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WAR CRY - REVUE (article first published : 1999-09-22)

Remember the name John van de Ruit. Although, on second thoughts, you probably won’t need to. If this highly talented young playwright’s first full-length play is a taste of what is to come, this will be a name to be reckoned with on the South African drama scene in the very near future.

War Cry, which runs until September 25 at the Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre, forms part of the 50th anniversary of the University of Natal’s drama and performance studies department and is yet another example of the excellent work coming from local tertiary institutions at a time when departments such as these are faced with possible closure.

War Cry is set in a private boarding school but in his programme notes John van de Ruit states that his “primary aim was not to offer a critique of such institutions, but rather to use them as a foundation for dramatic action.” The subject is “war” – in this instance between two young men, flexing their metaphorical muscles of power as they are groomed by an expensive education establishment to take their place as men of substance in the real world.

Mervyn McMurtry’s well-designed and lofty set, beautifully lit by Julian August, offers three performance areas – the dormitory, the Head’s office and study/classroom of Steven Ball. The play opens with Anthony Bates (John van de Ruit) playing the mouth organ. This imagery is used as a successful link between scenes while the instrument itself plays an important part in the battle for supremacy. It’s late at night and his companions Merrick Butcher (Ben Voss), Sid Govender (Santhiran Moonsamy) and Alan Greenstein (Tyron Akal) are unsuccessfully trying to get some sleep.

They give up trying to separate Bates from his mouth organ and, somewhat illogically (it IS the middle of the night, after all), launch into a fairly philosophical discussion about art. It is soon apparent that, amid the schoolboy humour and banter, a strong tension exists between Bates and Butcher. Originally firm friends, their relationship has soured. Butcher, the school’s rugby star who believes himself invincible, has become jealous and bitter after the promotion of Bates to prefect.

John van de Ruit and Ben Voss work well together, as is seen in their successful comedy two-hander The Final Cut. Although War Cry is a very different scenario, with its many undercurrents of tension, quick flares of angers and relentless build-up of menace and fear, the same strength of communication exists between them and they put in equally fine and powerful performances.

As the other two players in the metaphorical boxing ring, Tyron Akal and Santhiran Moonsamy offer consistently strong support in their well-drawn roles. The former character is much concerned with the power of the mind until he finds there are no glib answers when faced with one’s conscience and when he does blurt out the truth, his meaning is mistaken. The latter is a dreamer, coasting through his schooldays more concerned with his girlie magazines and Butcher’s approbation than with any academic advancement.

Into this equation comes head of house Stuart Luthuli, a sustained and forceful Rakau Boikanyo, who ignores Butcher’s insulting jibes with with a proud forbearance. Bruce Piper gives a good account of school head Gerald Everett who, while blustering and pompous, is equally as manipulative as Butcher.

One of the most impressive and underplayed performances of the evening came from Patrick Kenny as Steven Ball who recognises the spirit of genius in Bates but is helpless to halt its destruction. He is particularly notable in the scene where he faces his class for the last time.

Director Tamar Meskin has moulded a production of extremely high standard and it is hoped that War Cry may return to the Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre for a longer run in the not-to-distant future.


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