All laid bare on the table

2011-08-05 15:30

Those familiar with Sylvaine Strike’s theatre work will be expecting her trademark blend of fantasy and reality. Though there is plenty of magic at work in The Table, it is the true story behind this dramatic representation that gives it that extra layer of authenticity.

“This is a return to realism for me,” says Strike. “It’s based on a real story – the table is my mother-in-law’s table. It’s in her dining room.”

The Table debuted at this year’s National Arts Festival in Grahamstown to great acclaim and is one of the many pieces at the festival that went well beyond exposing the skeletons in the closet. It airs them, examines them and finally puts them to rest.

This trend of dramatic storytellers finding new ways to engage with the past is a refreshing change from those angst-ridden pieces that seem to wallow in the past.

Instead, the pain is acknowledged, as are the challenges and mistakes of the previous generation, but the difference lies in how the current generation reads the past to create a shared future.

The Table is the story of a uniquely South African family – a recently widowed Jewish matriarch, her three children, the domestic worker who helped to raise them and the domestic worker’s daughter who grew up with the family.

“We started with the loose skeleton structure of the story,” says Strike, who worked with Craig Higginson. What followed was an arduous six-week workshop in which the cast of six had to each mould their characters, drawing from their own experiences to do so while remaining true to the underlying story.

“Every character is sculptured from who the actors are,” says Strike, who admits good-naturedly that putting together a play in such a short period “puts years on your life”.

This workshop process is particularly taxing for actors who are used to being given a script to learn and then colour in
the character.

Annabel Linder plays the matriarch, Sara, and though she remarked that the workshop was a challenge for her, it is she who holds this cast together with her mesmerising performance.

She and her friend and employee, Flora, played by Janet Hampton Carpede, set the table for an extra special Friday dinner with the family. All the children are coming, including Flora’s New York-based lawyer daughter, Amoneo, played by Khabonina Qubeka.

The two mothers making sure that everything is perfect for a celebratory dinner to welcome all their children home sets the scene for this specifically domestic drama to play out.

Flora and Sara dance around the table like a couple who have been waltzing together for years and can easily guess what the other’s steps will be. It represents the uniquely South African relationship between domestic employer and employee.

The three children of the house – Daniel (Brian Webber), Ruth (Karin van der Laag) and Levi (William Harding) – each have their own issues that they bring to the table.

Daniel, the fussy hypochondriac elder brother, has just been chucked out by his wife and is still dealing with his guilt surrounding the death of
his father.

Ruth is the middle sibling who has chubby issues, which are exacerbated by her relationship with Amoneo, who she resents for being much slimmer, prettier and more successful.

Amoneo’s return to the family table stirs Ruth’s childhood resentments towards Flora’s child. Levi, the youngest, can hardly wait for Amoneo to arrive. He plans to reveal his lifelong crush and declare his undying love for her.

With all these emotions swirling around the dining room before the first course is served, it’s little wonder that when the food arrives no one can digest it.

“At the start, everyone is wearing the mask they are used to wearing,” says Strike. But in no time those masks come off and it’s not pretty.

To drive home the emotional storm of the story, Strike introduces textured food for the characters to mime eat.

Each course makes a particular sound and as the family’s truths are revealed, the dining room becomes more and more messy and the food becomes more and more indigestible.

The Table’s incarnation at the Market Theatre’s Laager Theatre promises to be an intimate experience.

The cosiness of the theatre ensures that everyone in the audience feels as though they are at the table with the family.

“The table is used to pull the family together and this play shows how families overcome everything if they speak to one another,” says Strike.

» The Table runs at the Laager Theatre in Newtown until September 18. 011 832 1641


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