Die melktrein stop nie meer hier nie is a Tennessee Williams play translated for the US Woordfees by Saartjie Botha. Emma Kotze asked Fred Abrahamse, the producer, about the show.
How did you approach the casting of this production?
Sissy Goforth is one of Tennessee Williams’s great female roles. She could be compared to a real-life Joan Crawford or Lauren Bacall. She is a formidable force to be reckoned with and is on her deathbed in total denial. It’s a huge role with a roller coaster range of emotions. It requires an actress of astounding talent and a vast repertoire of emotional ability. Antoinette Kellerman is the only actress in this country that I could imagine playing Sissy. I knew that if I could not get her to play the role I probably would not do the play. When the sun shines it is very difficult to see the stars with the naked eye, no matter how bright they shine, so once Antoinette was secured I knew I had to surround her with a cast of three incredibly strong young male actors. I had to have a balance so that Antoinette did not (unintentionally, of course) wipe them off the stage. The men also double up and play various roles in the production. I had to find a superb ensemble of actors to surround and support Antoinette. Even though they had to be young they also had to be versatile, have an excellent grounded technique, be able to play in a heightened style and, above all, understand and play the multiple layers that Williams brings to his texts. I found three such brilliant young actors: Marcel Meyer, Roelof Storm and Gideon Lombard. It’s a cast and script made in heaven.
Which theatrical style have you applied to this epic text?
Tennessee Williams gives it all to you in his opening paragraphs of the play:
I have added to the cast stage assistants that function in a way that's between the Kabuki Theatre of Japan and the chorus of Greek theatre. My excuse, or reason, is that I think the play will come off better the further it is removed from conventional theatre since it's been rightly described as an allegory and as a “sophisticated fairy-tale”.
Stage assistants in Japanese Kabuki are a theatrical expedient. They work on-stage during the performance, shifting set-pieces, placing and removing properties and furniture. Now and then in this play they have lines to speak, very short ones that serve as cues to the principal performers ... They should be regarded, therefore, as members of the cast. They sometimes take a balletic part in the action of the play. They should be dressed in black, very simply, to represent invisibility to the other players. The other players should never appear to see them, even when they speak or take part in the action, except when they appear “in costume”.
I liked the image of a “sophisticated fairy-tale” … I have approached it as such and have tried to create a world of the play that exists in myth, parable and fable. In the last days of her life, washing down pills with brandy, absolutely paranoid and afraid of dying, what in Sissy Goforth’s life is real or imagined? What is reality and what is fantasy? Which are facts and which are faded or romanticised memories? As is the convention in classical Asian theatre the all-male supporting cast play multiple roles, including female parts. They are visible to the audience all the time and some of the transformations even happen on stage in full view of the audience. In this day of movie realism, special effects and post-production it is an incredibly difficult style to play and yet bring complete honesty and integrity to the various characters. The actors work with wigs and minimal props; the rest is done with the voice and the body.
The rehearsals are incredibly focused and tiring for the actors. It’s a bit like giving physical attributes to inner emotions. It is also quite Brechtian in terms of “alienation” or Verfremdungseffekt - the audience is not allowed to lose themselves passively in the character and the character’s emotions, but are rather “distanced”, enabling them to critically observe and follow the emotional journey of a character.
What are some of the greatest challenges of bringing a Williams play text to life?
Staging a Williams is like directing an opera that is being spoken. There are vast arias of language: it has a lyricism to it; it is a form of poetry; and it is rhythmic. When you read it, it is not the kind of language that everyday people speak. Once the actor has unlocked the character it always amazes me then how easily the language then sits on the ear. It is Tennessee Williams’s innate ability to understand the human condition so clearly and then be able to put it so appropriately into a character’s mouth.
The biggest problem to overcome as a director is not to take the plays at face value and try and impose realism on them. People often cut the unreal or surreal elements of Williams’s plays because they can’t find a way to make them work or are afraid a modern audience will not accept them. If one thinks of contemporary writers like Tony Kushner, Sarah Kane and Mark Ravenhill, to name a few … Williams was already writing in a similar style way back in the late fifties. He was one of the most significant influences on contemporary playwrights.
Vital to any Williams play is the music. He often describes the importance of music in his plays as being another character in the play. With both Kingdom of Earth and Milk Train I am fortunate to have Charl-Johan Lingefelder providing us with the most unbelievable soundscape to work off. His understanding of the plays and his ability to put that into his original scores are mindboggling.
How successful is the text in translation?
Saartjie Botha has done an awesome job with the translation. She has managed to retain that Williamesque flavour and American flow to the language. She has adhered to the musicality of Williams’s original while infusing it with a rich poetry and the musicality of the Afrikaans language. Last year my production of Kingdom of Earth was invited to America to the annual Tennessee Williams festival in Provincetown. It received huge critical acclaim and has been invited for a second time and they have expressed an interest in Milk Train as well. Our intention is to do the play in both English and Afrikaans – interestingly enough, the festival curator would like us to do at least one performance of Milk Train in Afrikaans at the USA festival, which goes to show the importance of and the Americans’ interest in the lyricism and musicality of the “spoken opera” rather than the literal understanding of every word in the play.
Die melktrein stop nie meer hier nie