Damon Galgut’s lauded novel ‘The Promise’ has been adapted into a play, set to hit local stages later this year
South African author Damon Galgut’s The Promise will premiere on stage in September. The novel on which it is based rose to prominence after winning the 2021 Booker Prize, telling some brutal truths about South African society to the world.
The star-studded stage production of The Promise is being adapted by Galgut with local theatre director Sylvaine Strike, whose work focuses on the highly physicalised interpretation within classical texts, among other theatre styles.
Strike’s role as director of Endgame earned her the 2019 Fleur du Cap Best Director Award and Best Production for that year.
In addition to her directorial work, Strike — cofounder of the Fortune Cookie Theatre Company — won the 2016 South African Film and Television Award for Best Supporting Actress in Comedy for her role in the sitcom Those Who Can’t.
“It feels like every project I’ve ever done has led me to this.
“Every work I do, or play that I create, teaches me what I need for the next one,” Strike says.
In the case of The Promise, it feels like an accumulation of all her work, whether it was directing Endgame, Sam Shepard’s Curse of the Starving Class or Molière’s The Miser. These classics have taught Strike to approach The Promise with the same reverence, delight and meticulous introspection.
The actors tapped for the production include Rob van Vuuren, Kate Normington, Frank Opperman, Jane de Wet, Jenny Stead, Albert Pretorius, Sanda Shandu, Cintaine Schutte and Chuma Sopotela.
“My work is known for the work of the body and the poetic emotion that our bodies convey,” says Strike. “Here, text and storytelling will merge in a physicalised form. Marrying [Galgut’s] text with my style of theatre-making is going to produce a very specific style of story.”
The Promise follows the relationship between a young black domestic worker, Salome, (Sopotela), who works for the Afrikaans Swart family on a Pretoria farm.
Salome is promised land and a house by the Swarts, but over the story’s four-decade timeline, this promise begins to dwindle.
It is punctuated by stories well known to many South Africans, such as that of Salome, who has to care for the three Swart children, Anton, Astrid and Amor, forcing her to neglect her own son Lukas as a result.
The kind of promise made to Salome should be looked in the eye in terms of doing what is right, such as honouring the promise of seeing those people who work for us who we often render invisible, says Strike.
“We still have domestic workers who have no say and yet their touch permeates every single thing in our home from the teaspoon you stir your sugar in your coffee with, to the toilet seat you sit on, to the clothes that you wear.
“They see to it that our houses and homes and everything is running smoothly but we do not see them,” says Strike.
The Promise presents a parallel between the fictional characters, such as Salome, and the realities of South Africans today, which is that despite the abolition of apartheid rule, and the promises that came with it, not a lot has changed.
The story is entrenched both within the apartheid era and the slow progress of post-apartheid South Africa where, despite new laws, the voices of people such as domestic workers are still rendered silent.
For those who lived in South Africa during the apartheid era, The Promise confronts the targeting of young people of colour in order to keep the country absolutely under white rule.
But, for the Born Free generation, says Strike, everyone sees there are still domestic workers who are silenced, yet permeate people’s homes.
“I think the audience will identify who they are and which role they’re playing in their own lives by looking at a family in front of them,” Strike continues. “They will identify with certain people in the Swart family or identify with Salome, or her son Lukas, and they will hopefully investigate quietly within themselves and take action on what it means to do the right thing.”
In order to retell The Promise on stage, the cast have to be physically intelligent actors as their characters age by decades throughout the story. The ageing is not conveyed solely through costume but also through movement.
The process of bringing together the cast and creative teams has taken over a year, says Strike.
During this process, done alongside Galgut (who is also a playwright), the marriage of his prose with the three-dimensional world of politics and movement will rely on the actors’ bodies to become different characters and to take on the many characters in the book.
“As a director, my actors transform in front of the audience’s eyes. I don’t ask them to change costumes and come back as a different person. The changes that I usually evoke are when [actors] are interpreting different characters,” says Strike.
“It’s not a physical change; we’re working with the spine as character portrayal.”
When Sopotela’s character Salome is introduced, she is in her forties, but by the end of the story, she is in her eighties. To achieve this kind of ageing process, actors need to understand what ageing does to the body, says Strike.
The original narrative of Galgut’s The Promise is fluid and ever-changing as the characters’ perspectives change from chapter to chapter. The choice of movement over costume change is organic, in order to achieve the same fluidity.
In addition to the physical movements of the characters, Strike realised the importance of soundscapes for the production.
Tapping Charl-Johan Lingenfelder to design soundscapes, Strike notes she has selected actors who can sing, so that sound can be generated by the actors themselves as well.
“I’ve chosen actors who have a musical ear and who are able to also accompany the work themselves.
“We then started to develop a language which is a physically based language, which I then took my actors through to try and find the language we could all speak. They’re not fluent yet because they’re still working on it,” explains Strike.
Plight of promises
There is a whiff of irony in the story of Salome. After decades of empty promises to not only Salome, but many South Africans like her under apartheid rule, the fulfilled pledges are extremely subpar, and the rewards are fragmented.
“The land that is [eventually] given to Salome is a scrappy little patch of land with a house on it that is falling apart and nobody needs nor really wants. But it has taken four decades for them to let it go and that is the problem,” says Strike.
The Promise confronts South Africans’ struggle to let go due to a fear of losing out, being caught out or of not having enough.
“We’re talking about generations of politicians who have done this to South Africa.
“We’re talking apartheid years, post-apartheid years, colonial and post-colonial years. This is a syndrome in South Africa and probably the world,” says Strike.
Despite having themes that speak directly to South African audiences, The Promise earned the Booker Prize in part for its global relevance.
Galgut’s writing has been deemed controversial in other countries by people who don’t understand the kind of silence imposed on a person in Salome’s position, both as a domestic worker and a black South African woman.
“This is most undoubtedly why this book has done so well globally and won the Booker Prize: because it is of enormous relevance to our society as human beings. We are hoarders and we keep what is ours and can’t let go and do the right thing and share,” says Strike.
Yet, while people continue to collect and hoard, it is easy to conveniently leave behind those which do not serve us in the way we would want.
As the lives of the Swart family move on, it is easy for them to forget Salome, whose existence in their domestic tableau is integral but barely acknowledged.
In the theatre production, Strike and Galgut make sure audiences sense Salome’s presence in the play all the time and cannot avoid her.
“The novel is so important in our lifetime that it really should be treated with respect.
“I’ve learned how to work with big companies, I’ve directed actors in large ensembles, and done a lot of choreography.
“I’m now at a point where I can rely on a choreographer to interpret work for me and work with the actors,” says Strike.
The Promise will show from 14 September to 6 October at The Star Theatre at the Homecoming Centre in Cape Town (formerly The Fugard Theatre) before heading to the The Market Theatre in Johannesburg from 18 October to 5 November. Booking for both cities is open via Webtickets.