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NB: as of 23 September 2008, all new artSMart articles are being published on the site news.artsmart.co.za.

WAR CRY (article first published : 2000-02-21)

Having given a production a rave review in a former run, I’m always a little apprehensive about facing the same production some time later for fear that it will not come up to expectations.

I needed no such fears with the season of John van der Ruit’s War Cry now running in the Playhouse Sanlam Loft. The production was first performed at the Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre in September last year as part of the University of Natal drama and performance studies department’s 50th anniversary celebrations.

It impressed then and, on a much smaller stage in the intimate Loft Theatre with two new cast members, it still impresses. In fact, it’s better – John van de Ruit has tightened up the dialogue considerably and added several scenes, the original cast members are comfortable and settled in their parts and Tamar Meskin’s direction is as controlled as before.

War Cry is set in an exclusive boarding school and is based on one schoolboy’s jealousy of another when he is passed over for prefectship. Despite the fact that they were good friends, he sets out single-mindedly to destroy him and uses the most diabolical means to do so.

Ben Voss plays rugby hero Merrick “I never lose” Butcher with a strength and passion that is impressive, subtley altering his performance to suit the smaller performance venue. As the more sensitive Anthony Bates, John van der Ruit squares up to his rival with calm and dignity carrying out his duties as prefect responsibly even though he may not always agree with the rules.

On the outskirts of the twosome’s “boxing ring” are their dormitory mates (Santhiran Moonsamy and Tyron Akal) and head of house (Rakau Boikanyo) and all three have grown considerably as performers since the first run. As Sid Govender, Santhiran Moonsamy is mercurial and suitably gullible, pulling in most of the laughs. Tyron Akal offers a nice detached quality as the upright Alan Greenstein forced to renege on his principle never to lie. As Stuart Luthuli, Rakau Boikanyo endures Merrick’s constant jibes and racial slights with equanimity and forbearance and is quietly imposing when the tables are turned.

Newcomers to the play – Tim Wells as Steven Ball and Peter Gardner as Gerald Everett – bring their own strengths to an already gripping and tension-filled production. Tim Wells puts in a consistently sensitive and strong performance as the genial and likeable young teacher who becomes the innocent victim in a battle for supremacy. Peter Gardner’s stage presence is undeniably commanding as the brusque and perceptive headmaster whose sole concern is the good name of the school – all else is expendable. It is a pity we don’t see either of these actors more often on the Durban drama stages.

Mervyn McMurtry’s well-designed set, created as it was for the Sneddon stage, is somewhat cramped in the Loft but still provides three clear performance areas and Julian August’s lighting is sensitive and well placed.

War Cry has impressed me yet again, not only because of the quality of acting and directing but because the vehicle itself is as solid as a rock. The opening scenes may appear nothing more than puerile adolescent humour but it contains all the pointers to the well-constructed plot that is to follow. John van de Ruit understands his characters perfectly and has created good dialogue and dramatic situations are that believable and exciting. I look forward to his next play.

Performances are Tuesday to Saturday at 19h00; Sunday at 18h00; special schools’ performances on Tuesdays at 11h00; Saturday matinees at 15h00. Tickets: R25; R10 for schools’ performances.

(Wheelchair report: The Playhouse is wheelchair friendly and you can reach any of the performance venues. While there are special toilets for the disabled, I don’t believe they were designed by anyone who has driven a wheelchair as it’s extremely difficult to close the door once you’re inside. Also – and not only the Playhouse is guilty of this – there seems to be a perception that disabled people don’t need to clean their hands as very few of the disabled toilets I have visited have had any soap!)




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