Writer Sophie Woolley wrote The Fake Interpreter because she is still annoyed about the man who pretended to use sign language while US President Barack Obama eulogised Nelson Mandela in Soweto in December, 2013.
Though the fake interpreter’s actions angered her, Woolley now, and in her new play, points out that she was in a way more peeved that she wasn’t the one who broke the story. After all, British born Woolley was living and working in South Africa at the time and had attended the memorial concert at Cape Town Stadium, experiencing what she refers to in the play as “having a nice rainbow nation time”.
Instead, her friend, deaf blogger Charlie Swinbourne back in the UK, was the one who noticed the Twitter storm and wrote a story about the ire engendered by the “fake interpreter” that went viral.
At the time Woolley decided she didn’t want to write about what the man had done because she wondered whether it wasn’t just the world press looking for some negativity in an otherwise dignified story. “I saw it at the time as some typical Western imperialist press wanting to pick holes in an African nation. I think there is a germ of truth in that, but I could have written about it from the ground.
‘If I am annoyed I can write something good!’
“But, the horse had already bolted, Charlie had got the scoop and I missed it which was embarrassing because my aim was to be there on the ground. I had just got my hearing back (Woolley uses a cochlear implant) and I missed the big event,” said Woolley.
Admiring the doors to the Constitutional Court, which depict in words and sign language the South African Bill of Rights, on a more the recent visit to Joburg though, Woolley was struck by the disjunct between word and deed: “It seems quite amazing that sign language carved into the doors and Constitution of a new country could be so disastrously insulted at such an important event in the psyche and history of South Africa. It made me question my opinion on the event. It made me think about everything all over again, and it made me annoyed again, and if I am annoyed I can write something good,” said Woolley.
She persuaded long time collaborator Gemma Fairlie to direct the play she started writing about how she felt about the event and thanked the alignment of the stars because she finally had a chance to work with dancer Andile Vellem of Unmute Dance Company.
They brought Marsanne Neethling in as a sign language interpreter. While Woolley originally envisaged Vellem dancing out events and her and Neethling talking about it, Fairley had other ideas – getting the three to work together on movement and dialogue.
A 40-minute scratch performance
Fairley relished the challenge of developing work in, for her, an unknown context: “I know very little about the South African art scene, except for what Sophie has told me and she was really excited about Andile. “He is the sort of performer I like to work with. So, that was exciting, to meet new performers. It is interesting to learn what it takes to be an artist here, where the perspective is, and how the cultural context impacts on that.”
“Also, what was key for me, is that Sophie really wants to establish herself as an artist here. I know her work from the UK, but I don’t think the South African audience knows that. I think she has a brilliant satirical way of writing, and an incredible ability to laugh at herself, and also to use humour to talk politically and quite emotionally, but disguised under comedy – which is quite a British thing. I’m interested to see how those two would marry here,” said Fairlie.
She spent about a week in Cape Town working with the trio who presented a 40-minute scratch performance to a select audience, which included pupils from the Dominican School for the Deaf at Artscape Theatre last week.
Several people asked them what the purpose was of their work – advocacy for the rights of deaf people or whether they were trying give a hearing audience insight into the ire the fake interpreter raised amongst the deaf community. Both writer and director pointed out that it could go either way – the original impetus was to tell the story and explore Woolley’s emotions around the event, but the audience response showed them there was scope to expand the play.
Several people were complimentary about Vellem’s dancing and encouraged the director to include more movement in the work, as theatre is about “show not tell” and dialogue does not always have to be verbal. There was also broad consensus that inviting government officials to watch the work could be useful to teach those in power what it feels like when you have no power because your means of expression is marginalised.
Originally developed through funding from the British Council Connect_ZA The Fake Interpreter proved an interesting experience for the tiny audience, but whether it goes anywhere else depends on whether the theatre-makers can interest a long term funder.