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The intensity of approaching death

Reza de Wets’s imaginative landscape is instantly recognisable. She immerses one in a gritty, nauseating space where the underlying violence and symbols of desire extrude, bleeding into the lives of her characters, creating a theatrical space that lurches between a hardened, gritty realism and oneiric absurdity.

Breathing In, on the main festival programme in Grahamstown, is set in a cow byre in the dying years of the Anglo-Boer South African War. A manipulative, dispossessed widower — played by Antoinette Kellerman — denies her dying daughter, Annie, sleep to stop her slipping away.

Jenny Stead gives a strong performance as Annie, whose half-conscious desperation and delirium is disconcerting and infuses the entire work. A soldier, Brand (Ashley Waterman), is sucked into the relationship between the mother and daughter, which is both cruel and affectionate, and begins to lose his sense of orientation and time.

He gets drawn into his conflicting desires for Anna and his concern for his dying general, played by Mark Hoeben, whose half-conscious presence is constant throughout the play.

De Wet’s poeticism, though powerful, can at times become shrill and the direction by Marthinus Basson could have made better use of the darkly comic moments in the script to offset this.

The premise of the piece, that Anna is kept alive through the dying breath of men, is somewhat puzzling, and perhaps understood as symbolising the intent and culmination of desire in possession and sacrifice. Some audiences may find the pretension and opaqueness of the piece irritating, but the emotional and imaginative intensity of the piece is striking and lingering.

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Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon
Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon is a lecturer in anthropology at the University of the Witwatersrand and a research associate of the Migration and Health Project Southern Africa.

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