Is it a tragicomedy or just plain tragic?
Why do we continue take political theatre so seriously when it contains so little substance?
Opening this week at the Parliament Theatre, but mercifully running for only one night, State of the Nation returns yet again to force us to ask ourselves why we continue take political theatre so seriously when it contains so little substance.
The cast of this year’s revival will be depressingly familiar to theatregoers, although there is a small chance that Jacob Zuma will be replaced at the last minute by understudy Cyril Ramaphosa in the role of Big Daddy.
This would be a major step up for Mr Ramaphosa, who has, until recently, featured in non-speaking roles only, most notably his 2012-2017 run as the Amazing Human Ball-Gag in the off-off-off-Broadway production of Big Daddy Sets The House On Fire And Nobody Does A Fucking Thing About It.
For the rest, it’s slim pickings.Julius Malema’s Brando-esque turn as the saturnine young rebel was faintly interesting a few years ago, seeming to offer something fresh in an otherwise oppressive production, but his recent performances are becoming predictable and laboured, with critics doubting whether he has anything more in his repertoire. Certainly, the days of his headline-grabbing breakthrough as Self-Important Fascist Stooge in 2010’s Get Out You Bloody Agent are long gone.
Still, die-hard fans of Mr Malema and his EFF Twitter Chorus will enjoy their choreographed performance of radicalism, even if it has almost no impact on the general plot of State of the Nation.At stage increasingly-right-of-centre, Mmusi Maimane returns in his role as The Other Guy. Mr Maimane has long been accused of struggling to inhabit his roles – critics point to a tendency to play too many characters, none of them convincingly – but this year he should be slightly more confident, having just finished a short run as Platitude Man in the Cape Town trilogy So What’s The Plan?, No, Really, Who’s In Charge And Also Where Is Patricia de Lille? and Seriously? This Is Your Plan?
As for the play itself, expect no changes to a script that, despite being some of the most turgid, pious guff imaginable, continues to enthral audiences, many of which seem to believe that it is an authentic take on modern South Africa rather than a cynical piece of pantomime.Because, of course, State of the Nation isn’t about South Africa. How could it be? South Africa is not a nation but a federation of co-dependents, loosely united by a history of violence, a self-righteous and self-punishing refusal to draw boundaries or to seek help, and shared addiction to the rush of living in endlessly tumultuous times.
No, the “nation” to which the title refers isn’t on a map. But it’s there all the same, an intangible, inaccessible kingdom of the ultra-rich and the ultra-connected, extracting wealth and power from South Africa even as they pretend to serve its interests and put on performances of pious citizenship.
This is never clearer than in the opening scene of State of the Nation.Traditionally staged outside the Parliament Theatre on a red carpet, it features the characters arriving in fantastically expensive vehicles and pausing to talk to the press about the designers who made their fantastically expensive clothes. (Audiences should note that the “journalists” asking them about their outfits are also paid actors: no true journalist would crawl that far up the arse of a famously inept public servant, right? Right?)
The subtext of the scene is powerful and, as they giggle and air-kiss, we can almost hear them saying: “We, the untouchable citizens of the Nation of Power, acknowledge that millions of South Africans live in poverty, and that we are paid a huge salary to improve the lives of the poor, but we’re going to spend your money on these clothes anyway, because that’s how powerful we are. We can rub our excess in your face, and you’ll gush and curtsy and print our words verbatim in tomorrow’s press.”
From there, though, it really is downhill.
So this week save yourself the inevitable irritation that comes from watching unimaginative and mediocre theatre, and rather spend the evening with friends. Because, unlike the bad actors reciting hackneyed lines in return for a paycheck and another few headlines, they actually care about you.