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COMRADES ARMS (article first published : 2000-07-9)

In his programme notes, author and director Anthony Akerman states that the inspiration for his latest play Comrades Arms came from a chance meeting with Albie Sachs during the interval of a Strindberg play. While chatting about old acquaintances, Sachs mentioned a former exiled member of the South African Communist Party who had returned to the country and plunged himself straight into capitalism by opening a bed and breakfast outlet.

A further conversation on the subject with Stephen Gray had the author predicting that this ironical scenario would form the basis of Akerman’s next play.

In November 1999, Comrades Arms was first presented as a staged reading at The Kultcha Klub, a project founded by Lynne Maree at the Wits Theatre in Johannesburg to present fortnightly provoking and stimulating entertainment as well as to provide a platform for writers to develop new plays.

Presented by the Kultcha Klub and the corporate and industrial theatre group Jumping Dust, Comrades Arms played the main frame of the 2000 Standard Bank National Arts Festival in Grahamstown recently. Monique Garden’s attractive set has some amusing features and is suitably solid to cope with the comings and goings of a farce. It depicts the foyer of Comrades Arms, a B&B in Knysna run by Arnold Pratt (David Butler) and his sharp-tongued wife Rose (Lynne Maree). Things aren’t going too well. Apart from a constant battle with the telephone system, their employees Cherise (Nicole Abel) and “Comrade” Solomon Bhengu (John Lata) pretty much “do their own thing”.

Onto the scene comes the large and obstreperous Buffel Bezuidenhout (Ben Kruger) – a “man on a mission” who makes no secret of the fact that he’s after someone. Arnold panics, thinking he’s a member of the Third Force and calls in former “comrade-at-arms” Bernie Rosenberg (Joss Levine) to confirm his suspicions.

David Butler seemed at odds with his character and Ben Kruger tends to over-play his role as Buffel. Coming off better were Lynne Maree and Joss Levine, both of whom have some of the funniest lines and gave delightful performances. Nicole Abel was highly amusing in the first half but spends most of the second half topless and shoved in or out of a cupboard. John Lata puts in a good performance as the much put-upon barman.

Unfortunately, the production doesn’t gel. Where it should zip along, with snappy dialogue and frantic action tumbling over and into each other, Comrades Arms tends to plod. Hilarious lines and situations there are a-plenty but they often come across as contrived and predictable. Where there should be logic there is often illogic and I found a particular sequence where a drunken Buffel mistakes the inside of a cupboard for a urinal as inappropriate and tacky.

These are regrettable remarks to make about a play that provides an interesting and unusual aspect and story line. Also about an award-winning playwright who gave us such insightful pieces as Somewhere on the Border and the excellent and acclaimed Dark Outsider.

Perhaps Anthony Akerman should have called in a director more experienced in the genre of farce to pull the production “off the page”.




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