Return to the Dark Continent

Chris Pretorius disappeared in 1991, with his former wife and work partner Robyn Orlin. He was swallowed up by the United States, only to be regurgitated this week in Grahamstown. Here he will direct the opening of the fourth production of his rather puzzling neo-surrealist work Dark Continent.

For those who don’t remember him, in the late Seventies and early Eighties Pretorius was the mad emperor of the South African avant garde – the founder of Cape Town’s legendary Glass Theatre. A rabble rouser who, in the tradition of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, could get a performer to do “anything”.

In one of his early productions an actress is reputed to have masturbated with a boiled egg. For those who do remember, Pretorius’s return will indicate a reinvestment in South African performance art on the part of one of its pioneers. Like others of his ilk he deserted ship in a time of early transition, when mounting pressure demanded more and more socio-political intervention from artists.

These days, although older and heavier, through Pretorius’s pale features comes the same wry humour. He’s a person of few words who shares little. He’s the kind of director prone to telling his actors to fill space and time, instead of looking for deep-seated emotions upon which to build their characters. His method hints at the kind of love/hate relationship he’s had with theatre.

“I actually decided to screw theatre for a while,” he says, “which I’m now thinking of once again, after 10 years of not doing it.”

After some time in America Pretorius changed his name from Chris to Christiaan. It was strictly for financial reasons that he wanted to sound loftier, to impress new clients of his interior design business. Accordingly, he says, “When I answer the phone, they start writing cheques when they hear my name.”

In Chicago he has an apartment and a loft from where he conducts business with the assistance of graduates of the Art Institute of Chicago. What they make of their dry, rather remote boss, one can only speculate. They probably don’t know of his controversial past.

Drunken brawls in the theatre, hours of meaningless performances and some really outrageous imagery either irritated his audience or enthralled them. It’s a history he’s proud of.

“Some of the stuff that I see now, overseas, makes me think back on some of the stuff that we did here. Not only my work, but some of the stuff that I remember from that period makes me think that we all would have been fucking famous. But South Africa was just too small to contain that kind of thing,” Pretorius says about the so-called brain drain. Something he’s actually part of. He probably needs this self-affirmation. Even if only to remind himself what it was like in the non-commercial art world, to have the luxury of hours of creating time.

In the indulgent Seventies and Eighties time was of the essence. Performance pieces could take three, even four hours and nobody seemed to mind. Slow motion, long disjointed monologues and mighty pregnant pauses were the order of the day.

Having lived in Chicago for so long, Pretorius has obviously seen the best of what world performance can offer. “If you see a Robert Wilson in real life,” he says “you will see that we were pretty damn close at times. Even though we were reading magazines and things, we weren’t copying – we sort of reinvented it. It’s not like Wilson didn’t like to rip somebody else off anyway. That’s how it is. We were reinventing stuff we saw in little pictures.”

So, in 1991 when Pretorius and former wife Orlin left the country, local performance culture was deprived of its first couple, a team who had worked to elevate the status of performance to that of conventional theatre. Something we take for granted today.

Mind you, they left in a blazing trail of glory, Orlin with her Vita award and Pretorius with his history that included the banning of the big musical Sunrise City.

Years later he rekindled his talent, traveling to Los Angeles with South African actor Andre Odendaal to restage another of his works, Weird Sex in Maputo. There they performed at the famous Court Theatre, and got reviewed in the LA Times. “They said they liked it – they didn’t quite get it. But they said I had potential.”

This week he brings his potential to the Rhodes Box Theatre to restage Dark Continent with a cast that includes South African Neels Coetzee, Jamaican Elizabeth Riley-Green, American Mickle Mahler and German composer Gert Anklam. The work is remotely inspired by the writings of surrealist precursor Raymond Roussel. Pretorius says he’s doing “a very quiet production – people will be surprised at how quiet and meditating the play is. Meditating on death: drifting down the river in a bathtub meditating about death.

“I have to confess,” he concludes, “I did start off doing something about Africa, but it turned out to not be about Africa at all. Living in America has dislocated me a little,” he confesses. “I’ve been living there so long now – it frees you up to think about … death … about getting old.”

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