WHEN THE DEAD ARRIVED. Two-act psychological drama by Werner Asher Steffen. Directed by Anton Schäfer. Set design Esmeralda Viljoen, York Froon. Special Effects Dian Harcovecchio. Lighting Hema Maskowitz. Sound operator Jean Marie Schoots. World  Premiere presented by Milnerton Players. At Milnerton Playhouse, Cape Town. From 29 September – 14 October 2023. SHEILA CHISHOLM attended the preview.

It takes nerve to write a two-act psychological drama then play the lead role, John Goldberg. Hats off to Werner Asher Steffen for doing just that. When The Dead Arrived is Steffen’s fourth contribution to South Africa’s theatrical genre.

So, I hope he won’t mind if I offer a tip or two for future works. 1) Avoid using F… . True! it’s a useful expletive to sound off deep frustration. However, used more than a couple of times it becomes boring, leaving a nark like me wondering if the playwright owns a Thesaurus.  2) Objectively examine the finished product to consider, is my theme strong enough to cover two acts, and could it be better served as one?  My thinking (only mine) is, When the Dead Arrived  would come across infinitely more powerfully if précised into one.

Cordelia, Clive and John
Cordelia, Clive and John

Formidable message

Self-preservation is such a strong human instinct it can drive a normally gentle person into acting inhumanly. That’s a formidable message. Succinctly told it would hit home. Make us reflect about our own reactions if faced with a catastrophic untreatable virus decimating populations.

One of the joys, and advantages, of regularly attending amateur productions is watching a novice actor develop into an assured one. Then step into director’s role. I doff my hat to Anton Schäfer for walking that stage-craft tightrope…

Without videos for reference, Schäfer worked ‘blind’, steering this world premiere. He came up trumps. It was interesting to observe how, now and then, Schäfer’s own mannerisms replicated in his cast.

However, I have one or two hints for him. 1) Decibels,  expressing fear, anger, frustration, can be expressed at many different levels other than shouting and yelling.  2) In contrast, when pianissimo voices are important, check your casts vocal range includes a ‘stage whisper.’ Namely, spoken softly enough yet can be heard by the back row. Both Cordelia (Ilse van Niekerk) and Clive’s (Shaun Saal) roles would be all the better if they practised that technique.

The gist of When the Dead Arrived recalls the 1346 black plague and our recent Covid pandemic. What does it take to survive when others around you are dying? John believes isolation is his only hope.

John (Werner Asher Steffen) and Clive (Shaun Saal) confer as Cordelia (Ilse van Niekerk) rests at the desk in When The Dead Arrived.
John (Werner Asher Steffen) and Clive (Shaun Saal) confer as Cordelia (Ilse van Niekerk) rests in When The Dead Arrived.

Spooky mood

By hiding in Esmeralda Viljoen and York Froon’s unoccupied, sparsely furnished office, John imagines he’s safe. Blood spattered opaque windows behind (which ghostly figures weave past), plus Barry Strick’s roof concept, and Dian Harcovecchio’s special effects together devised an eerie, spooky mood.

After Steffen’s well-delivered soliloquy, Steffen (John), fearfully waving his gun around bursts into a stark unoccupied office. He’s fleeing from bloodied, half-dead victims bent on infecting him. When John finds Clive (Shaun Saal) hiding under a desk, he realizes his personal safety is compromised, as does Clive who had had similar thoughts regarding insulating himself. Scared, the men all but murder each other, when bloodied Cordelia (Ilse van Niekerk), collapses into the office they turn on her.

Safety in numbers? Can the trio protect themselves from those already dying? Enjoy Halloween style creepy stories?  Well, When the Dead Arrived is that ticket…

What: When the Dead Arrived
When: Fridays and Saturdays 29 September to 14 October:
Where: Milnerton Playhouse, Pienaar Road, (behind the Library)  Milnerton, Cape Town
Booking www.milnertonplayers.co.za/bookings/