DIANE DE BEER
Fledgling theatre production company Theatrerocket is making waves with its first production Die Reuk van Appels, which runs at the State Theatre until September 24;
When Johan van der Merwe and Rudi Sadler started talking about their passion for theatre while traveling many kilometers between Pretoria and Joburg as theatre judges, they decided to start their own production company Theatrerocket.
Van der Merwe previously owned a catering company in-between attending all the major art festivals in South Africa as well as going on an almost annual visit to the Edinburgh Festival (averaging 700 theatre shows a year). Sadler is a theatre journalist and graphic artist. Both have recently left their day jobs because they realised while trying to achieve their dream, producing is a full time job. They’re determined to make it work and throw everything at it to see that happen.
Their first production, Die Reuk van Appels, which opens at the State Theatre’s Momentum tonight (Saturday September 2), adapted from the celebrated Mark Behr novel, hasn’t been an easy one, but it has been successful on every possible level, already raking in the awards – and they’re not done yet. It still has runs at Aardklop in October and a season in Joburg next year.
“We have been told that you never make money on your first production, but we are starting to see the light,” they explain. Anyone in and out of theatre would agree that it can only be passionate madness for these two theatre fanatics to take on this formidable task. And yet it has paid off big time. They have had many more offers than they can accept.
Their first option was a good one (as it seems with everything they have done thus far), and it was an easy choice because Van der Merwe since first reading the book, has hankered to produce this for stage – as a solo show. The main character tells the story from his point of view, thus a solo stage show was the way to go.
After much work, they were finally given the rights and the book, after some detours was passed on to award winning scriptwriter Johann Smith to adapt for stage. Once that was done, the two producers as well as actor Gideon Lombard and director Lara Bye had discussions with input and finally they had the completed script.
For those who don’t know the story’s bare essentials, it’s about an 11-year old Afrikaans boy Marnus who lives in a country where the black and coloured majority are governed by a white minority. He gradually becomes more aware of the injustice of the system and has to make complex decisions especially at his age about right and wrong as he witnesses certain things. His life is irrevocably changed when a foul deed destroys his existence.
“It is the story of so many white South Africans,” says Van der Merwe about living as a youngster in a country where everything was presented as normal, and he also believes that a younger generation should learn about and understand our horrific past. “They have no clue about the world we lived in, how closed it was,” he says of that period of our past.
For Lombard, this has been an extraordinary experience. Working with this particular director (and producers) was an added bonus because they knew one another. “I have worked with her before and she was a lecturer at UCT when I studied,” he says. Trust was a given and helped enormously with this very difficult text, especially as this is Lombard’s first solo performance.
For him and Bye, the text as it currently stands has to be just that. Everything is justified in context and what some may see as inappropriate wholly serves the story and is not included to shock. To go into more detail would be a spoiler because the experience of the play is all about the unusual and unexpected unfolding and unraveling of this young boy’s experience.
“It’s a play that needs patience when viewing,” says Lombard. The rewards come at the end but in the telling, lies the detail and the poetry of the text. “Bye has created a wonderful safe space on stage,” says Lombard which also shapes an unnerving intimacy that is part of this extraordinary play.
Lombard loves the metaphorical essence of the play and is ecstatic about the experience even if like anything else – and here the producers nod in agreement – it took hard work. For all of them this has been a learning experience because it is all about firsts. But because of their dedication and their knowledge of the industry and more importantly, what it takes to make good theatre, they are painstaking about the details, and it shows.
Van der Merwe and Sadler have up to now usually been audience members. They know what they want when going to the theatre, from the practical issues like being on time and having the right sight lines to the production. But more importantly it is the content and with their first production and all its participants included, they have set a benchmark to be proud of.
If theatre is your particular bent, take a closer look at this coming-of-age story. It grapples with the Afrikaner mentality in the late ’70s early ’80s and the brutal consequences of apartheid and the militarisations of South African life.
It will tear at your heart.