Halfway through the world premiere of Brent Palmer's BENCH, it occurred to me that there were two plays competing for the stage and for the audience's attention. One is a character-driven, comedic two-hander about two rather ineffectual petty thieves plotting to pull off a robbery that seems completely impossible. The other is a play about identity and representation, a look into the lives of people that one sees on benches around Cape Town's city centre, those who are taken for granted as lost causes in contemporary South African society.
BENCH is set in the Company's Garden in central Cape Town on and around a bench near the National Gallery. Hendry (played by Palmer) and Dwain (Adrian Collins) are waiting for their contact on the inside to arrive so that they can steal a valuable painting by Irma Stern and sell it, thereby changing their fortunes for good. Their conversation veers from the topic at hand to past capers that have gone awry; from talk of the future to Dwain's recent time in jail.
As a comedy, BENCH works well. Palmer has crafted a script that is stand-up sharp. Jokes are set up and delivered like lightning, originating from the situation in which the characters find themselves as well as from the characters' sense of being. Michael Kirch has directed Palmer's script deftly and the action is kept moving swiftly as Hendry and Dwain's relationship develops through what turns out to be a key day in their respective lives.
Palmer performs the role of Hendry with a clear sense of comedy. The mannerisms with which he has bestowed his character gel well with his ability to deliver a good one-liner or a punch line: he successfully negotiates the intersection of the actor and the stand-up comic. Collins has the more difficult job, perhaps, having to play something of a straight man to Palmer's comic – though that is not to say that Collins does not have his fair share of comedy too – and he shines, delving into the character and delivering in spades his usual excellent brand of performance. His work, less showy than Palmer's, cannot be underestimated here. What heart BENCH has is thanks to Collins's range and dexterity as an actor.
If that were all there was to BENCH, the play could be considered an unqualified success. The problem is that it is impossible to tell a story like this with characters like these with an explicit intent, as Palmer puts it, to explore 'their humanity; not just… our views of them as crooks' without grappling with the issues of identity and representation. Palmer continues: 'I wanted to peel back the layers to reveal two absorbing characters, who, despite what they do, are able to hold up the mirror to all of us and reflect some of our own humanity; our aspirations and our disappointments.'
While Palmer does indeed generate a sense of humanity within the two characters and their interaction, he eschews getting to grips with the characters on their own terms. The revelations of what ostensibly drives Hendry and Dwain to be the people they are, what options they have available to them within the socio-economic context of South Africa in 2012 and how they feel about those options feel come across less authentically than Palmer boasts. Otherwise put, the peeling back of the layers is superficial and the mirror is indeed just that, something that reflects the playwright's attitude rather than those of the people who are being represented by the characters. In a quest for universal identification, Palmer misses out on the specifics. In a search for resolution, the genuine absurdity that should typify Hendry and Dwain's existence is lost. It is a middle class look at a genuinely interesting niche of South African society that does little bar entertaining middle class attitudes towards that niche.
In the theatre, comedy can sometimes be an incredibly effective vehicle through which uncomfortable truths can be examined. BENCH aims to use comedy to get to the truth behind the façade that society has constructed around the particular kind of petty criminals that Hendry and Dwain represent, but falls short of that noble goal. That said, BENCH is a characterful comedy and I suspect that most audiences will be completely satisfied with just that. For my own part, I was left bewildered that the pair of plays competing in the space never found a common meeting ground. Should they do so in the future, BENCH might be a significant play with something truly valuable to reveal about the dynamics of contemporary South African society.