as easily as it referenced Europe and the Far East.

In Amsterdam and Grahamstown, there was only one ritual guide (Andile Bonde) who facilitated the story ritual, seeing to the fire around which we are gathered, and burning imphepho (African herbs) to summon the spirits.

The snake’s dance and the Nick Cave song were all excised. The work is cleaner and uncluttered; a story told to us at bed time; our imaginations as fully engaged as when we were children.

The rape of Euydice is symbolically played out by the snake, a man in a balaclava, inserting his fingers into her mouth. The representation is far more shocking than the simulated rape in the first production. In South Africa with endemic violent crime, the hooded villain had clear, terrifying resonances.

Part of the effectiveness of Bailey’s work is that he employs such a variety of sensory textures and engages all our senses. There are scents and smells of herbs, a mix of natural and stage lighting, sounds of real birds and recorded birdsongs. There is sand, liquid, smoke. There is the heat of the fire and the cool of water sometimes sprinkled on the faces of the audience. We trample in mud; we climb over stones. Everything we experience has been textured, the landscape reworked.

In all versions we are guided to Hades by Xakwe, but after Spier he is no longer the Frog character, he is simply ‘our guide to the Underworld’. As we follow, there are humming noises, sinister electronic whirring and rushing static.

Hereafter, the work has not undergone any alterations as major as the cuts in the ‘first act’. At Spier, the underworld was in the giant crater of an empty dam. We climbed a steep embankment, passing white crucifixes recalling Golgotha, and open coffins lying in the bushes, towards the gates of Hades, decorated with African Zionist motifs. The Frog unlocked the doors, which opened on squealing metal hinges, to reveal a line of long satin vestments on hangers. We parted them and we entered Hell stepping through the giant wardrobe.

The underworld stretches out below us. There is a grotesque stench of actual rotting flesh, and huge bones, animal femurs, litter the ground as we stumble through a disinterred boneyard. Night has fallen now, and we can make out a series of dimly spot-lit installations in the crater below. We follow Alice and the Frog down the steep slopes.

The Broken Man, in Orfeus (Holland Festival, 2009) © Courtesy of Third World Bunfight.
The Broken Man, in Orfeus (Holland Festival, 2009) © Courtesy of Third World Bunfight.

We first meet the Forgotten Man, the only white actor in the original cast. He is elderly, emaciated, dressed in a loincloth, sitting amongst a field scattered with large empty tins, their labels peeled off. Restaged in an old quarry in Grahamstown, the forgotten man was in an icy, polluted pool of water, the tins and plastic containers floating about him.

Orfeus appears, and sings his haunting, plaintive refrain, “Euydice! Euydice….!” A refrain that perseverates in our thoughts long after the play is finished. The Frog translates his song, and the reply – “Forgotten Man, have you seen my wife?” But the Forgotten man has been in Pluto’s realm for so long, he no longer knows anything.

Next was Bailey’s most accomplished installation: a barbed wire encampment, a sort of laogai, with an electric fence, buzzing threateningly. On a primary red coloured floor, like a giant flag, a number of figures are seated, chains around their necks, fastened to a metal pole supporting a loudspeaker and a security spotlight. Blaring out is the voice of Hitler, in constant repetition, a few distorted phrases from one of his rabid speeches. When we first entered Hades, it sounded like a dog or the hounds of Hell barking in the distance. The figures are covered with grey blankets, laboriously sewing soles on a pile of cheap shoes. When Orfeus arrives and pleads with them, they lift their blankets from their faces. We suddenly see, and it is quite a shock, that they are all children, aged ten to twelve.

This installation in Amsterdam was not nearly as successful. Because of restrictions in using child actors at night (the show had to commence after the late summer sunset) different casts were used each night and there was insufficient time to rehearse them. The camp was against a wall, losing the poignant isolation of the children surrounded by barbed wire, vulnerable to the elements. The beautiful unveiling, the wonderful choreography, the single, almost naked child coming up to the fence to stare at us, were all missing.

The next installation is one of the most chilling – the Gutted Man. Lying upside down on ‘the hill of atrocities’, he has rusted bolts sticking out of his eyes. He is strapped down to a mound of car and truck tyres; he has been disembowelled, his white and red intestines snaking out across the black rubber, a red light glowing from within. His body is spasmodically convulsed by electric shocks.

This was the one installation in Amsterdam that Bailey improved upon with sinister impact. The Broken Man (Xola Mda, who also played the snake) was tethered beside an iron bed, vividly recalling those gruesome photographs of the Khmer Rouge torture rooms at Tuol Sleng.

Here, Orfeus receives again the same unhelpful answer. Desperate, he continues.

We finally arrive in the den of the Lord of the Underworld. In the original production it is the self-same King; in Grahamstown, it was a pith-helmeted colonial lord (played by Nicholas Ellenbogen); in Amsterdam, the part was played by John Cartwright (the lost man previously). He sits, whisky in hand, ominously scrutinising figures on a black and white computer monitor (replaced in later productions with a less sinister laptop); an image of the utter calculating indifference of greed. Around him is the all-too-familiar detritus of corruption in the developing world – used syringes litter the floor, electronic goods, medical supplies and loot are piled about him, boxes of United Nations’ baby aid ripped open, some with dead bodies lying in them.

Orfeus arrives and pleads for Euydice. The Lord of the Underworld reveals four sex slaves on a platform. Covered in mosquito netting at Spier, in Grahamstown and in Amsterdam, the women were tied to chairs, wearing hurricane spirit masks, and resembled blow up dolls; their genital areas vulgarly painted bright red. The Lord of the Underworld scoffs that none will go to Orfeus, for “I popped their eardrums. All of them!”

Orfeus seems about to give up, exhausted, crying, he collapses, despairingly singing again and again his sad refrain, “Eu-y-di-cé…”

One of the female figures slowly rises and comes towards him. It is Euydice and they are reunited. Pluto relents, telling Orfeus to take her away, but not to look back or he will lose her forever.

“How strong is your faith?” Xakwe asks the audience. (At Spier, this question was posed by Alice.)

As we follow in the wake of the fleeing Orfeus, we pass once more the installations of Hades. Neither the Grahamstown quarry (where we had to run through the thick black smoke of burning car tyres), nor the restricted space in Amsterdam, were able to produce the same sense of journey and a narrative path as beautifully rendered in the Spier production.

The installations of the eternal suffering in the developing world – child labour, AIDS, pollution, political oppression – are all transformed by Orfeus and his love. The gutted man is now crazed and moaning a song; the children shoemakers are dancing serenely; the forgotten man is singing plaintively.

At Spier, climbing to the top of the crater before exiting through the giant wardrobe, one was sorely tested. If you dared to look back, you would have seen the long line of the audience’s flashlights snaking across the crater. The temptation to look back was quite absent, because of the physical configuration in Amsterdam.

The audience returns to the story-telling amphitheatre; we have come full circle. But Orfeus has looked back, he has lost Euydice and with it the power to save. At Spier, the King kills the baboon creatures one by one with his staff. It is done simply, symbolically, almost in slow motion. The King laughs; evil is triumphant. In the Grahamstown and Amsterdam productions, the purity of the tale is enhanced by doing away with all such theatrics.

We are told by the story-teller (Rademeyer) that the people tore Orfeus into pieces with a song on their lips, scattered his limbs, and threw his head in the lake where it can still be seen, glowing like the reflection of the sun.

“This is a story of falling, down, down, down,” are the closing lines. We walk back in silence. In Grahamstown, on the occasion I saw it, more than half the audience was sobbing uncontrollably at this point.

There is no clapping, no bows. The frame of the theatre is broken physically and culturally. Bailey will not allow his piece to be bracketed and nullified by applause.

In Amsterdam, the audience was then loaded back into the bus. The return journey offered an opportunity to meditate on the work, but the spell was sadly broken.

In South Africa, on the long walk back, we engaged with the natural beauty of the landscape – a tranquil lake, rustling trees, rounded stones, reeds, sacred ibises landing in the branches above to roost for the night. We left the ‘theatrical’ space with our senses heightened and reinvigorated, listening to the night-time sounds of Africa, taking in the stars with renewed enthusiasm. Something inside us had been unlocked.

In several ways, the Amsterdam experience had less impact than the two South African incarnations, but the final result showed Bailey making a more fully realised break with theatricality. He has crossed into that liminal zone that merges exhibition and installation with site specific performance art. More than in any of Bailey’s previous works, truthfulness has replaced any attempt to manipulate the audience. Instead, the audience is exposed to a powerful vision that needs no such artifice.

Bailey is arguably the most sophisticated, cogent, incisive director of his generation in South Africa.

Copyright © 2009 Brent Meersman
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411

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Portrait of an Artist as a Dramatic Work: Orfeus