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TSHEPANG - THE THIRD TESTAMENT (article first published : 2004-02-9)

It's the harrowing honesty, the conceptual brilliance of this superbly written and hauntingly performed theatre piece that merits all the attention it can get. Not only does Tshepang rub symbolic salt into the wounds left by a violent society, it also unleashes articulate artistic voices which resonate in a festering silence.

In her first formal script Lara Foot Newton, who has previously focused on workshopping, emerges as a playwright of considerable note. Her research of child rape in South Africa is reflected in the sub-title "Based on twenty thousand true stories"- and the title, the internationally reported case of the nine-month-old Baby Tshepang, which are springboards for this incisively poetic text. The horrifying annual statistics of reported cases are translated into human terms, using Biblical references and symbolism transposed to a rural South African landscape.

The writer-director's collaboration with scenographer Gerhard Marx triggers all the senses. The narrative and biographies are gouged out of a place where the hard-drinking people are washed up on a history of colonial and apartheid exploitation. The characters of the talkative Simon (Mncedisi Shabangu) and the expressively silent Ruth (Kholeka Qwabe) interact with carefully chosen elements - a pile of salt, an animal skin, a grass broom, a loaf of bread, a bottle of cheap wine, an assortment of carved beds, houses and eyeless spectacles. Truth and fiction intermingle as the story of the "town of shame" emerges through the eyes and ears of Simon, the sculptor of scrapmetal nativity figures, who is waiting for the girl Christ as he guards Ruth the mother of the raped baby Sissie whom the townsfolk dub Tshepang (denoting hope and salvation).

The epic is meshed with the particular, the local with the universal as the two devastatingly effective actors create a brutalised slice of life which vanishes behind the sensational news head lines. "You see how shit we all are?" asks Simon. Yes, we do, because theatre is supposed to hold up a mirror to society.

A classic drama of its time, Tshepang - The Third Testament, not only offers a number of mirrored realities, it creeps into the crevices of social conscience.

Performances take place at Hilton College Theatre from February 17 to 20. (Times and ticket price to be announced). Bookings on 033 383 0126.




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