Mpumelelo Paul Grootboom’s Foreplay

The Theatre Royal, Stratford East is a theatre not far from home which regularly punches above its weight. ‘Township Tarantino’ Mpumelelo Paul Grootboom‘s collaborative work Township Stories was a punch like that, so when Matt told me that Stratford was getting another of his productions, performed by the South African State Theatre, we decided to go and see it.

Foreplay is a scene by scene adaptation of Schnitzler’s fin-de-siecle play Reigen better known by its French title, La Ronde (tangent – when it was condemned in Vienna as obscene, causing vandalism of shops which stocked the script, Schnitzler was branded not simply “pornographer” but “Jewish pornographer”).

Matt booked for five of us at £5 each but we didn’t know where we were sitting. I wondered whether I was going to be showered in bodily fluids. As it turned out, we were in the front row, me in the middle, and head to head, face to face, with acts of rape, copulation and love-making. I’m not prim (well, not at weekends) – I am, however, overcome by violence, so it was lucky that what we thought was a programme turned out to be a script which I peered at during the sickening parts, instead of the stage.

The production was very good and the cast enormously talented as actors and dancers. There were maybe 10 scenes of dialogue (the production departed a little from the script) with continuity offered by a series of sexual encounters where each character has sex, in adjacent scenes, with two others.

Foreplay is an essay on sex in Pretoria townships. There are chinks through which comment on South Africa is dangled – but just chinks. It’s mostly sex and sexual relations in the townships.

Also carried from scene to scene is HIV, taking form as pink bubblegum and later (incongruously) balloons, which I hope didn’t pun on full-blown aids. Condoms are also like balloons; condoms were entirely absent from this play and this absence, along with the gum, was the masterfully communicative, wordless reference to HIV. By the end of the play, the entire cast of characters is infected, and the instances of mutual love-making no less than the abusive or exploitative sex. HIV, like sex itself, is a great leveller of social groups. La Ronde had a message about class and about pleasure in repressed times – Foreplay communicated to me that HIV and exploitation corrupt sex; sex itself is not corrupting.

The corruption resides in the male characters:

The hypocrite preacher:

“…inappropriate physical involvement outside marriage… People call it moral failure and in turn demand that those preachers step down from moral leadership… but I call it proof of pastoral humaness.”

The self-righteous politician, before anally raping the prostitute as punishment and after killing her Nigerian pimp:

“…because you’re a woman and also – maybe – because you are a citizen of this country, I am willing to look at your transgression as ignorance merely… Because, that’s what you are… like many other women in this country, ignorant… nothing but ignorant… Maybe you don’t understand how important I am… maybe you’re just incapable of understanding that fact… Understanding what my mandate is! Huh?… My mandate is to lead you, you ignorant bitch!!… Do you understand that!?… To LEAD YOU!!… Who will lead you when you bring people like me down?… Huh?… Who will lead you?… … You’re just a capitalist bitch… who sees even her own cunt as a capitalist tool.

Those who are not hypocrites are deep cynics with a little sadistic gratification thrown in: the playwright who instrumentalises personal tragedy; the spoilt young man.

At the beginning, the prostitute makes contemptuous observations about men:

“…they wonder why women, all over, even those who are not prostitutes, end up using their cunts as a bargaining chip… as a weapon”.

The subsequent scenes prove her cynical. The women of this play are worked on to give sex freely to men of whom they are wary but to whom they are attracted, or they sell, or are seduced, or raped. With the exception of the prostitute, any bargaining they do is concerned with affection; there is no empowerment (except perhaps the preacher’s wife, an older, affluent woman). The men are detached after sex. This is a play about women being exploited, men exploiting women, and the spread of HIV.

I don’t know La Ronde, but Grootboom makes a number of references (self-conscious references?) to artists’ instrumentalisation of bad sex. There is a curious scene where nobody has sex with anybody but the tutor-playwright character gratifies himself by pressuring the schoolgirl to divulge her personal tragedy:

“You’re not going to become an actor if you’re not honest…you see, if a part demands you to be a bitch, you have to realise what a slut you are to play it… as an actress you have to recognise what you do or how you once felt like that and use it”

The Stratford East theatre has the kind of bar where you can bump into the cast after the production. Matt found out that we were a good audience – responsive, and we laugh in the right places. Did I mention that it was also a funny play?

The reviews I’ve found are too cursory to bother linking to. Not sure why – this is a very powerful play. Anybody read French?

Catch the London production until Saturday 13th June.

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