Review – The Unexpected Man: simple, effective storytelling

2013-07-05 15:23

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This play is ingenious – but then theatre folks in the know wouldn’t expect any less of Frenchwoman Yasmina Reza, the award-winning author of Art and God of Carnage.

The Unexpected Man is about two people sharing a train compartment on a long journey. Nothing unusual about that – except he is a famous novelist, she his biggest fan.

But neither speak.

Instead, the audience is made privy to the private thoughts of both.

She can’t take out the book she’s reading because it is her favourite novelist’s latest and he’s sitting opposite her.

What to do? Well, what all of us would do: mental scenario planning, playing out fantasy conversations and daydreaming – all the while plucking up the bottle to speak to her hero.

Meanwhile, the object of her fearful admiration is grappling with his vast array of demons – some as mundane as why his sister would want to marry an old man, others as complex as why he feels like a failure and playing out his jealousy over his friend’s Japanese girlfriend.

He is also wondering why the hell the woman opposite him isn’t reading anything.

Zanne Solomon and Shaun Acker both give fine performances under the guidance of Brink Scholtz.

Acker is great as the angst-filled writer, while Solomon twirls her pearls and agonises about what fate has delivered into her compartment.

The to and fro from the inner thoughts of each traveller is delivered with the chug of the train in the background and with an ingenious device to keep this from being a series of soliloquies.

As the audience enters the theatre space the actors are already there in chairs that face, but look past each other, all while the raised platform they are on rotates ever so slowly, courtesy of two people in black who turn them towards and away from the audience in a rhythm that mimics the hypnotic motion of the train.

This is simple, effective storytelling.

All of us have the same hang-ups and fears of putting ourselves out there, whoever we are.

The Unexpected Man was written in 1995, and Reza shows her dexterity for revealing a lot of character in surprising ways: Interactions don’t have to be real to move the plot forward, but they are essential for closure.

So, just as you’ve come to terms with Parsky and his fan Martha never making real contact, he screws his courage to the sticking point and asks her to – gasp – open the window a little.

The whole audience laughs – a combination of tension, relief and disappointment.

But that’s far from the end of this clever almost-meeting of two people.

Reza has plenty more fun as she shows us just how much gumption it takes to play the game of life.

» The Unexpected Man is on at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown at 10am tomorrow and Sunday at Library Hall.

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