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

THE GREAT OUTDOORS (article first published : 2002-04-13)

“Why is everyone obsessed with the truth?” asks a crooked cop in the opening line of Neil McCarthy’s play The Great Outdoors running at the Square Space Theatre. He goes on to put forward the suggestion that what might be truth to one may be a fabrication to others.

The play unfolds with a storyline that sees the twists and turns of a relationship between two men who did their time in the army together - the one leaning strongly on the other when he commits an act which he desperately wants covered up.

But can the other be trusted? And who is telling the truth to whom, using what particular slant?

To reveal the process would be to spoil the surprises in this play which premiered at the 2000 National Arts Festival in Grahamstown. At the time The Sunday Independent’s critic Robert Greig welcomed it as “probably South Africa’s first post-Apartheid play”.

I can’t say I entirely agree with him. The Great Outdoors is certainly compelling, riveting and highly amusing in places but it’s not ground-breaking stuff.

With its short and compact scenes, it’s a perfect vehicle for film or television – perhaps influenced by Neil McCarthy’s work in these fields. It would be interesting to see the play extended to a full two-act production. There are many areas that cry out for further exploration and I found the explanation that lets the wrongdoer off the hook a little too pat for credibility.

A consummate director, Maurice Podbrey has pulled fine performances from his four-member cast.

Ben Voss, master of roles that require a mood of coiled energy, is the volatile salesman Raymond who is intimidated from pursuing a humane act of investigation by the proximity of a squatter camp. As his seemingly-naiive wife Paula, Tamar Meskin is cool and elegant, offering a nice clarity and dignity. An impressive, thoughtful and well-structured performance is given by Esmael Teixeira as the complex and manipulative Neville. Playing Cassie, Belinda Henwood is enchanting as Neville’s free-spirited action-loving girlfriend whose entire stack of possessions will fit into three rubbish bags.

Greg King’s set is highly effective. He has transformed the floor of the Square Space’s acting area with a channel of small stones surrounding a large square of tiled linoleum. There is a cleverly-designed three-piece lounge suite which can be re-assembled quickly in various shapes to denote changes of location – although there were occasions when I found the constant moving of furniture between the short scenes a little irritating.

Paul Kock plays cool jazz sax for certain scene links and as audiences seat themselves.

The Great Outdoors runs at the Square Space Theatre on the University of Natal campus until May 4. Book at Computicket on 011 340 8000 or via Joan Walsh on 031 261-3487 – Caroline Smart




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