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Louis Viljoen: Theatre’s unruly wunderkind

Behind those owlish glasses lie the sharp eyes and ruthless instincts of a raptor. But Louis Viljoen is a raptor who can see the funny side, who believes the primary job of the playwright is entertainment. Still, he has an unashamedly brutal theatre style, and so hard-core are the targets of his Fleur du Cap award-winning plays that, though he’s on record as never setting out to write anything serious, I suspect his secret mission is to be a catalyst for social change.

In South Africa playwrights of his fiercely uncompromising ilk are in short supply. This is not because of a lack of talent, in his view. The real issue is theatre management’s refusal to support challenging work.

“The industry has a terrible habit of ignoring and marginalising talented theatre-makers, young and old,” says Viljoen. “What we’re left with is compromised, boring work of a low standard. The excuse is always financial, but most of these institutions have the ability to give new playwrights a shot. The odds are stacked against you. It’s a shameful goddamn state of affairs.”

That this unruly wunderkind has managed to succeed is partly thanks to the fact that new writers trying to break into the industry can find support in small indie theatres like POPart in Johannesburg and The Alexander Bar in Cape Town.

The owners of the latter took a chance with Viljoen, and their successful runs of his plays led to The Fugard making Viljoen its first playwright in residence.

“If my vile shit can make it that far, then there’s hope, I suppose” is the surprisingly self-deprecating reaction of this 32-year-old.

Shock value
The Fugard theatre in Cape Town will this month restage his award-winning piece The Kingmakers, whose trio of morally decadent chancers get involved in the kind of political power-grabbing that’s become all too familiar to us. No wonder it won Viljoen best new director at the Fleur du Cap awards last year as well as his second best new script.

Louis Viljoen brings his award-winning The Kingmakers to The Fugard starring Pierre Malherbe, Rebecca Makin-Taylor and Brent Palmer. (Daniel Rutland)

His first best new script was awarded in 2013 for Champ, the unrelentingly angry comedy in which three frustrated actors reduced to being teddy bears in a shopping mall have a hilarious run-in with a vicious five-year-old. It was such a hit with Cape Town audiences that it went to the Edinburgh Fringe where critics loved it.

A prolific creator of well-constructed plays that bite, Viljoen is fearless in tackling a wide range of subjects, mostly tortuous. Shock value is an undeniable factor in his success, as it was with the Elizabethan playwrights.

Viljoen’s blood-spattered work The Frontiersmen features two property developers eyeing Cape Town’s over-developed Foreshore. Greed overtakes their morality.

In The Pervert Laura, billed as “a dark psychological drama” and winner of last year’s Fleur du Cap best new director award, Viljoen projects himself into the mind of a gruesomely abused and self-annihilating woman. Agonising stuff.

Peppered with profanity – and nudity and explicit sex in The Pervert Laura – his plays are not for sissies. But he doesn’t believe you can make theatre for everyone.

“There are family-friendly shows with broad audience appeal that I’ve left feeling offended for having sat through, because it was bad, pandering theatre. My belief is that one should make honest, direct theatre and allow the audience to react how they choose. I’ve found that, if the work is good, an audience will respond favourably for the most part. You’ll lose a few here and there, but they were never going to like it anyway, so don’t take it personally.”

Nothing is taboo
Theatre audiences are by now familiar with his addiction to taboo words. He views all the outrage-engendering expletives tossed about with such turbocharged passion as simply a part of language – “a tool to convey ideas and create moments between characters”.

Meanwhile it’s not only in his plays that he goes in for the kill. He does it with feverish glee on his blog Uncle Loo, A Certified Dealer of Bile, which is full of laugh-out-loud moments – unless you’re the victim. A lot of it is tailor-made stand-up material. But stand-up is not a road he’s gone down because of a stutter he claims got him “quite a shellacking from critics and audiences” when he tried his hand at acting.

So he’s taken pity on them: “The prospect of making people sit through two hours of what’s meant to be a 10-minute comedy set seems like an unfair ordeal.”

He’s had other jobs he was never any good at, but as soon as he decided to focus his sharp-tongued skills solely on theatre, he felt he’d found a purpose. “The combination of having no other marketable skills and only being truly at ease when I make theatre is what led me to where I am today, for better or worse.”

Not that writing plays came easily at first to this Jo’burg boykie. He describes his early scripts at the National School of Arts in Johannesburg, where he never excelled academically, as “foul pieces of work”.

Fortunately he had an encouraging drama teacher, Yvette Hardie, now local director of the International Association of Theatre for Young People, Assitej: “Instead of making moral judgements she would write detailed notes and ideas and send them back to me.”

He moved down to Cape Town eight years ago and says it’s the home he never knew he wanted.

“Most of my friends are in theatre, so I had a leg up in terms of access to collaborators who could vouch for me. I would not be able to make a living in Johannesburg doing only theatre. And I’m not making much of a living in Cape Town, but it’ll do. That’s all I can hope for really: to do what I love and make rent and share a bottle of wine with my friends.”

The Kingmakers is at The Fugard from February 23 to March 19. 

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