If you tune into the KKNK website, one of the many delights you will find is the route and tickets to a filmed version of Jaco Bouwer’s brilliant if disturbing Samsa-masjien written by Willem Anker and starring the brilliant Antoinette Kellermann and Gerben Kamper.

DIANE DE BEER reviews:

Gerben Kamper and Antoinette Kellermann

Most of us have or had ageing parents and will be ageing at some stage. That’s exactly what Samsa-masjien is dealing with.

When our parents are ageing, the process that becomes part of the children’s lives in some way can be either a joyous or troubling one. And often, it is in the hands of those who are younger to determine the outcomes.

The parents ageing are in most cases exactly who they are, they’re not going to change and you simply have to decide where and how you’re going to fit into the process.

When I first saw this production live, I was dealing with ageing parents and very vulnerable about the whole subject because it doesn’t matter how you regard your parents or how much work you do to deal with what may lie ahead, nothing can really prepare you for the process.

But what I had come to realise (with films like The Savages) and with dealing with people hoping to age gracefully, is that dignity is something everyone – those ageing and those caring – hope to cling onto. But it’s not easy.

So when I first experienced Samsa-masjien, I could hardly breathe being so overwhelmed. It was in fact only with a second viewing that I became aware of Pierre-Henri Wicomb’s emotive sound recordings which are almost like an invisible yet very present character – especially in the live performance.

Samsa-masjien with Ilana Cilliers

What Willem Anker did with the text was quite astonishing, as he honed into the basest of emotions when dealing with something as overwhelming as this particular human condition, which most of us will be subjected to at some stage in our lives from different vantage points.

Witnessing this on film felt to me much different – not better or worse – but different and which one you prefer will be a very individual rather than an artistic choice.

What Bouwer (who since this production was first staged live at the KKNK has focussed more on film than live theatre) decided was to shoot this play as often in close-up as he could manage – or that is what it feels like. And I suspect he was right because the thing with this topic and particular play is that you have to find yourself in the midst of this particular emotional storm because that’s what it is.

And since writing the review, I had the chance to listen in to a discussion that artistic director Hugo Theart had with Anke,  Bouwer and Wicomb which explained a lot about the process as well as the recording. This was followed later by a discussion with the cast which was as insightful. (both of these are available on the KKNK website

Samsa-masjien was in fact recorded during the Baxter Theatre run in 2015 for archival purposes, which Bouwer had started doing with his work, including Rooiland and Balbesit. (Can we please see those too?)

The way they did it was to shoot a couple of hours before every performance. “It wasn’t meant to be seen,” says Bouwer but fortunately for those of us who relished another viewing or even first-time viewers, Theart could twist his arm.

It is one of the few theatre advantages during Covid that more attention is being paid to online productions and in many instances especially in a country where theatre-makers are always struggling, that’s a good thing. There are many one-off shows for example in Joburg which I can’t make but which I would love to see. It’s also a solution to those theatre makers who struggle with producing remarkable plays for a festival and then it doesn’t travel any further.

But to get back to the production, everyone in this story is busy with their own drama because it’s as much as they can deal with.

Ludwig Binge in Samsa-Masjien

The ageing father (Gerben Kamper) is losing his mind, while his wife (Antoinette Kellermann) is trying her best to keep him safe and allow him to age gracefully. His daughter (Ilana Cilliers) is battling with what is happening to her parents and her husband (Herman Binge) doesn’t think any of this is his problem. He is already providing her parents with a place to stay. Nothing more required. They seem to be cool, calm and collected throughout the unravelling process – but obviously that’s not the case.

It’s a remarkable text (Kafka-inspired and with many different layers to delve into) with Bouwer always a visual thinker and a cast to die for. Bouwer was the first to admit that especially for the actors portraying the ageing parents, these are not easy characters to play.

But his choices were easy because few actors have the courage that these two displayed. All four actors are perfectly cast, but especially Kamper and Kellermann as the parents because of the vulnerability of the characters and the players bringing them to life. It is simply astonishing and contributes to what is essentially an ensemble piece with those on and off stage involved.

It’s not an easy piece to watch but something all of us should heed as it will be part of our lives in some form. And who knows, with enough care and understanding we might even make it a smooth process for everyone involved.

But not in this tale where the children are hosting a dinner party upstairs while the parents are sinking deeper and deeper into the obscurity of their own world below the surface – unseen, or so everyone believes.

Anyone who has walked into a retirement home (previously known  as old-age home) recently will understand that feeling of  displacement as you pass cheerful souls in the passage and people eager to see if they know you or can start a conversation.

It takes me back to boarding school.  I didn’t want to be part of that tribe then and I have no desire to repeat anything vaguely described as group activity in this lifetime.

But as my mother said to me in those tough years: “We are your children now. And I know you never wanted any!”

And that’s the irony of life. There are many things we simply have no say in. They’re given to us and usually at a time when we’re least prepared. Ageing is one of those and watching people die is at its best one of the toughest things you will be asked to do.

So watch Samsa-masjien. No one wants to go through the worst of it and at least, with some thoughtfulness, you can complete this life cycle with the gentleness required.

Go to the KKNK website for tickets and viewing.