Chris van Wyk: Laughs in the valley of the shadow of death
‘Van Wyk the Storyteller of Riverlea’, a new play starring and written by actor and producer Zane Meas
I first came across Chris van Wyk’s work when I was a first year student and a friend of mine insisted I read his memoir Shirley, Goodness and Mercy after she studied it in English Literature. I immediately fell in love with Van Wyk’s conversational tone, which put me at ease and transported me back to my days as a toddler when oral storytelling was an important part of one’s formative years.
Van Wyk uses oral storytelling traditions in his biographical writings. Not only does he write in the first person, but in the present tense in a way that makes you feel you are watching the events of the story unfold before your eyes. Another characteristic of his writing is his ability to undercut any sentimentality with humour. According to his younger son, Karl, this was something that was present in his daily life.
“My father was not a sentimental person,” Karl told me. “He would always counter any kind of sentiment by making a joke. I think it was a coping mechanism for him and it came out in his writing.”
This humour is precisely why Van Wyk the Storyteller of Riverlea, a new play written by actor and producer Zane Meas, is so entertaining. If I were not familiar with Van Wyk’s work, I would have thought Van Wyk himself had written the entire script.
Meas, best known for his television roles in 7de Laan and Scandal, had a friendship with Van Wyk that spanned many years, and conceived the idea for the play after Van Wyk's death in 2014 in order to pay homage to his good friend.
In the play, Meas plays Van Wyk just after he has died and is stuck “somewhere between here and there” where the Voice of Death interrogates him and has him reflect on moments from his life.
Meas’s script takes much of Van Wyk’s own work that has not been published – and some pieces that are not widely available – and weaves it together with recordings of conversations between Kevin (Van Wyk’s older son) and his father in his last few months, to create a portrait of a man who used his incredible writing to show his love for his family and his community. A man whose writing meant so much to the people of Riverlea and readers across SA. Meas also used a play that Van Wyk adapted from a short story he wrote, that Meas performed when the two of them were still in high school, called Flats.
“We cannot find a copy of the script for that play anywhere,” Karl told me. “Zane wrote that part completely from his memory.” The last piece of writing Van Wyk ever wrote, a few months before he died, also made it into the script. In it, he makes an analogy of what his pancreatic cancer and its treatment were like for him.
Meas’s incredible achievement in putting the script together makes up for his flat performance. While Karl believes Meas is the best person for the role of his father because Meas knew him for such a long time, and also because of Meas’s dedication to keeping Van Wyk’s legacy alive, I had a hard time hearing Meas and feeling his presence on the stage from the back of the theatre. This is a pity because the oral aesthetic and humour in Van Wyk’s writing lend themselves very well to the format that Meas chose, where he plays Van Wyk telling stories to the audience.
Humour permeates Van Wyk’s autobiographical work so much that it almost seems like a central theme he was obsessed with. Besides being a coping mechanism for himself, it can also help readers cope while reading about the difficult situations Van Wyk found himself in. However, this constant use of humour can sometimes come across as disingenuous. This is exactly what happened for me when reading Van Wyk’s work and while watching the play.
I was not allowed to really feel the devastation of Van Wyk’s battle with cancer or to experience some of his childhood memories with any real sincerity during the show. Similarly, when I read his memoirs, I was not given the opportunity to really grapple with the brutality of apartheid and its effects on Van Wyk's life and on SA 25 years after democracy. Sometimes it is important to immerse oneself in these emotions to be able to move on from them. When there is too much laughter, there is a danger of historically taking ourselves lightly and viewing apartheid as an oversimplified series of inequalities, rather than an oppressive system that continues to affect the lives of ordinary South Africans.
However, the audience did not seem to mind this at all. They laughed with the same enthusiasm at the beginning of the play, when Van Wyk says to the Voice of Death that “even here they do interrogations”, as they did towards the end when he tells how patrons at a shebeen in Riverlea insisted that a television interview he did in his study, in front of a bookshelf filled with hundreds of books, was actually done at the local library.
In the beginning of the show, Meas (as Van Wyk) shows us some of the places in Riverlea on the map painted on the floor of the set. While he did this, some members of the audience whispered into each other’s ears excitedly and pointed out places they knew on the map. Numerous patrons responded in agreement to some of the experiences that Van Wyk describes about growing up in Riverlea.
Christo Davids’s set design (Davids also directs the play and played the younger Van Wyk alongside Meas’s older Van Wyk in Janice Honeyman’s adaptation of Shirley, Goodness & Mercy in 2007) helps bring Riverlea alive in a way that makes its presence so constant it almost becomes another character in the play.
• On at the Mannie Manim Theatre at the Market Theatre complex until February 24.