South African theatre company puts on O’Neill
The true test of a good play is its ability to translate, both across regions and times. Back in ancient Athens, Euripides wrote about an elaborate love triangle in his Greek tragedy Hippolytus, and to this day, his work still proves timeless. Not only was it adapted by Eugene O’Neill, but now a Cape Town theatre company is transporting the classic to colonial South Africa, and bringing the innovative adaptation to the Triad.
“Desire Under the Elms is a powerful tragedy by Eugene O’Neill,” said Marcel Meyer, co-founder of Abrahamse-Meyer Productions, which will be performing the play next week at Triad Stage. “Its universal themes and austere poetic landscape have made it a true classic that is still performed all around the world. The play’s themes of ownership of land also spoke very powerfully to issues we are dealing with as South Africans in 2016 – and that was one of the main reasons we wanted to stage this play.”
The small theatre company has developed an international reputation for its fascinating take on Shakespearean plays, and it’s also one of the few independent classical theatre companies in South Africa.
“Our company functions mainly as a classical theatre company – so our repertoire is made up of plays by great classic writers like Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams, Yukio Mishima, O’Neill, Noel Coward and Stephen Sondhei,” Marcel said. “But each of these great playwrights have written plays that we feel speak directly to our current situation in South Africa. And that is the mark of a great writer or artist – no matter when they were born or what nationality they are – their work transcends that and they are always our contemporaries.”
O’Neill’s play, set in a rural New England farmland, is inspired by Euripides’ classical Greek tragedy Hippolytus, in which Phaedra, the wife of the Athenian king Theseus, falls in love with and attempts to seduce his son Hippolytus.
For Abrahamse-Meyer’s production, the setting has been changed to South Africa’s Eastern Cape during the time of the Witwatersrand Gold Rush during the 1890s.
“It was wonderful how well the play fit into a South African context,” Marcel said. “In many ways it seems so much like a South African play that it’s hard to imagine it in its original American setting. One example is the realization of the spirit of Eben’s mother in the play. In Africa we have a very real belief in the spirit of the ancestor – so the scene in the parlor where Abbie and Eben communicate with the spirit takes on the very real and very African feel in our production.”
In addition to the new setting of the play, the production’s costumes add a captivating and dramatic new twist. Since many African women assimilated Victorian dress with their traditional African costume during the play’s time period, that was the inspiration for the characters’ garb. For example, Abbie’s first costume is a striking red Victorian dress, embroidered with traditional African cowrie shells.
On her first entrance Abbie also wears a large turban-like headdress—a traditional garment of the isiXhosa people of the Eastern Cape.
UNCG Theatre Professor Denise Gabriel has been producing the event, after she was invited in 2014 to attend the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Festival where she was deeply moved by the company’s production of Yukio Mishima’s The Lady Aoi. This led to discussions with Literary Director Thomas Keith and Artistic Director David Kaplan in which Gabriel ignited the possibility of bringing them to Greensboro.
“It’s always a very inspiring and humbling experience to get to share one’s work with people from other parts of the world,” Marcel said. “The audience can expect an evening of hot African passion, betrayal, devastating tragedy and ultimately true love.”
With the goal of bringing more international artists to the area, Triad Stage Artistic Director Preston Lane was also supportive of bringing the company to Triad Stage.
“I’m thrilled that Triad Stage can be a home to innovative and groundbreaking international theater productions,” Lane said. “Great theater captures the essence of the culture that produces it, becoming a window into a different place. I’m eager to share this extraordinary Eugene O’Neill drama re-envisioned by the acclaimed Abrahamse-Meyer Productions with our Triad audiences.”
Wanna GO? Desire Under the Elms runs September 28 – October 1 in the UpStage Cabaret at Triad Stage, 232 S. Elm Street. Tickets are $20. For tickets and more information, call the Triad Stage box office at 336-272-0160 or visit triadstage.org.