From root to tip

2010-06-19 13:11

Preparing my new play

Tree Boy for The Grahamstown Festival has proved a mammoth and all-consuming

task, teaching me ­invaluable lessons in keeping a hold on my creativity when

faced with avalanches of administration and escalating budgets.

Alongside plays director Libby Allen, I have been writing,

conceiving and designing Tree Boy for the last four years, drawing on personal

family narratives and themes that have intrigued me.

We consider ourselves extremely fortunate to have ­received the

support of the Grahamstown National Arts Festival and the National Arts Council

which has enabled our years of hard work to now leap to vivid life on a national


The play will premiere on the main programme at this year’s

Grahamstown National Arts Festival, and tells a story of the relationships

between three generations of men in 1960s South Africa. After the death of his

mother, 12-year-old Benjamin Sprout and his father, Arthur, a postman, are

forced to relocate from their rustic property in the mountains to a burgeoning

mining town in the Transvaal.

The play’s narrative is something of a banyan tree, spreading its

branches and sending its many roots into the earth. Within a simple narrative

frame we have attempted to create a piece that evokes the nature of a journey; a

journey through time, in a time, through relationships, identity, age, growth,

loss and healing.

Arthur takes up a position as postman in Rykdom – a town ­located

between fact and fantasy, an industrial hub, where man and nature are at odds

and where monstrous constructs and gases are fast overpowering the population –

and as he retreats further into the paralysis of liquor and memory, young

Benjamin seeks solace in an overgrown forest on the town’s fringes where he

­encounters an elderly war veteran and gardener named Archibald Drupe.

While Tree Boy employs various filmic conventions in its telling,

we have used multi-media to allow the audience unusual ­access into the imaging

of our 12-year-old character. Furthermore cinema, of the B-Grade science fiction

variety, features in the boy’s nightmarish visit to the ­bioscope.

So far it has been an awesome and exhausting creative journey. One

that has inspired us to find imaginative and relevant ways to incorporate

nostalgic jingles and eerie political speeches (Verwoerd makes a cameo

appearance in the play) into our tale.

For the last six months we have been able to shut out the

trivialities of daily life to scrutinise our own pasts and those of our parents.

To stop and take stock, ­re-evaluate the paths we hope our own

futures, and those of this country, might take. This is, after all, a play as

much about the future as it is about the past.

The search for a young actor (in the age bracket of 10 to 13) to

play the lead role entailed casting our net as wide as Johannesburg and Cape

Town, only to discover that such a talent existed on our very own doorstep.

Fourteen-year-old Luc Haasbroek, from Eden College in Durban, fits

the role of Benjamin Sprout perfectly and allowed us to avoid using an adult

character actor (or puppet) to double as the adolescent character.

We can only hope that our ­audiences will find the experience as

magical, visceral and stimulating as we have, that our love and commitment to

this project will ultimately prove ­infectious and that Tree Boy will grow and

live on in people’s minds for a very long time to come.

  • Tree

    Boy is on at the Rhodes Box in Grahamstown on 25 June (6.30pm), Saturday 26 June

    (12pm & 6.30pm) and Sunday 27 June (10am & 2pm)

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