Nun’s Chapel, St Peter’s campus
It’s Saturday evening and I am not dressed warmly enough for the cold. Stumbling my way across Rhodes’ campus – as one does at the National Arts Festival – I’m in search of the Nun’s Chapel where I’ll be seeing Elegy, an operatic performance art piece about sexual violence.
The venue is small and can’t accommodate a large crowd, so audience members find seating on the floor where they can.
The stage is well-lit but basic, and only a spotlight accompanies the sombre mood lingering in the small building. There’s a small wooden pedestal with two steps leading up to it placed in the middle.
Soon seven women, all dressed in black, emerge. Their performance begins when the first steps on to the podium holding a note. Once she leaves the podium, in turn she’s followed by each of the other six women – all of them more than inept vocally.
This continues for at least 20 minutes – a production going horribly wrong, and nobody can stop it. It occurs to me that this is the equivalent of a grenade going off in this small chapel.
I glance around the room as some young women, probably students, struggle to stifle their giggles and disbelief at the performance. An older white woman to my right has fallen asleep and a gentleman across from her is battling to keep his eyes open. Eventually, the matriarch in this instance has had enough and she gestures to her compadre that it’s time to make their exit. She gets up and a bunch of other people take the opportunity to do so, too.
I struggled to bear witness to this performance, until something happens and it all begins to make sense. The whole thing is hinged on the walk-out. I can’t help but think it’s rude but also how it represents what happens in reality. We just go about our business while this scourge wreaks havoc on South African women.
By now more than half the crowd had left, walking out on an performance dedicated to an issue we, as a nation, struggle with so desperately. The extended songs from the performers now become painful moans, and some of the singers cried throughout their whole performance.
I persevered and stayed with it until the very end. After holding a particularly long note, that singer would disappear behind a curtain – something I only realise when there are only four women left on stage. The symbolism hits me all at once and I’m left with a cold realisation washing over me. Woman die from this and it by and large goes unnoticed. It isn’t special news to us but one day it will be. Given the human condition, that will be when it’s too late and when too much damage has been inflicted.
I think director Gabrielle Goliath might be a genius and this production, albeit more of a social experiment, is one I will remember for a while yet. I leave feeling sad for the people who left but also happy they did.
Goliath knew all to well that this would happen and the unknowing props aided her in conveying an artistic microcosm of our society.