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Unspectacular spectacle

Not one black person attended the opening night of Deon Opperman’s South African Anglo-Boer War musical, Ons vir Jou, at the Pretoria State Theatre two Fridays ago.

Apart from a black colleague who was there to review the show, the only dark-skinned people I saw were the waiters, serving copious amounts of brandy and whisky before, during and after the show, and the friendly ushers, evidently trained to help die mense to their seats in Afrikaans.

Before Opperman and his fellow generals accuse me of infringing people’s right of association, let me explain.

The opening of Ons vir Jou was preceded by some controversy, started by Afrikaans folk-protest singer Koos Kombuis in an open letter to director and co-writer Opperman. Kombuis wrote on the literary website Litnet: “Your talk of war in the current era is inappropriate, naive and, it would seem, completely profit driven. If I was [General Koos] de la Rey, Deon, I would sue you for defamation. De la Rey wasn’t a warmonger, but a man of peace. He was a pragmatic and a progressive thinker. He didn’t live in the past like you.”

Opperman responded angrily: “We were always the least, and we still are. We stand pinned against the cliffs today, and once again the flag of a strange force is billowing over our freedom. I’m tired of it being unacceptable to call myself an Afrikaner. I’m tired of standing back and watching as the history of my people is slowly destroyed and discarded. That’s why we decided to create a musical that plays off during the Boer War.”

Then followed the Carte Blanche programme that quoted author John Matshikiza and Nelson Mandela’s personal assistant Zelda la Grange, both voicing their disappointment at Opperman’s latest antic.

Opperman will go down as one of the best playwrights of our time. Multiply­awarded for seminal works such as Donkerland and Môre is ‘n lang dag, he has been an important voice, specifically in Afrikaans theatre, on issues such as segregation, conscription and gender politics since the late 1980s.

Come the new South Africa, Opperman realised the way theatre was run under apartheid would never be the same and he kissed goodbye government subsidies and began a pro-active process of privatising theatre as a viable form of entertainment.

His dictum has always been that you need to make money with popular plays to subsidise more fringe productions. All fair and well.

So Opperman’s Packed House Productions started turning out the shows: The Sound of Music with Steve Hofmeyr in the lead, Soweto Story directed by Genna Lewis and Nipple Caps & G-strings, to name a few.

Now we have Ons vir Jou with its potent marketing, including a billboard in Centurion with Afrikaans nationalist slogans and, attached to it, two Vierkleur flags (the flag of the old Transvaal Boer republic).

To be fair to Opperman, the idea for Ons vir Jou is not entirely his. The same crowd who created Bok van Blerk and his hit single De la Rey two years ago are the ones who teamed up with Opperman for this “first Boer War musical in the history of South Africa”.

Sean Else and Johan Vorster, also known as members of boyband Eden, have been riding the wave since the launch of De la Rey. Last year saw the launch of a rugby CD, also titled Ons vir Jou, with Van Blerk using the last line of Die Stem (“Ons vir jou Suid-Afrika”) to sing about the Springbok’s Rugby World Cup campaign.

Or so we were told.

The same song, bar a few word changes here and there to make it less obvious, is also the theme song for the musical, but this time in a total different environment: that of the nationalist Afrikaner volk, fighting off the British empire.

Opperman defended the idea vehemently when confronted, claiming that the Afrikaners’ history is being erased from history books and that he sees nothing wrong with a good old boere show that hammers on the nationalist nerve in the year 2008.

And he promised it would be spectacular.

It is not. The message and appropriateness apart, Ons vir Jou‘s music, acting, stage design and costumes are average. Come on, Deon, if you’re going to enact the battle between Boer and Brit on stage we must at least smell some gunpowder!

The show tells the story of General Koos de la Rey of Lichtenburg who opposed the war, but who was overruled by president Paul Kruger and his Cabinet. He commits himself to the battle and is today regarded by war historians as one of the fathers of guerrilla warfare.

Opera singer Rouel Beukes plays De la Rey. The man has a mother of a voice, but he fails to make De la Rey the nuanced, complex character he supposedly was.

Paul Buckby (Lord Methuen) and David Clatworthy (Lord Milner) give solid performances, but why are the Brits depicted as silly, pale-skinned little men every time they come on stage? For sure, the Boers gave them a hard time, but they did win the war eventually and South Africa was annexed by Britain after signing the peace treaty at Vereeniging.

Why now? was the overwhelming question I was left with after the show. Why, in 2008, does one of our best think it proper to put on stage a production that uncritically glorifies the role of the Boers in the Anglo-Boer War?

And exactly how does it help to restore the history of the war (and of the Afrikaner, if we believe Opperman)? Why on earth is the only black man on stage still the one carrying the meelsak (flour bag), when we know today that historians grossly underreported the role of black people in the war?

If it’s purely a money-spinner, Ons vir Jou is a huge indictment against Opperman’s oeuvre, a sign that one of our best playwrights has sold out and has his priorities mixed up. What happened to social responsibility and pushing the boundaries of your environment? We deserve better.

Ons vir Jou runs at the South African State Theatre until October 12

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