The South African production, The Underground Library (written by Jon Keevy and directed by Koleka Putuma), was a strong and exciting ensemble piece with an action-packed narrative that kept me on the edge of my seat.
The set was minimalist and few props were used other than sticks – to represent windows, walls, barriers and monkey bars – and tin barrels – used as chairs, sofas and even tunnels. The simplicity of this design made it very easy for me as an audience member to place all of my focus on the characters and the narrative. Complementing this focus, an upstage screen was lit up with colours and patterns that reflected the emotions of particular characters and mirrored the atmosphere of various scenes.
It was not only the prop pieces that were transformed into something new -for me, the performance was all about transformation. The Actors, through Physical Theatre, swiftly morphed into different characters. Being an incredibly fast paced show, the cast members certainly deserve high praise for their energy and commitment to their multiple roles and the performance’s ever-changing scenes.
The audience was also given its own opportunity to transform – in thought. We were constantly being led to question and reevaluate which character’s perspective was to be believed. As we followed the character Khanya on her journey to discovering The Underground Library, we were first introduced to the organisation as a terrorist group. But through the use of parallel narratives, we were also given a glimpse into an alternate side of the story – which was that of the government fabricating this sentiment in order to spread rumours.
This smartly written and carefully crafted performance challenged audience members to think about how authority may be challenged, in whatever context, by reminding us that there are always two sides to any conflict.
The company took a creative risk by choosing a satirical tone for such a politically driven piece. Fortunately, in my mind, it paid off. Comical moments and dramatic characterisations truly enhanced the piece, which I found to be particularly poignant during scenes depicting the reaction and perspective of the media. Overall, the performance was funny, absorbing and, wonderfully, I left the space with many unanswered questions on which to ponder.