K Sello Duiker’s book, The Quiet Violence of Dreams, an epic novel of nearly five hundred pages has been adapted into a play by Ashraf Johaardien, and is being presented at the University of Johannesburg’s Con Cowan Theatre at the old Goudstad campus.

The three hour opus played to audiences in Grahamstown a few years back where I first saw it. Alby Michaels, director of the current production, has sliced off a massive one hour of text from Johaardien’s original adaptation. I have never read the book, and the play stands alone with a perfectly comprehensible, if very simplified, plot.

It is not a pretty story. It contains sex, violence, nudity and bad language. It is about a young black man, Tshepo (Earl Gregory) who does drugs, spends time in a mental institution, has a dysfunctional family, is unemployed until he becomes a rent boy in a gay massage parlour. It is a story of betrayal, racism, crime and the occasional glimpses of humanity which uplifts us all. K Sello Duiker wrote the story about and for young South Africans. It is a South African story, set mostly in Cape Town, but also mentioning Rhodes University and Bellevue in Johannesburg.

The story is also a universal one, a facet underscored by the cutting of nearly all colloquial references, although it does help to know that Sterkfontein and Tara are two mental hospitals in Johannesburg and Valkenberg is the mental hospital in Cape Town and that Pollsmoor is a prison in Cape Town.

The nudity and sex scenes are tastefully handled. They are central to the plot. If there is a weakness in the interpretation of the storyline it is in this sanitation of the sex, violence and mental illness. I felt there was room for this to be more nasty, more sordid without being more graphic. Life is never all of one, none of another.

I felt as if my little shrieks of laughter at those moments of humour inherent in the script pierced the hearts of the cast. I was present on a preview night, and I hope that the cast relaxes enough after opening night to bring the touches of humour to the fore as they have an important role to play in softening the brutality and harshness of the plot.

One character comments: “Every black man gets to know anger sooner or later.” The underlying racism bubbles up from time to time, but is only described as white on black racism. Class prejudice, intellectual snobbery and sexist issues also abound. Closet homosexuals, unmarried mothers, fathers who desert, rapists, ex-cons, criminal bosses all mingle. This is no polite society tea party. It is not comfortable viewing. Stay home unless you are willing to be confronted with things that are ugly. Although there is hope in the end the characters don’t walk off into the sunset, hand in hand.

The set is by Wilhelm Disbergen. It is a clever and functional multi-level simple set dominated by a mesh screen contemporary painting of an eye, the pupil of which becomes a clock at times, the irises from a lit frame as the protagonist, Tshepo, does the opening and closing ‘frame’ for the play. The different levels are evocative of the different levels of the work itself and the eye reminds us that our responses to life is often all a matter of perception.

The University of Johannesburg does not have a performing arts department, but nevertheless there is a strong commitment to developing the students who are interested in the arts. Johaardien explains that university theatres are the only ones which have the ability to operate professionally in a non-commercial realm and are able to produce edgy high financial risk ventures. Not that Johaardien approves of theatre which plays to twelve people. He wants this production to be seen by students and the theatre loving public alike.

The cast is made up of a mix between professional actors and students and alumni of UJ. The main characters are professionals and the supporting cast are students. A commendation to the director, Alby Michaels and to his cast – there is never a point in the play where one is conscious of the relative professional status of any of the performers. The characters blend seamlessly with one another.

Working alongside professional actors is an excellent way of developing student and amateur actors. The characters and actors are Mmabatho (Nomvuyo Mbaile), Arne/West/Alex (Jacques Bessenger), Father/Patrick (Khulu Skenjana), Zebron/Ross (Irvine van der Merwe), Chris/Jacques (Glen Izaaks), Peter/Policeman 1 (Jakes Vorster), Shaun/Policeman 2 (Riccardo Pizzi), David (Jarred du Plessis).

The University of Johannesburg is scattered over four different campus sites in Johannesburg, one of which is the old Goudstad teacher’s training college. This campus has a small, intimate theatre, the Con Cowan Theatre, which I first visited in 2011 when the University of Johannesburg hosted the Reading Gay Play Festival in October 2011. The theatre had that ‘years of neglect’ feeling to it, despite being clean and mostly functional.

The months that have intervened have been kind to the theatre. Technical aspects have been attended to, notably the lighting and there are now chairs which help to take the theatre out of the realm of student space into the world of real theatre. Contemporary billboards have been mounted outside the venue and the space feels much more inviting than it was six months ago.

K. Sello Duiker was born on 13 April 1974 and committed suicide on 19 January 2005. This work is a memorial to him.

The UJ Arts & Culture production of The Quiet Violence of Dreams runs until 21 April. Book through Computicket.

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