Baxter Theatre’s The Fall at Fringe: ‘exceptional vitality’

By Tamsin Bracher

Baxter Theatre’s racially charged production, The Fall, captures lightning in a bottle. Variously described as ‘stimulating and provocative’, a ‘carefully-crafted, seminal theatre piece’ and a ‘necessary eye-opener into the reality of South Africans’, it arrived in Edinburgh this summer with extraordinary precedence. The play, written and performed by seven graduates from the University of Cape Town (UCT), examines the point at which art and politics meet. In particular, it traces the conception and development of two protest movements, #Rhodesmustfall and #Feesmustfall, which swept through student campuses in 2015. It takes a closer look at all forms of discrimination (of race, class, gender and age), and proceeds with a militant ire and physical energy that prove the hallmark of its success. Moreover, The Fall crucially addresses the activists-come-actors’ overriding sense of ‘suffocation’: ‘I wanted to speak my mind too but I couldn’t find my voice.’ This show sings, as well as speaks, truth to power.

The production opens with the ‘toyi-toyi’, the traditional song and dance of political protest in South Africa. The stomping feet and chanting voices immediately summon a heartbeat to the smoky auditorium; a bass line that persists throughout the performance, at points threatened but never fully quieted by dissent within the movement. The music was fundamental to The Fall. It went a long way to suggest the power of the collective. And as the show developed, the actors took it in turns to break out from the ensemble and partially narrate, partially recall their own experiences of the protests. The seamless switching between the whole and its parts told its own story. In a play where ‘the falling of Rhodes would symbolise the falling of every colonial icon one by one’, the individual stands for much more than his/her life alone: African culture, ideologies of patriarchy and issues of sexuality are each represented in turn. While cast member Zandile Madliwa is the present leader of the Black Radical Feminist movement in South Africa, Cleo Raatus is UTC’s non-binary council rep. As the students’ main purpose is increasingly challenged by the splintering movement, the arguments become more heated and the roads to decolonisation more varied: ‘we have the opportunity to choose now what empowers us and what oppresses us.’

The need to accommodate and transcend these factions in the greater interest of personal and political freedom is all the more pressing in light of recent events in Charlottesville. Following these upheavals in the USA, the cast from The Fall issued a statement that dedicated their Fringe awards (‘Scotsman Fringe First’ and ‘The Stage Cast Award’) to ‘all activists and movements working towards the dismantling of systems, structures and symbols of oppression’. Baxter Theatre has created a play both of its time and for its time. With an exceptional vitality and profound agency, The Fall movingly declares that ‘this movement belongs to all of us’. The inclusive first person, ‘us’, offers a line of continuity between the actors and the audience, black and white, LGBTQ+ and straight, male and female. This truly is ‘theatre for all.’

‘What do we mean by ‘decolonisation’?’, ‘Nothing about us without us,’ ‘You can’t carry out fundamental change without a certain amount of madness.’ A kaleidoscope of human voices, The Fall unravels with a transformative potential. It reminds me of those times when a busker plays your favourite song or a stranger compliments you on your clothes. This production gives an audience exactly what they need at the very moment they want it the most.

And the standing ovation at the end of The Fall paid fitting tribute to what was an exceptional piece of theatre.

Photograph: via baxter.co.za

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