By SOPHIE STONE

 

The South Afreakins is coming to the Basement Theatre, and I for one am excited. This home grown-turned overseas success originated as a ten minute play as part of the New Zealand Short and Sweet Theatre Festival, going on to win Best Newcomer at the Sydney version in 2014. In 2016 a reworked, hour long revision took the Edinburgh Fringe and London Vault Festivals by storm. It enjoyed sell out seasons and won awards such as the Edinburgh Reporters Pick of the Fringe. Now the solo theatre show makes its long awaited return home, ready to delight New Zealand audiences.

Written by and starring Robyn Paterson (of Shortland Street fame) the play sees Paterson portray Helene and Gordon, a South African couple in their sixties looking to emigrate to New Zealand. The concept of a thirty year old switching between a sixty-five year old man and woman on stage might seem unbelievable to some, but as I sat down with Robyn after rehearsals to discuss the play, I could tell straight away she had the energy to pull it off. Sharp, passionate and funny, she gave me an insight into her wildly successful project, starting from the play’s origins.

Image by Sacha Stejko

The South Afreakins received great feedback from the beginning, reassuring Robyn of any of her doubts. One such fear was that she’d be “seen as a blonde lady on stage, not a sixty-five year old couple.” Confident in the writing and the message, her main concern was that in terms of her portrayal of both characters, the illusion wouldn’t be bought. However, when Robyn took the play to Theatre in the Pound in London (a night where audiences pay a pound to see plays in progress and offer feedback to help develop them), she found that the audience responded well to the play. As she told me, “The response was overwhelmingly positive. So I thought I had something good.“

It’s only fitting that Robyn would star in the solo theatre show, as the characters are based off her own parents, albeit somewhat loosely. “I used the same names, Helene and Gordon, only because I know how each of them pronounces it…I did use some artistic license with their personalities, and I found the characters took on a life of their own the more they were played. The story itself is very much fictitious, but I tried to keep the theme accurate to their own experiences emigrating.”

Robyn’s parents were understandably flattered by their influence in the play, being “secretly very chuffed at being immortalised in a piece of theatre,” as Robyn described. “Dad came to Edinburgh to see it, that was a huge show of support. And they’ve brought all their friends to see it.”

Playing these adapted characters requires Robyn to switch between the two rapidly, something that many of us would consider a difficult feat. Robyn related the ease she found switching to her fast-paced brain and speech. “There have been times where I’ve been on stage and I’ll be switching between them, and then I’ll notice a prop hasn’t been put out or something, and I’ll be having this three way dialogue, worrying about this prop while switching between the two characters.” However there was some degree of practice involved as well. “The more you rehearse something like that, it’s like learning a dance, the more it becomes muscle memory. It’s incredibly physical.”

While the play is described as being very humorous, it also touches on some very thought-provoking messages, such as identity and a sense of belonging. The balance of comedy with darker material is attributed to Robyn’s writing style. “I’m personally not a fan of theatre that tells you how to think or feel,” she explained. “I like to disguise what I’m saying by covering it with humour. People are more receptive to it that way, I find.”

Image by Sonia Sanchez

One of the reasons why The South Afreakins has been so successful is that its message is universal, one that anyone can relate to. Robyn recounted one of her most memorable incidents since creating the show, when she met a woman who was waiting for her after after a performance in Edinburgh. The woman was in tears, and grasped her hand, saying, “It’s our story. We tried to get out of South Africa in the 1970’s and emigrate to Canada, we couldn’t. We tried in the 1980’s, we couldn’t get out. We’re still there.” The play gives a voice to those who are struggling with their own experiences of having moved, or trying to move, away from home.

“But it’s not just about immigrants,” Robyn emphasised, “there’s something there for everyone, whether you moved out from your parents to a flat down the road, or you’ve moved to a new group of friends and they have a completely different sense of humour to you, or you’ve left school or work, it’s those changes that can happen at different stages of life. It’s that feeling of standing on the edge of a party feeling like, I don’t fit in here. Why don’t I fit here? Should I have to change myself to fit in? It comes down to that message of ‘Does home lie in places or in people?’”

It’s clear that The South Afreakins has something for everyone. Whether you’re no stranger to the message of feeling out of place, if you’ve ever had to deal with the changes that moving away from home brings, or even for nothing more than wanting to witness the unique experience of, as one of Robyn’s friends described, “the sheer delight of watching a thirty year old woman play a sixty-five year old couple.”

 

The South Afreakins makes its debut at the Basement Theatre on the 15th of August and runs till the 19th. Click here to get your tickets!

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