In the beginning was the image

I hoarded scripts as an acting student in Dublin in the early years of the new millennium. I believed that by doing so I was hoarding plays. But by the time I left Ireland to return home to South Africa in late 2008, I had learned that I was not.

A play never exists only on paper. It doesn’t even exist on stage or in the playing space. It only ever breathes in that impossibly vague space between the stage and the audience. It is a brief relationship, contextualised and filled by more variables than one could possibly list, one of which may be the script. And then it is over. That is part of the attraction of theatre. It is fleeting and personal, and the experience cannot be revived in all its subtleties.

This is occasionally a problem for playwrights. To come to terms with the fact that their words, carefully wrought and wrung from sleepless nights and beautifully staged in their mind’s eye, constitute not much more than a run-up is not an easy thing to do. Humility is one thing; being little more than a stick with which to beat a drum is entirely different.

Brian Friel, who wrote Translations and Philadelphia … Here I Come, and who is regarded by many as one of the world’s greatest living playwrights, has suggested that there is, in fact, no real need for a director on a production. His contention is that a carefully written script should do most of the work. Stage directions direct. Character descriptions clothe. Directors interfere. The word is the beginning and the end. Thus spake Brian Friel.

Samuel Beckett, his compatriot, and among the most influential theatre practitioners of recent times, also mostly agreed. The Beckett estate still protects the sovereignty of his works with frightening vigour, and you are unlikely to find a version of Waiting for Godot on a station platform or in a public toilet, no matter how pressing the social justification of the times.

In South Africa the word has seldom enjoyed such status. Text may be king and queen in Ireland but it has become clear to me since my return that in South Africa text simply serves the image. It has been serving the image, it seems, for quite a while, and very seldom has it been fairly tipped.

In an image-led production paradigm we have seen devised theatre pieces cobble together often startling and beautiful stage-pictures with limp and exposition-heavy dialogue or narration. We have seen audiences develop a palate for full-flavoured stage-pictures and set-pieces, swimming in heavy rhythm and choral wonder, but with little patience or appreciation for narrative subtlety.

Often this produces standing ovations for empty gimmicks and lazy formulae. But sometimes, at its best, it is brutal and wonderful and leaves you convinced that the crafted word is redundant and slightly pathetic.

On occasion we see both image and word collaborating with care and respect for each other, and when this happens the effect can be mesmerising.

I last experienced this watching Lara Foot-Newton’s Tsepang at the Dublin Theatre Festival in 2005. The immediacy and irresistible pulse that often elevates South African performance when in international company was a strength in this production, not a substitute for a lack of precision in execution or word. It left the textcentric productions that surrounded it looking anaemic. It was, to my mind, the finest piece of theatrical writing South Africa has produced since Athol Fugard’s The Road to Mecca, unlaboured by the legacy of issue-heavy exposition and analysis that makes so many South African scripts overwrought, and so many South African characters devoid of a third dimension, simply an avatar for issues or angst.

Of course, this image-led versus text-led polarity is in many respects artificial. The one is, by necessity, always inside the other. “The limits of my language are the limits of my mind,” wrote Witgenstein, and yet Nobel prize-winner Harold Pinter, one of the more careful wordsmiths of modern theatre, began many of his most celebrated scripts with an image in his mind — and language followed. That his language was so respectful of his image is probably the important thing. That he then trusted directors, actors and designers to be respectful of his words with their images was probably the difficult thing.

About the play

The Clown and Mrs Fell, written and performed by Conrad Kemp, premieres in South Africa at the 2010 National Arts Festival on the Fringe Festival programme, until June 29. The piece tells the story of a retired clown whose weekly visits to an orphanage pose greater challenges for him, and for the mistress of the orphanage, than making sad children laugh.

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