CITY PRESS REVIEW: When Swallows Cry tells a painful truth

2018-02-11 00:00
When Swallows Cry

Johannesburg - Mike van Graan’s 2015 commission by a Norwegian theatre company (along with seven other playwrights from Europe, China, the US and Russia) to write a new play on the theme of migration resulted in the trilogy, When Swallows Cry, now on at the Baxter Theatre Centre’s Flipside.

Informed mainly by migration and mobility as it relates to Africa, the piece premiered to critical acclaim at Johannesburg’s Market Theatre last year. It has since been recast with a view to featuring actors available to tour the play locally and abroad. The script was developed as part of Ibsen International’s New Text-New Stage II, a project for the development of new writing, with input from dramaturges from Norway, Italy and Slovenia as well as directors from Hong Kong, Germany and Norway and performances by Chinese actors.

The subject matter affirms Van Graan’s key project for the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin, where he took up a fellowship in 2016: “reading and writing about the relationship between culture (that nebulous phenomenon that progressives tend to avoid) and democracy, development, climate change, human rights and the like”. Van Graan says he’s “trying better to understand how values, beliefs, traditions, worldviews and other such abstractions inform human behaviour, interpersonal relationships and attitudes to some of the key issues of the day.”

(In a scene from Mike van Graan’s When Swallows Cry, now on at the Baxter Theatre, Cape Town, Kai Luke Brümmer, here an Australian border security guard, finds himself at the mercy of two Zimbabwean refugees, played by Marty Kintu, left, and Mbulelo Grootboom, right, determined not to return to their broken country. Photo: Bronwyn Lloyd)

What makes the play work is the playwright’s ability to highlight global issues in an accessible, engaging way for audiences around the world.

This play comes at a time when the theme of migration and refugees has taken on “huge political importance globally”. Curiously though there is little, if any, mention of women in the script, not even in the context of Boko Haram, besides the women being clearly silhouetted in the closing film sequence of the piece. That was disappointing for one audience member who said in post-performance discussion that the “oppression of women and children should at least be mentioned in some shape or form… because it’s about topical issues of the day and what’s happening on the planet right now. There was no indication of patriarchy, and that’s the biggest driver of violence… that toxic masculinity, toxic patriarchy goes hand in hand with imperialism, colonialism, white supremacy… all those themes that Van Graan was highlighting.”

Kintu was the most convincing in the delivery of the different accents required, so much so that a Somalian audience member went up to him to ask if he was from Somalia. With Job playing a role in guiding the actors’ delivery of the dialogue, Kintu applied himself to referencing Nollywood archives and films such as Captain Phillips, which is about a ship’s captain taken hostage by Somali pirates. This approach worked for him. I would have enjoyed the performance more if the accents in general had been better – I often found it difficult to make out what was being said but kudos to the actors for their ability to switch between characters so convincingly. That’s no mean feat in an emotionally demanding 80-minute piece. “It’s a tough one, a marathon, with a big heart and a huge message,” said Kintu. “The emotions are the most exhausting part of the show. Every character has strong feelings about particular things. Each situation is pretty much fight or flight for at least one of the characters, there is always high tension.”

Kintu is originally from Uganda. Since graduating from UCT with a degree in performance and theatre he’s starred in Peter Krummeck’s drama Ivirgin Boy and was nominated for a Fleur du Cap Theatre Award for best supporting actor in Joe Penhall’s Blue/Orange. He’s also worked in international film and television as well as puppetry.

In addition to his theatre work, which won him a Fleur du Cap Theatre Award for his role in Van Graan’s Just Business, Grootboom has featured in several mini-series made for local television. He’s also held roles in Alex Hailey’s series, Roots, and in Ronald D Moore’s Outlander.

Meanwhile, Brümmer, who graduated from UCT with a distinction in acting in 2016, has already developed a substantial CV for film and theatre. Plays he’s performed in include The Dead Wait, directed by Mdu Kweyama, Black Dog/Inj’enyama, directed by Clare Stopford, and Mbongeni Mtshali’s award-winning (s)kin.

It’s always interesting to gauge the success of a theatre piece post opening-night hype. Following a well-supported first matinee and subsequent evening performance, all indications are that Cape Town audiences have put their weight behind When Swallows Cry and all those involved in the production can look forward to a successful run.


Play title: When Swallows Cry

Event venue: Flipside, Baxter Theatre Centre, Cape Town

End date: 24 February

Tickets: R80 to R120 at Webtickets. 

Read more on:    theatre

There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.