“Black and Blue.”

By: The Fortune Cookie Theatre Company
Featuring: Sylvaine Strike and Atandwa Kani
Directed by: James Cuningham
Produced by: Kosie House of Theatre and The Market Theatre
31 October, 20:00
The Market Theatre

Too often, I go to the theatre to find a play that was conceived to be a film or a short story. In these cases, theatre struggles to emulate the strengths of other media, appearing to be the inferior and old-fashioned big sister of more exciting artistic ventures. Other times, I go to the theatre to find something that take advantage of what makes theatre unique and results in a magical experience. These performances cannot be reproduced or captured. As an audience member I feel privileged to experience such a performance, knowing that those fleeting moments are all the more special because it could only be experienced in that time, at that place, with those people. The Fortune Cookie Theatre Company’s Black and Blue is one of these magical experiences.

As with this theatre company’s previous successes such as Coupé (one of my all-time favourite theatrical experiences) and The Table, the narrative of Black and Blue is quite simple. The play is set in 1980s South Africa where the white, middle class Mrs Swart’s husband hangs himself from a tree. Unable to cope with this loss, Mrs Swart confines herself to her house until a prospective gardener, Jackson, knocks on her door and eventually persuades her to employ him. The two of them form a special bond through gardening and Mrs Swart manages to come to terms with the tragic death of her husband.

A plot as simple as this runs the risk of being presented in a clichéd and kitsch way, but under James Cuningham’s direction, the cast manages to work against the grain of these stereotyped characters. Being performed in an overtly stylized way, the characters first become flat surfaces before they slowly come to life as the play progresses. This not only questions the stereotypes, but also enables the characters to break free from them.

The play relies mostly on physical theatre in its expression. There is very little dialogue with the result that any symbolism and metaphors are handled in a subtle way. The audience needs to interact imaginatively with the play to be able to interpret it, which adds to the thrill of the experience. A mise-an-abyme is also very cleverly used to represent certain events. Mrs Swart’s husband’s suicide, for example, is shown to the audience using dolls on a small scale model of the set that is attached to a wheel-barrow and wheeled onto the stage. This is a very effective way to show the audience events that are difficult to stage without breaking the quiet, dramatic yet hysterically funny atmosphere of the play.

Comical interactions between the two characters take on absurd measures. Mrs Swart presents Jackson with his lunch: tea and a tin of pilchards. She does not, however, give him a tin-opener. Unable to open the tin, Jackson leaves the pilchards untouched which, in turn, offends Mrs Swart who wonders why he would not like tinned fish. Exasperated, she tries to justify her decision not to give Jackson fresh fish by telling her (invisible) friend, Maureen, that “a pilchard was once a fresh fish!” Later, Mrs Swart has a nightmare presented in a fantastic dream sequence. The audience can hear the sound of water flooding a house. Mrs Swart stands on the furniture to avoid it, but gets taken by the stream. With perfect comic timing a pilchard tin then appears in the round window in the front door, moving like a fish. A few seconds later, an entire school of pilchard tins move past the window, to Mrs Swart’s consternation. This is absolutely bizarre and brilliant.

Black and Blue is a play that is carefully planned, perfectly executed and possibly the most rewarding theatre experience that I had in a long time. Strike and Kani are gifted performers and, as always, I look forward to see The Fortune Cookie Theatre Company’s next production.