Paul Grootboom's latest work with the South African State Theatre is an adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler’s La Ronde. In a series of linked scenes we are presented with ways in which sexual desires are met and moral codes compromised, undermined and justified. Used as a symbol for the spread of AIDS, red bubblegum threads through the entire cyclical piece.
Functioning as the play’s narrator, The Playmaker introduces us to a host of characters in paired encounters, including a soldier, prostitute, barmaid, preacher, schoolgirl and politician; all these roles are played by a small company of energetic and enthusiastic actors who transform themselves to conjure scenes that are in turn comic, shocking, thought-provoking and disturbing, sometimes all at once.
Grootboom is dismissive of labels and what he calls 'philosophising' in plays. His feelings are summed up by this line from his director’s note: ‘what can be more fun than watching ten people have sex with each other, talk about nothing and give each other STDs?’.
The translation is spot-on and where the scenes are played with real depth of character the comic lines become really biting. A fine example of this is the torture and rape of the prostitute by the politician, which features a superbly chilling performance by Boitumelo Shisana and an agonisingly painful portrayal of the prostitute by Excellentia Mokoena. The scene in the acting studio has an equivalent depth, but unfortunately many other moments fail in this respect, with characters who appear two-dimensional or as stereotyped caricatures.
The open set allows for simple scene changes using minimal basic props as indicators, whilst projections flag up each scene's pairing. The whole flows well although the dance and music included to hold our attention between scenes at times feel inappropriate to the radical shifts in pace and mood.
This play, like the current adaptation of Spring Awakening, gives us the opportunity to reappraise our own views on sex and the needs, desires, honesty and hypocrisy that are bound up with it. In this production however foreplay is shown to be more important even than the sexual act itself, shaping our lives and dictating our choices. In the final analysis sex is a weapon of mass destruction that is ours to control. But in the end, as the prostitute tells us, it turns out that ‘Everybody is a whore’.