2021 has been a good year for director/mentor Marthinus Basson. He has been involved in mentoring many theatre productions, presented a 9-month long digital directing course and was also responsible for the filming of two of his theatre productions, Koningin Lear by Tom Lanoye (translated by Antjie Krog) and Reza de Wet’s Asem (Breathing In, translated into Afrikaans by Basson). DIANE DE BEER reviews:

Heightening the stakes for both productions  ̶   as well as the audience  ̶  is the fact that the two plays are so different. And yet, in both instances, the lead is played by the towering Antoinette Kellermann, showing her staggering stage craft magnificently with the extraordinary Edwin van der Walt also present in both, with equal aplomb.

Koningin Lear, first staged in 2019 at the KKNK’s 25th anniversary, is a re-imagining of Shakespeare’s King Lear with Krog’s translation localising the text to establish the power hungry family led by the mother (Kellerman) as the head of the family empire with her three sons (Wilhelm van der Walt, Neels van Jaarsveld and Edwin van der Walt) and their spouses (Rolanda Marais and Anna-Mart van der Merwe) as well as a family advisor (André Roothman) and a care-giver (Matthew Stuurman).

It’s a majestic work with Basson envisioning a contemporary landscape with a boardroom almost in the sky, out of the reach of ordinary people with a dynastic-driven family at loggerheads from the word go. There’s enough that’s familiar from the King Lear story to pull you into the text  and then all the most pressing issues of the 21st century coming into play – greed and grandiosity leading the pack.

With the genders turned upside down from the original, three sons are asked by their ageing mother to declare their love so that she can allocate their positions in the hierarchy of the company as she steps down.

Alma (Rolanda Marais) and Henry (Wilhelm van der Walt) as the power couple.

When her youngest and his mother’s dearest disgusted by his two older siblings’ fawning and feigning, declares the fullness of his love by walking away, excess becomes the motivating factor for everyone left behind. With the two hustling wives the power behind their husbands’ self-grabbed thrones, the eldest, an ill-fitting Greg (Van Jaarsveld) with his brassy Connie (Van der Merwe), an OTT shopaholic and the younger but smarter Henry (Wilhelm van der Walt) and his wimpering and damaged Alma (Marais) from the wrong side of the track go into full attack to embellish their empire while everything that is or comes into their orbit is destroyed and ruined.

There’s no insight and the desire for dynasty drives and determines their dastardly and often dumb decisions.

This is one of those plays where everything comes together – the words, the translation, the cast, the direction, and most of all, the vision.

Krog, who has already received all the accolades with her translation of Lanoye’s Mama Medea, is masterful as she captures the time, the place and the way language can be used to capture character as well as period and place. With Lanoye’s original and Krog’s translation of text and texture, it’s worth cherishing every nuanced word.

And then the casting. With Kellermann in command, the tone is set as she delivers in stature as the powerful matriarch who, while handing over her wealth and with that her power, is also battling dementia. Her fickle family turns on her in their rush to the top and, in the event, toppling everything they have been handed on a platter.

Family portrait: From left: Matthew Stuurman, Wilhelm van der Walt, Andre Roothman, Edwin van der Walt, Neels van Jaarsveld Front: Rolanda Marais, Antoinette Kellermann, Anna-Mart van der Merwe

This is a family concern, which means it isn’t necessarily the best who step into the leadership position, especially when bravado rather than brains comes into play.

Marthinus Basson in rehearsal during the earlier Koningin Lear.

With Basson the conducter, it’s a play that sings from start to finish and in this transposition from stage to screen, it is the close-ups, some sleight-of-hand tricks and the collective talent that truly shine.

It’s a rare gift that this extraordinary work has been given new life – and I’m hoping a much wider platform.

Thenb prepare yourself for Reza de Wet’s Asem, a play Basson translated and staged to honour his late friend.

As someone who is intimately connected with this insightful playwright’s work, his is usually the definitive production with Kellerman again stepping in as a mother – but this time she couldn’t be further removed from the powerhouse business virago of Koningin Lear.

Tinarie van Wyk Loots, Edwin van der Walt and Antoinette Kellermann in the background.

What they do have in common is their strength and here it is the manipulative monster that comes into play as she spins a trap for any man who might find himself in the presence of this formidable yet deceptive mother-and-daughter (Tinarie Van Wyk Loots).

While Koningin Lear was shot on stage, this production was transferred to a farm stable at the Worcester Museum. And yet, reflecting on the stage production, Basson clevery created a most realistic stable on stage as well.

The cast also includes Stian Bam (right) as the badly wounded general while the young Edwin van der Walt (left) has come to check on the wounded warrior left in the care of these seemingly caring women.

But there’s a frisson of an almost haunting mystery in the air. Everything isn’t as it seems and, as always with De Wet, she plays with her female and male characters in way that constantly shifts the power structures.

You might think you know who is leading the charge, but don’t underestimate a woman (and her groomed accomplice) who has been cornered in an inhospitable world where their presence is hardly tolerated.

Edwin van der Walt and Antoinette Kellerman, both who appear in both plays.

Both these plays are challenging, insightful and staged brilliantly with casts that mesmerise. Even with dangerously little time in hand, Basson has managed to transpose these plays from stage to film, giving those of us who feel deprived because of the absence of theatre a chance to see the best.

They might not be easy to watch and demand that you have your wits about you to follow the story or just appreciate the juxtaposition of the words, but Via should be celebrated and congratulated for taking the chance.

Don’t let them regret it. This is something we should cherish and hope becomes part of our viewing schedule on a more regular basis.

Congratulations to the Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees (KKNK) and VIA on DStv for broadcasting these memorable productions during the festive season. It holds great promise for the future of theatre and how hybrid productions can reach much wider audiences – and in that way, save the day

  • Asem: 26 December at 9pm with re-broadcasts on 3 January (9pm) and 6 January (9pm).
  • Koningin Lear: 1 January at 9pm, with re-broadcasts  on 5 January (9pm) and 8 January (9pm).