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THE BELLS OF AMERSFOORT (article first published : 2002-07-11)

The Bells of Amersfoort appearing on the main frame of the National Arts Festival is a collaborative work from the Sibikwa Players of Benoni and the Dutch company, De Nieuw Amsterdam Theatergroep.

One of the most promising aspects of this year’s festival was the number of collaborations between South African performing or visual art organisations with overseas government or privately funded companies.

However, this may have stood to the detriment of The Bells of Amersfoort. The music and drama was created by one of South Africa’s top playwrights, Zakes Mda, and the direction was in the highly capable hands of Aram Adriaanse of the Netherlands. The creative control thus spanned the two countries with strong input from both but eventually not quite making a cohesive whole. Too many issues were dealt with, leading one to think that there should have been a third force to oversee the final product and introduce some serious pruning.

Thabang Masupa puts in a fine constrained performance as Tami Walaza, the South African exile living in Amersfoort. She longs for her homeland and spends her time in isolation wrapped round the comforts of a bottle of red wine. However, when the bells of the town ring out, she is wracked with an inexplicable and violent physical pain. It is only later we discover that this is brought on by an association with the bells of a South African town in which she was tortured by the police.

She relives the events that have taken her into exile. One day she observes a couple having sex in a building across the way and recognises the man as one of her torturers. They meet and he provides the catalyst for her return to South Africa to pick up the pieces of her shattered life.

The play reminds us that Amersfoort is the birthplace of Jan van Riebeeck. And, for me, the play could successfully have been drawing to a close at this point as everything that preceded it fell neatly into place on this revelation. Playing for one and a half hours on the Festival without an interval, it eventually became laborious as the final scenes are highly predictable.

However, the cast performed with energy and commitment and there were many beautiful poignant scenes.

The Bells of Amersfoort is a visually impressive production and the costumes were stunning, particularly in the earlier scenes. Much kudos to the Dutch group for their credible singing and dancing in local traditional styles. The set included the clever use of a freestanding glassed framework of windows in front of the backdrop which was used to good effect. – Caroline Smart




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