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Dorfman's Delirium

First appeared
Thursday, 30 August 2012


Ariel Dorfman has only visited South Africa twice, but the Chilean-American playwright’s connection to the literature and theatre of this country is a long-standing one – based primarily on friendships with people like Barney Simon, Nadine Gordimer and Mongane Wally Serote. Indeed, in the preface to his recent book Writing the Deep South, which offers “mirrors for South Africa” in essays about the United States and Latin America, Dorfman affirms: “I should have been born in South Africa.”

This claim may be worth bearing in mind when watching Dorfman’s new play, Delirium, in its premiere run at the Market Theatre. While it has a South African director (Greg Homann) and cast (Fiona Ramsay, David Dennis and Fezile Mpela), on the surface there is little about it that feels explicitly “local”. This may be partly explained by the play’s previous incarnation as The Other Side, a work commissioned by the National Theatre of Japan that was performed in Tokyo, New York and elsewhere.

The concept driving both The Other Side and Delirium is simple, absurd and (sadly) immediately recognisable. An aging couple are literally caught in the cross-fire of a war between their respective nations – Constanza and Tomis – and, being both “neutral” in the dispute and living in no-man’s-land, they are tasked with collecting, identifying and burying the casualties. An armistice is declared, but as part of the peace agreement a new border between the countries is drawn up and rigidly policed; a military official arrives to split their home down the middle, one half belonging to Constanza and the other half to Tomis.

Audience members who know the work of Samuel Beckett will recognise the Irishman’s influence on Dorfman here: the bleak (post)apocalyptic world outside, the domestic claustrophobia, the human bodies that are simultaneously decrepit and vigorous, repugnant and sexualised. Homann notes that the absurdist tradition as represented by Eugene Ionesco also informed the conception and design of his production (Beckett is typically associated with Theatre of the Absurd, although he disavowed this connection).

What, then, marks Delirium as distinct from The Other Side? The major re-writing undertaken by Dorfman entailed the introduction of a new language: he has “invented” Constanzan, a hybrid of various European Romance languages, which is the mother tongue of Ramsay’s character, Levana Julak. Levana often resorts to speaking in Constanzan; it represents her form of protest against the imposition of Tomisian identity (which, in the world of the play, is English).

This dynamic, of course, sets us squarely in South Africa – a country that, despite the constitutional protection of eleven official languages, is a prime instance of the global hegemony of English. The casting of this inaugural production of Delirium also directly invokes South African history and contemporary politics insofar as the three actors are “coloured”, black and white. Yet the heavy central- or eastern-European accent that Ramsay gives to Levana, and the echoes of Received Pronunciation in Dennis’s delivery of the part of Atom Roma, offer a caveat against too parochial an interpretation.

Homann is pleased that the play provides a different interpretive purchase to different audiences: as an allegory it can be applied to racial segregation under apartheid, to post-apartheid class or ethnic divisions, to contemporary Israel and Palestine or even to the most infamous wall of all in Berlin.

The narration of these almost-archetypal conflicts can often efface the individual tragedies that are their inevitable consequence. In Delirium, the dramatic tension emerges not from external “geo-political” events, which intrude initially only as sounds – bombs exploding near or far, disembodied voices on radio broadcasts. Even the arrival of the border guard, barking inane and insane bureaucratic instructions, is comical in its effect.

Soon, however, we discover that the guard may or may not be Levana and Atom’s long-lost son, Markos. This question is never resolved and, as Constanza and Tomis return to their mutual bombardment, we are left to reflect on the very private suffering of an “insignificant” family.


* Delirium is at the Market Theatre until 23 September




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