National Arts Festival 2016: Immortal

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Jenna Dunster performs in "Immortal" at the National Arts Festival at the Hangar in Grahamstown on Thursday, 7 July 2016. The piece was written by Peter Terry and directed by Chris Weare. (Photo: CUEPIX/Madeleine Chaput)
Jenna Dunster performs in “Immortal” at the National Arts Festival at the Hangar in Grahamstown on Thursday, 7 July 2016. The piece was written by Peter Terry and directed by Chris Weare. (Photo: CUEPIX/Madeleine Chaput)

Immortal, a new work by Peter Terry, is based on the historic event of the Blaauwkrantz Bridge Disaster of 1911. I have been looking forward to this play with interest, after hearing that a relative of Hazel Smith, the survivor that this play is about, made contact with the writer.

This play is well researched, and begins with Hazel Smith taking the audience back in time exactly 92 years before the rail disaster, to the historic battle of Grahamstown which saw the deaths of 2000 amaXhosa warriors, then chief Makhanda was sent to Robben Island where he drowned trying to escape, his restless spirit is said to wander the area. The amaXhosa believe that the iQume (Blaauwkrantz) River is sacred and inhabited by water spirits known as Abantu Bomlambo who are revered by locals who place gift baskets on the banks to revere them. The local amaXhosa warned that the bridge had been built on sacred land and this which would lead to disaster. The train derailed a generation later.
Another spiritual aspect raised in this work is that the stone being carried on the train that fateful day, from Bathurst quarry to Grahamstown was destined for the landmark cathedral of St George & St Michael being built at the time.

This single hander, performed by Jenna Dunster, tells the story of then seven year old Hazel Smith who was on the train that day travelling back with her parents and her two younger siblings. Jenna Dunster in character as an older Hazel Smith, tells of the history of the battle of Grahamstown, of the gorge and it being a sacred place. She asks if God exists in the stone used to build his church. She tells the story, of her family holiday by train to East London, of the pleasure of the train journey there, and of their stop in Bathurst where they stayed with their grandparents for a little before returning home. She tells of the rush to get the passengers on and off the train in Bathurst so as not to delay the delivery of the stone to Grahamstown.

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It leaves one asking questions of the church, of the spirits that may have had a hand in this disaster, of the Kowie Railway Company and a possibly overburdened train or poorly maintained rolling stock? The directors of the railway company found not guilty of culpable homicide reminded me of the questions asked of the culpability of big business and mining in illness, death and environmental damage in modern times. The questions of spiritual involvement or human error are not answered, I don’t think they can be. I feel the importance in this work is that the questions are raised and the spiritual and human context is set.

A beautiful performance by Jenna Dunster, that highlights these questions, in a moving and respectful way. She reflects on the tragedy, the fear, the loss experienced by Hazel Smith suffered on that day, in reflection. Jenna’s portrayal was authentic, reflected the time in which this tragedy occurred.

Simple effective lighting, with an even simpler but very effective set comprising an image of the gorge, of the bridge, and a pile of stone. This effective design highlights the story rather than distracting. Being presented in The Hangar also added to the experience because the rafters in that particular venue, could easily be compared to the rafters under a bridge, and so added value to the performance in a way I’m sure was not considered before this staging.

This show will appear at the Wits 969 Festival starting 13 July 2016, and I will be recommending this to friends.

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