Gritty, vibrant ‘Rooiland’ transcends festival hype

Gritty, vibrant ‘Rooiland’ transcends festival hype

SHOW: Rooiland
DIRECTOR: Jaco Bouwer
CAST: Charlton George, Wilhelm van der Walt, Brendon Daniels and Leon Kruger
VENUE: Baxter Flipside until April 27 at 8.15pm nightly
REVIEW: PETER TROMP

Dramas about prison culture in the Western Cape have come to feel almost like a subgenre in recent years, so familiar have the elements in them become. Yet, ‘Rooiland’ feels different, almost definitive. It is far removed from the purely by the numbers (no pun intended) evocations of subhuman prison life that we have seen thus far. That is because Jaco Bouwer is no ordinary director.

Bouwer infuses ‘Rooiland’ with a gravity and a force that really causes the quasi mythical overtones of Tertius Kapp’s prose to resonate on an almost cosmic level, not unlike Francis Ford Coppola managed with Mario Puzo’s words in the seventies. He is especially deft in his handling of his actors, all of whom imbue their characters with vibrant life. Each one has distinct presence in ‘Rooiland’, which results in a rich tapestry of shifting moods.

Set in the confined space of prison life, ‘Rooiland’ tells the story of personal battles of survival in a fluorescent lit purgatory. It is in essence a power struggle drama set in an almost exaggeratedly Darwinian environment. Very often these dramas can be very depressing, but there is too much going on in ‘Rooiland’ for that to be the case. “Shocking” might be a more appropriate word, but then again it would only apply to people who have never heard of the conditions that exist in our penal system. Almost all of the complex undercurrents of ‘Rooiland’ are reflected in the almost heartbreakingly expressive face of Charlton George, who delivers the best performance of his career.

‘Rooiland’s’ debut in Cape Town has been a long time coming. It set the festival circuit alight over the last few years, so it arrives in Cape Town with the kind of hype that in many cases does a production no favours at all.
The vacation vibe of a festival, where people become almost literally possessed by the theatre bug, can often cause a production to appear better than it actually is. When it finally does land in Cape Town, where one has to contend with everyday life stuff like driving to the theatre in the rain, or fitting in a production in an already overflowing schedule, the deficiencies of a play can suddenly become starkly evident. This logic luckily doesn’t apply to ‘Rooiland’. It is too textured and enigmatic a piece of theatre to be regarded as anything else but compulsory viewing, no matter the time, place or one’s state of mind.

* Book at Computicket.
‘Rooiland’ has an age restriction and is not suitable for children under the age of 18.