A rare theatrical gem

2011-10-20 00:00

LISTENING to her husband’s grandmother, Anna, talk about her first husband and her experiences in Austria during World War 2, provided ­Janna Ramos-Violante with the foundation stone for her beautiful two-handed drama, Mein Soldat, which can be seen at the Playhouse Loft Theatre in Durban this weekend.

“My husband, Macky, is Austrian-born, and after high school I went to live there for a few years,” she explained. “I got the inspiration for the play from his grandmother and grandfather, Meinhardt, who shared all these stories with me.

“Today, the village where they live has about three and a half thousand people living in it, but during the war there were just a few farms and the women were left to tend them on their own, while their husbands were away at war.”

In Mein Soldat, the heroine Irma (played by Ramos-Violante) is living alone in an isolated Austrian village, and her intense loneliness is almost painful to watch. That desperate need for human contact also provides the catalyst for her to help a young British soldier, Duncan (Clinton Small), who has escaped from a prisoner-of-war camp and seeks help at her door.

One of the key ingredients in this play is the heavy silence which becomes, in many ways, a character in the drama. Watching the first few minutes of the action is an almost voyeuristic experience and you feel compelled to keep completely still, so as not to disturb the silence.

Ramos-Violante, a graduate of the University of KwaZulu-Natal drama department, loves creating intimate human dramas. “I’m interested in relationships, in showing a real slice of life … it’s all about absolute realism,” the ­actress-director-playwright, who matriculated at Grosvenor Girls’ High School on the Bluff, says.

But even she admits that performing the play is a challenge, adding: “In the beginning, I was quite self-conscious about the silence and just being. As actors, we feel we have to put on a show, and here you just watch the character ... eating, stoking the fire, clearing the table …

“I was also a bit worried that people would start thinking about time and look at their watches, but people who’ve watched it have said they didn’t notice the time passing.”

Performed in Austrian and English, Mein Soldat, also proves that you don’t need to speak someone else’s language to be able to understand how they’re feeling, and to make an emotional connection. Irma and Duncan are able to communicate without words because they share a common pain and grief, and are driven by an overwhelming need to make a connection with another human being.

To pull this kind of drama off takes talented and sensitive acting, and Ramos-Violante, herself an extraordinary ­actress, has nothing but praise for her co-star, Small. “He has an amazing emotional sensitivity and never holds back,” she says.

Small replaced James MacEwan, who was cast in the production when it was staged at UKZN’s Square Space Theatre in Durban and at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown last year, and their on-stage chemistry is captivating.

“It has been great returning to the play this year, playing opposite my longstanding friend and colleague, Clinton Small ... We studied together at drama school at UKZN, and we know just how the other works, both in our work ethic, and how the piece is based on realism, and there is so much trust between us,” Ramos­Violante said.

The play, which is directed by Josette Eales, has also just been made into a short film. “We have all just completed filming Mein Soldat on location, up in Dundee in northern KwaZulu-Natal. The final product is to be earmarked for distribution on the international film-festival circuit. Josette again directed, and Tyrone Bradley of We Heart TV was the photographic director,” Ramos-Violante said.

You can catch this rare theatrical gem at 8 pm tomorrow and on Saturday in the Loft Theatre at the Playhouse. Tickets are R65. Booking is at Computicket.

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