Alexander Bar's 'Sillage': Theatre Review

11 May 16

Laura Davidson
Irish lawyer by day, reviewer by night. Theatre, film and comedy enthusiast. Global traveller and avid foodie.
Sillage, now playing at the Alexander Bar, is described as a ‘comedy drama’. Whilst a few lines drew knowing smiles, to label it a comedy would be stretching things. What it is, though, is an incredibly powerful study of matriarchy in one white South African family. The play explores a mother’s yearning for her daughter, grown-up and so very busy. She is invited home on the pretext of being required to help pack, a move to a smaller home imminent. The two characters remain nameless throughout, creating space for personal reflection.

The mother (played by a convincing Michelle Belknap) views her daughter (an equally strong Rebecca Makin-Taylor) as resolute and invincible. Yet in the opening scenes we glimpse her vulnerability; she admits she is not the woman she had hoped to be. Determined to be useful and practical, she tries to persuade her mother to move with the times; to toss away old belongings and obsolete videotapes. The stilted dialogue perfectly captures the exasperation of a more technologically savvy generation. Her mother’s response cannot be explained – “I don’t want to learn to skype”, she says simply, clinging to past, familiar ways. It is as though negating them might make her life count for naught.

At first, the daughter cannot let go of her resentment at her mother’s impracticality. Tensions reach a crescendo when she raises the spectre of apartheid, questioning white South Africa’s identity. Her mother declares the regime “terrible”, but her daughter’s idealism and righteous indignation demand more – what had she done, what did she do about it and its legacy? Her mother flashes back: “Don’t blame me that you weren’t born black”, with immediate regret. In the silence of the pain betwixt the two, the ritualistic mimicking actions of the pair increase. They fill the gaps of the un-said, repetitive hand gestures reminiscent of Lady MacBeth’s wringing out, out that damned spot.

Yet ultimately the mundane task of clearing the garage and sifting through the matriarch’s many belongings creates in the daughter a spark of enlightenment. She ceases her constant sparring with her father, which so upsets his wife. Their daughter begins to recognise that this is the first time her mother has been old; that she, too, needs to learn to feel comfortable in elder-hood; that her mother had a youth and a life before creating her; that she used to throw back her head and laugh, do crazy things, travel.

The play’s title - the lingering of worn perfume’s fragrance in the air - is a multi-layered metaphor reflecting on the temporary presence of the daughter who has become a guest in the family home. The term also speaks of the continuing impact of the grandfather who left his wife for a younger model. And it harks to the universal longing for a legacy; for meaning.

The play is brilliantly scripted and executed by playwright and director Penelope Youngleson. The complex inner thoughts and feelings of a mother and those of her now adult daughter could only, I feel, have been captured so perfectly by another woman. The fact that mother and daughter wear exactly the same outfit right down to the same shade of nail polish creates a powerful visual metaphor – their genes make similarity inevitable, but they cannot see it. The inner monologue and the stiff, awkward interactions reminded me so much of my own occasional regretted conversations with my mother (sadly now deceased). I saw myself in that daughter with her three degrees, so argumentative and righteous in her self-indulgent rage against injustice, feeling guilt when the mother simply says, “She makes me tired.” My mother, too, was long-suffering, uneducated yet smart, doing her best to fit into the required social role of her generation, giving way to society’s expectations, failing to derail destiny.

Of all the plays I have seen at the Alexander Bar, this was undoubtedly the best to date. Wildly thought-provoking, exceptionally well-observed, multi-layered and contradictory, Sillage is quite frankly brilliant in its evocation of thoughts and feelings in a complex familial relationship. Both Belknap and Makin-Taylor are excellent in their representation of two generations of women who love each other deeply, but struggle to connect. The superbly scripted interior monologues and jagged dialogue are heavy with the unexpressed. Will men appreciate the nuances of this intelligent production as much as women? I am unsure. But buy your ticket quickly, whatever your gender, and find out. These were 55 minutes very well spent.

Performances: 16th – 21st May 2016
Venue: Alexander Bar Theatre Upstairs
Time: 7pm
Price: R90 (R80 online)
Age restriction: 16 years.

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