August 8, 2007
By Joyce McMillan
THE idea of forgiveness stalks this year’s Fringe like a ghost - the word is everywhere, but no-one seems sure whether the thing itself really exists. It shimmers most powerfully in Tam Dean Burn and Luke Sutherland’s beautiful NTS Workshop show Venus as a Boy, already seen this summer in Orkney where its story begins, but now thrilling Festival audiences at the Traverse.
Elsewhere, though, the feelings of rage, revenge and tribal fury aroused by violence and nurtured by oppression seem on the brink of triumphing over any idea of forgiveness or redemption; which is why Truth in Translation, brought to the Assembly Hall by the Colonnades Theatre Lab and Market Theatre of South Africa, is perhaps one of the most significant shows in Edinburgh this year.
Set during the 1990s, when Archbishop Desmond Tutu was presiding over South Africa’s unique Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), set up to examine the crimes of the apartheid era, Truth in Translation was first seen in Rwanda last year, and is a free-flowing play with songs, conceived and directed by Michael Lessac with help from the entire company.
It focuses on the remarkable team of translators who accompanied the TRC around the country, translating into and out of South Africa’s dozen languages; and as the Commission’s work unfolds, the translators - themselves drawn from a rainbow of different ethnic groups and backgrounds - struggle to cope with the horrific stories of murder, torture and massacre they hear, and with the rage and grief these stories provoke, both against themselves, and against their traditional enemies.
Truth in Translation is not a show that wastes time making things simple for those who know little about South African history; it plunges straight into the heart of the story, and begins - with a deceptive, episodic casualness - to sketch the characters of the eight translators, plus the television reporter Marcel, the TRC ‘comforter’ Nobuhle and the racist Afrikaner barman Rudi, who accompany them on the road.
What’s remarkable about the play, though, is how, around the backbone of its music, it gradually builds a compelling narrative and a completely convincing set of characters, while avoiding the temptation to tidy up the issues for dramatic presentation.
The final impression - which matters much more than the historical detail - is of one hell of a moral and ethical mess, in which language itself becomes a weapon or a smokescreen, every soul is divided between vengeance and forgiveness, and terrifying earthquakes of buried rage and pain can break out at any time; but also of a nation determined to find a way of moving on, and committed to the idea that they must do so together.
‘If you think I don’t love my country, you don’t know your country,’ roars the old Afrikaner Rudi, in farewell; and the fabulous Thembi Mtshali-Jones, as Nobuhle, leads the cast in a final song of mourning and hope, at the end of a show courageously committed to showing humanity exactly as it is, profoundly flawed and often breathtakingly brutal, but not entirely lost.