‘I’m scared of poverty; have you seen how this country treats its poor? … So, I eat! What would you do in my position? ” — The Man.
“Eating” is the exquisite or dilapidating culture of corruption, depending on which side of the fence you stand, of course. Emfuleni Local Municipality in the Vaal has, over the past few years, steadily established itself as the capital of “eating” in South Africa.
In 2018, the Hawks launched an investigation into R870-million worth of irregular expenditure overseen by this council. One would think that with such an investigation in progress, “eaters” would lie low, but not in this case: several investigations in 2019 uncovered potential fraud, corruption and maladministration involving a number of contracts with a value of more than R300-million.
More than a billion rand later, the gargantuan greed and gluttony in this region reads like scenes from the prophetic pages of Zakes Mda’s classic, The Mother of All Eating.
First staged in Maseru, Lesotho, in 1992, the play is a one-man satire exploring the concept of eating. The central character, “The Man”, is the principal secretary to a government minister, who like many of his kind, has enriched himself through government funds. However, a tender deal gone wrong brings an abrupt end to his extravagant lifestyle.
The play enjoyed great popularity, and subsequently toured Europe. It has since been revived more than once, but its latest adaptation, currently running at the Market Theatre, Johannesburg, has excruciatingly failed this momentous, immutable masterpiece.
Performed by veterans Vusi Kunene and Thulani Nyembe, with acclaimed directors, Khayelihle Dom Gumede and Phala Ookeditse Phala at the helm, the production prompts a different kind of standing, not of ovation at the end of the play but of trudging out in dismay in the middle of it, making sure not to step on the vomit on the way out.
The set is a lounge at The Man’s mansion, with newspaper articles pasted on the end of the stage; it is minimalist, without mirrors, and requires a substantial amount of physical language, which the actors proved mute to.
Adopting a character-split technique first employed by director Makhaola Ndebele in his 2014 adaption, this production has Kunene and Nyembe playing mirror images of each other as The Man, with an atrocious display of what seemed like a parboiled, barely rehearsed performance. Ndebele had also brought in a third character, a pianist who scored moments of the play; Gumede and Phala borrowed this choice as well, bringing in percussionist, Volley Nchabeleng, who did an exceptional job in carrying the onerous piece.
I caught the sixth performance of the production, but it felt as though I was sitting in an open rehearsal. The actors spent so much time attempting to remember lines and queuing each other that they shattered the mirror, and were now two disconnected characters clumsily staggering on broken glass. The unpreparedness of the actors altogether dismantled the direction of the piece.
Speaking about the process of the production before opening night, Gumede said: “On the production side of things, it’s also that we are all very busy individuals — I produce other television work, audiences will know Vusi on screen, Thulani also has full time engagements, and Phala is curator at the Centre of The Less Good Idea — so we’re all exceptionally busy individuals and had to just force the time in there to be able to make this piece.”
This then begs the question of why, given their busy schedules, the actors and directors were called in for this production when there are scores of talented and able thespians who are currently without work, especially as a result of the Covid pandemic?
The tragedy with Gumede’s and Phala’s version is that the play itself is quite timeous for the arts community given the protest at the National Arts Council led by Sibongile Mngoma, but it is told with such appalling, open-mouth chewing that it makes it almost impossible to be attentive. All we can hope for is that it gets better with more performances: a story such as this deserves a worthy staging.
The Mother of All Eating opened at the Market Theatre as part of its 45th anniversary celebrations and will be running until 11 April