There’s a certain time-space between a crime committed and the punishment one must pay for it; a long hiatus where there’s no going back, no way to reverse what’s already happened. One is left with guilt, regret and the fear of the unknown. Why did it happen? Could things have turned out differently? What retribution awaits? There’s a grappling with endless questions in a void that steadily refuses to give any answers.
Several productions at this year’s National Arts Festival explore the rich dramatic potential of this space. Hang Them High was conceived in the mid-Nineties when writer and director Bongani Linda interacted with death-row survivors — prisoners who were sentenced to be hanged and were only saved by the abolishment of the death penalty in 1995.
“I was fascinated by the stories of these ex-convicts,” says Linda, “especially because one of them was the victim of a false accusation. He didn’t commit the crime he had been accused of, and this was only discovered after the scrapping of the death penalty. If the death penalty hadn’t been abolished, he would have been killed. “
This particular story provided the inspiration for the main character in the play, Bhika, who has been falsely accused. Bhika is joined on stage by three other convicts — a freedom fighter, a bank robber and a serial rapist and murderer. Set in the last seven days before their execution, the play comprises the debates that arise between the four men as they reflect on their crimes and contemplate the terrifying question of what will happen to them after their deaths.
“I wanted to deal with the fear of murderers,” explains Linda, “the trauma that faces people who have killed others and whose own lives are about to be taken. These inmates have only seven days left of their lives — they can no longer go back, and all that faces them is an unknown future. Will they go to heaven or will they go to hell? That’s the most traumatic period for any death-row inmate — when you’re constantly reminded that in seven days time, we’re taking your life. What about the psychological damage involved? What does the experience do to the people who are waiting?”
Similar ideas are explored in Awaiting Trial, originally conceptualised by the late playwright-director Fiki Mhlambi. The play is set in purgatory and features three men awaiting the “trials” that will determine whether they will go to heaven or to hell. Through a combination of song, rhythmic movement and some clever interchanging of roles, we discover the stories and crimes of the soldier Alpheus, the murderer Chilli-boy and the adulterer Desmond.
Chilli-boy and Alpheus have been waiting in purgatory for years, and the psychological damage of the crimes they have committed, as well the uncertainty of what lies ahead, is evident. Alpheus — who has lost count of how many people he killed as a soldier — constantly wakes from tormented dreams and haunting visions of people he killed on Earth whose voices no one but him can hear.
“Mhlambi set out to explore two spaces,” explains director-actor Velaphi Mthimkhulu. “He wanted to examine the stories of these individuals on Earth but he also wanted to challenge people’s minds with the imaginative idea of purgatory.”
Festival-goers interested in this kind of theatrical tension may also want to see Remorse, by playwright-director Duma Mnembe, which tells the story of an adulterous husband murdered by his mistress. The action takes place in the interrogation room of a prison, where the audience slowly discovers the real reasons for the mistress’s actions as she is interrogated by the deceased’s wife and daughter.
The Jailor, directed by Sindisa Maqina, is also set in a prison cell and features the stories of three women prisoners through a series of flashbacks. In an interesting twist, the women are all victims of violence and abuse.
This article was first published in Cue, the National Arts Festival newspaper
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