Lara Bye, director of Die reuk van appels, talks to Naomi Meyer about this play, currently at the Fugard Theatre in Cape Town.
Lara, Die reuk van appels is an Afrikaans play with, at its heart, the story of a young man during the so-called Grensoorlog. Do you, English-speaking yourself, think this play is aimed at an Afrikaans theatre-goer, or who will understand best what the story is about?
Our primary audience is Afrikaans-speaking, but the joy of the Fugard is having subtitles, which makes the work accessible to a wider audience. We had a crossover crowd at two English festivals engaging with the work.
Die reuk van appels toured throughout the country and played at all the main arts festivals. Yet, it now plays for an extended period at the Fugard Theatre. Why is the play so popular, do you think?
A great question. Theatre success has a lot to do with good timing – the right story at the right moment. I feel that Gideon Lombard and I have also hit the right note in staging the work. And, of course, Gideon’s performance is just a masterclass of very exquisite, raw, vulnerable, beautifully crafted acting. The storytelling is very honest – honest and unadorned – and that somehow permits an audience to engage with some very unsettling subject matter.
What touched you about this play? And what is this play about for you, as director?
It is about history and remembering, and trying to figure out the present and how we can move forward with some sense of wholeness. But it is also the story of a young boy whom we care deeply about, who experiences a very devastating life journey. It works on many levels, which explains its large appeal. It is not just a history lesson or a morality tale; it is those, but also a really beautifully told coming of age story. It is also very honest and unpretentious; it doesn’t lecture to the audience or point fingers. It just unfolds one boy’s story, which resonates and ripples around so much that is still wrong with how boys are educated, ideas of masculinity, patriarchy, the militarisation of boys, suppression and oppression – all still too present in 2018.
Regarding the topic. The movie Kanarie was also recently released. Why this renewed energy around the Grensoorlog, do you think?
I think the Border War and conscription have always been themes and stories that have circulated in film and theatre stories. Both these works come at that narrative from different and fresh perspectives. In Die reuk van appels, for example, it is not the central drive of the story, but more of an echo of the future. Here, it is more the all-pervading presence of the military ideal of a man in the father figure who has such a complex role to play in Marnus’s sense of himself as a man.
What discoveries did you make while being busy with directing this play?
I really enjoyed working closely on the adaption from book to play, and would like to explore this process again. It gives me, as director, enormous freedom in shaping and designing the world of the narrative.
It was also very clear to all of us that it was Mark Behr’s story, and we wanted his voice to be very clear and to be respectful of his original work. I am drawn to dark stories that deal with material that is not comfortable, and it has been so very rewarding that work of this nature finds such a large audience ready to engage with challenging and poetic work like this. We are all trying to make sense of a crazy, drifting, noisy world, and that intimate, listening space for 90 minutes in the theatre helps us find some sort of meaningful human connection.