There is honour among thieves, they say. In JUST BUSINESS, playwright and self-styled cultural activist Mike van Graan says otherwise. A reworking of an earlier play, HOSTILE TAKEOVER, the text offers to the audience an investigation of corruption in business, bringing to light a number of socio-political issues, such as the differences between the old and new South Africa, black empowerment and the game of survival that seems to be the driving force behind it all.
JUST BUSINESS tells the tale of Hannes van Wyk (Andre Jacobs), the owner of African Delights, a “girlie club”, who has had a hit taken out against him. He finds himself in a remote location, digging a grave for himself under the supervision of Mr September (Kurt Egelhof), a paid assassin with his own ideas for bringing his services to the mass market. Through a series of flashbacks and moments of alternate action, the play also introduces Mabuso (Mbulelo Grootboom), a black man geared towards his own empowerment and who advances his experience of social graces with a blow-up doll.
The play is a sharp and satirical work, with no opportunity for dark humour left unmined. Structured in several short and snappy episodes, Van Graan has crafted a play with dialogue that is crisp and engaging. Fred Abrahamse’s direction picks up on that cue and, in collaboration with the actors, has created a performance that moves at a cracking pace, but which manages to keep the audience up to speed every step of the way.
The scenes were punctuated with clips from songs like Cole Porter’s “Friendship” and George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin’s “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” that offered slight commentary on the action of the play. I wondered whether the song choices were chosen as the play found its theatrical form during rehearsals or whether they were indicated in the script. Either way, I wondered why Van Graan had not picked up on this impulse and harnessed this technique to highlight and focus the socio-political issues that are interrogated in the play. I’m not suggesting that JUST BUSINESS be turned into a piece of musical theatre, but a series of musical witticisms created specifically for the play by a local songwriter working in collaboration with the playwright might have been the key to catapult this play out of the realm of pleasing dark comedy into complex and challenging piece of cultural activism.
The actors deliver performances that tackle head on the challenge of making a trio of contemporary South African archetypes live and breathe. The high profile given to the real life murder of Teazers owner, Lolly Jackson, ensures that local audiences are keenly aware of the sordid world represented on stage and the people that inhabit it. The beauty of the performances is that one is left with the impression of the kind of celebrity into which the press moulds figures like Jackson and the man accused of murdering him, George Louca, one that is seedy and glamorous, at once familiar and elusive.
One of the great successes of this production is Marcel Meyer’s design of the set and costumes. The set is predominantly pink, with a drawing of a woman’s body superimposed on the structure. Her breasts are splayed on the ground, while her legs reach upwards towards the heavens. As the men trample all over her figure, the exploitation of women, referred to by September and vehemently denied and spun by Hannes, takes on a resonance that would otherwise have had less impact. This is reinforced by the way that Mabuso manipulates the blow-up doll. His actions towards this effectively grotesque representation of women blatantly reveal their status in this milieu, one in which interaction takes place unilaterally. The contrast between the voiceless doll and the men on stage, who are engaging in an incredibly vocal, language based power struggle, is striking.
Given Van Graan’s overt intentions to use theatre as a springboard for activism, I expected to be challenged more directly to take up one or more of the “causes” that lie so clearly within it. JUST BUSINESS was not invigorating in that way, but it was entertaining and intellectually stimulating. That alone makes it worth seeing – and it is a comfort to be reminded that, in fact, there is no honour among thieves. That is perhaps our greatest weapon in the battle against corruption.