RED ALOES. Written and directed by Themba Stewart. Devised and performed by Richard September and Iman Isaacs. Music created by Jannous Aukema. Set and lighting design created by Ryno Keet, Themba and Puleng Stewart; with creative input from Juanita Ferreira.

TRACEY SAUNDERS reviews

Remembering is more than not forgetting and the conscious and deliberate choice to remember and recreate a life is no easy task. Themba Stewart has embarked upon an autobiographical quest to recover the memory of his mother from South Africa’s murky political past. Haruki Murakami says that “people’s memories are maybe the fuel they burn to stay alive,” and this slow burning meditation on a life remembered, a mother lost smoulders with a palpable grief.

'Red Aloes'

The production has been on Stewart’s mind for several years and thanks to support from the National Arts Council he has now been able to bring it to life. Its staging now is particularly relevant given that we are in that dubiously titled “women’s month.” This production embodies the original spirit of Women’s Day, a commemoration of women who stood up against injustice. Women are mostly referenced in the foot notes of history books and Red Aloes provides an opportunity to explore the identities of women who participated in the armed struggle against apartheid. In recent weeks testimony at the inquest into Ahmed Timol’s death in police custody on the 27th October 1971 reminded us of the many unsolved, and unprosecuted apartheid crimes. For Stewart’s mother, a member of uMkhonto weSizwe, there has been no trial, no justice. While the political importance of this story is not to be forgotten, it is at heart a very human story, a son’s search for his mother.

Paper trail beautifully portrayed

We encounter the young man (Richard September) speaking at a memorial held for his mother twenty five years after her death. He recounts the facts of her murder, the discovery of her body in the Red Aloes of the title and the revelation of papers related to her death.

The paper trail which he follows to find answers to questions about his mother’s life and dead is beautiful portrayed. Paper: small scraps, crumpled pages, large bundles tied up in string, letters written and never sent, the pages of a docket never solved – all these are hidden in boxes, strewn across the stage or tumble from the air. There is a sense that if it is written down it can be verified, proven, remembered. Recalling his mother and how he remembers and forgets her, the young man s: “Palimpsest. That’s what memory feels like sometimes. Erased and written over. Erasing pain to write a new story; but the indentations still remain.”

The sharpest memories though are so often visceral, they are contained in a scent, a sound or a colour. It is the physical sense of memory that Stewart plays with in this recollection. In recreating the events from his childhood and trying to capture the memory of his mother, the intensity of emotions supports Virginia Woolf’s observation that, “I can only note that the past is beautiful because one never realises an emotion at the time. It expands later, and thus we don’t have complete emotions about the present, only about the past.” It is the feeling and the physical sense, the emotion of the past, rather than a detailed narrative which is presented. The text is sparse and he seems intent on showing not telling us where memory resides.

'Red Aloes'

Consummate physical performers

To this end, Stewart has cast consummate physical performers Isaacs and September who have appeared alongside each other in several productions including Nat, Rabble and Four Small Gods, as mother and son respectively. There is no doubting their compatibility, they move in unison and against each other with perfect understanding. Recreating his childhood, playing games with his mother, hide and seek and shadow puppets amongst them, is done in an almost dreamlike manner. This is a past recreated from memory. What is real, what is imagined? Later his mother observes from the sidelines, watching as he seeks in vain for answers. Isaacs is silent throughout the performance. She utters not a sound and it is her body that speaks. The silencing of her voice is a reminder of how many women’s voices are silent and the absence of her voice amplifies her absence from the young boy’s childhood and adult life.

Repository of memories

The set, heaps of empty boxes, indicative of moving, a feature of the young orphaned boy’s life, and the repository of memories is very effective. So often the deepest memories are hidden in boxes in our minds and opening them can be a fraught and futile exercise. The boxes and their contents and emptiness become participants as they hide and reveal secrets from the past, amplified by masterful lighting, evidence of Stewart’s technical expertise and experience.

The teasing soundscape created by Jannous Aukema is saturated with sounds that slip in to your consciousness, traces of the chimes of a clock, the chorus from Eva Taylor’s Baby won’t you please come home? Fragments of hymns and nursery rhymes leave you with a strange sense of having not quite heard, grasping to recall where you heard the sound before while the tune still echoes in your ears.

In a country where remembering our past is vital for our collective healing, Stewart has taken a bold step towards revealing his personal past. Red Aloes feels like the beginning of an excavation, an archaeological attempt at reclaiming an individual narrative in a complex political past which tends towards social amnesia.

What: Red Aloes

Where and when: Magnet Theatre until 12 August at 8pm. Matinee 12 August at 2 pm.

Book: Webtickets

WS