Conversations with Aunty
DON’T fret if you didn’t make it to Grahamstown for the National Arts Festival as many of the productions head for Cape Town. Vigil, by Canadian playwright Morris Panych, which is on the main programme at the festival, will be at the Fugard Studio from July 13 to August 3. Catch it today at the festival, in the Victoria Theatre, at 4pm and 8pm and tomorrow at noon. The two-hander stars Graham Hopkins and Vanessa Cooke with direction by Christopher Weare.
In Vigil, a man (Hopkins) is summoned to the bedside of his dying aunt (Cooke). Kemp is a neurotic loner who chucks in his job as a bank clerk to be at her bedside. They haven’t seen each other for 30 years. What he expects doesn’t happen and it all escalates into a tragicomedy. The end doesn’t come quickly for his aunt and we watch their interaction over 18 months.
The play was first staged in 1995 and it continues to be widely performed around the world. As far can be ascertained it is the first time that it has been staged professionally in this country. Critics have pointed out that Vigil remains relevant and hugely popular because it is so universal.
“It raises so many questions that touch your consciousness – particularly if you have aging parents,” reflects Weare. It touches on how people become disconnected from each other – through distance or circumstance. “I didn’t know that you were still alive,” says Kemp in Vigil. Sadly, that happens a lot. People forget each other.
There are moments which are hysterically funny, says Hopkins: “It allows one to laugh about things which you would take very seriously. It’s the funny side of a serious situation. It’s funny, whacky and absurd.”
For instance, Kemp asks his aunt what he should do with her dentures when she is gone. He tends to talk without censoring his thoughts but at the same time he says things which need to be said.
Weare adds: “Life is full of incongruities that make it very funny. Panych has taken a tragic situation and taken a comic lens to look at it.” The set design by Julia Anastasopolous amplifies the fact that things are off kilter.
Vigil is a difficult play to write about as there are delicious twists which I cannot reveal. Grace – the aunt – doesn’t have much dialogue but she conveys a world through gestures and non-verbal responses. We haven’t seen Cooke since the
Vigil. early 90s and it will great to see this veteran actress again.
Born in Hillbrow, Joburg, her father Roy Cooke was a set designer, who also managed the Alexander Theatre for years and she just about cut her teeth on stage. Her first gig was at age four in Madame Butterfly when she was four years old. She worked extensively with Barney Simon and Mannie Manim and with other actors formed the Company which subsequently found a home at The Market Theatre – which was co-founded by Simon and Manim.
It is also wonderful that we are getting the opportunity to see internationally acclaimed plays like Vigil in Cape Town. Hopkins is producing the play, along with actors Susan Danford and Stephen Jennings and that is testament to his belief in the excellence of this play.
● Bookings for the National Arts Festival and for the Fugard, from Computicket on 0861 915 800 and for the Fugard run, also on 021 461 4554.
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INTERGENERATIONAL TRAGICOMEDY: Graham Hopkins as Kemp and Vanessa Cooke as Grace in