Damon Galgut’s The Promise – On Stage is phenomenal theatre

Kate Normington and Frank Opperman - the moment the promise is made

IT’S a bit of a tired phrase to say a play or a show or a movie is a “must see”, or “if you only see one thing this year” – it’s the end of September Edna, what have you been doing? – but seriously, I urge and encourage you to see The Promise at The Star Theatre at the Homecoming Centre in Cape Town (formerly The Fugard Theatre).

The stage adaptation of Damon Galgut’s Booker Prize-winning novel (in 2021, the third time a South African writer has been given that honour), will transfer to The Market Theatre on The John Kani stage from 18 October to 5 November. Featuring a star-studded South African cast and creative team, the production is directed by internationally acclaimed, multiple award-winning director Sylvaine Strike. The stage adaptation is by Galgut and Strike. 

Jane de Wet and Rob van Vuuren

I confess I have not read the book; a friend told me no one will judge me for that. To be honest, I thought it might be too heavy going for me. The (short) story: “On a small farm outside Pretoria, the Swart family – ‘a typical bunch of white South Africans’ – tries to hold itself together through the violent lurches of recent history. They have promised to give a small piece of land with a tiny house on it to Salome, the Sotho woman who has worked for them her whole life. A worthless property, but still, they will not give it up.”

So the last thing I was expecting was humour. That, however, is reserved for the first half; the second gets dark and serious, leaving you wrung out by the end (and not only because it runs for two hours and 40 minutes, excluding interval). The Promise is deeply relatable to every South African if you are prepared for some harsh self-reflection. We know about the young men whose psyches were destroyed by the army, and we know how racism was so instilled that phrases like “madam” and “the girl” (even when referring to a woman in her 70s) exist even now. Just two examples.

Jane de Wet, Chuma Sopotela, Jenny Stead, Albert Pretorius

The cast is: Rob van Vuuren (Curse of the Starving Class, Endgame) as Anton Swart; Kate Normington (Tali’s Baby Diaries, Storm in a B-Cup) as Rachel Swart; Frank Opperman (Ouboet and Wors, Toutjies en Ferreira) as Manie Swart; Chuma Sopotela (Standard Bank Young Artist, Karoo Moose) as Salome; Cintaine Schutte (Die Seemeeu, Fynskrif, Tien Duisend Ton) as Tannie Marina; Jenny Stead (The Glass Menagerie, Elesin Oba) as Astrid Swart; Albert Pretorius (Die Seemeeu, Nêrens, Noord-Kaap, Tien Duisend Ton) as Dominee Simmers; Sanda Shandu (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, The Unlikely Secret Agent) as Lukas, and Jane de Wet (Spoorloos, The Watch) as Amor Swart.

Again, that’s the short version. They all take on multiple additional roles, so flawlessly and seamlessly I got the point of wondering how many cast members there actually were. The set design is by Josh Lindberg is unusual and used to great effect by the cast. Lighting is by Lindberg too, and all the elements combine to create the mood of every scene as it morphs into the next. It’s genius really, on every level.

I found myself pondering the astonishing creativity that brought this piece to the stage, and was happy to find these comments from Strike in the press release: “The rehearsal process for bringing this exceptional novel to the stage has been a profound and electrifying journey.

“We are developing the theatre language for the piece, while the costumes and sound design are springing magically to life under the genius of Penny Simpson and Charl-Johan Lingenfelder respectively. It has been a gift to work with Josh Lindberg’s exceptional set from day one, which, without giving too much away, does not have a single flat surface, a true playground for us all creating the landscape of The Promise – On Stage.

“We have been reflecting on ourselves as South Africans, with the recent events in our country highlighting how disparate our daily experiences are. It serves as a sharp reminder that the themes of The Promise remain absolutely relevant, and how vital it is to have continued conversations around these realities.” 

Sound design and original music composition is by Charl-Johan Lingenfelder (King Kong); costume design by Penny Simpson (The Producers) and choreography by Natalie Fisher (Free Flight Dance Company). 

Yes, I’m going to say it anyway: if you love theatre, and you want to be challenged to feel, The Promise is a must-see.

Bookings for both cities are via Webtickets. Join the conversation on social media: #thepromiseonstage | Facebook: The Promise On Stage | Instagram: @thepromiseonstage

PHOTO CREDIT: Claude Barnardo


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