By Keren Banza
A burning love fated to be choked by the harsh coldness of reality. Flame in the Snow is a theatre production of selective correspondences between South African poet Ingrid Jonker and writer André Brink.
In 2014, Brink offered never-before-seen letters between himself and Jonker for publication. They were released as a book in their original Afrikaans version and later translated into English. The Bryan Hiles-directed production, which takes its name from the English book title, is a theatrical reading of the letters, and features Cara Roberts as Jonker and Mpilo Nzimande as Brink.
The scene is set with Jonker in Cape Town and Brink in Makhanda. On stage, a room divider is used to reflect this distance. The actors do well to capture the intensity of the lover’s emotions, but the room divider blocks the chemistry, and perhaps this is a deliberate choice as distance – both literal and ultimately emotional – is what contributes to their split. A few scenes of Jonker reacting to Brink’s declaration of love while he read his letter might have been more impactful. Instead, we give attention to whoever the light is on while keeping the other in the darkness.
Through the production’s careful selection of letters, we are presented with a narrative timeline of events in their relationship. We don’t see Brink’s visits to Cape Town, for example, or when his wife confronts him about his affair. Rather, we hear of the repercussions of these events. From what is both said and left unspoken, we piece together Jonker and Brink’s initial passion and the issues that ultimately led to the demise of their relationship. Words both anchor and animate the story, and in this way, the performance requires an attentive audience.
The play attempts to capture Jonker in all of her complexity, but the letters provide only fragments of her life, her rich interiority. Jonker was more than just a lover. She was a gifted poet, a single divorced mother and a woman who had much to say in a generation that wasn’t ready to hear it. Still, throughout the production, there are vivid glimpses of this remarkable woman, right up to her tragic end.
Flame in the Snow is where lovers of literature get to relish in theatre. It requires you to be fully present, read between the lines and reflect on the impact of each sentence. Hang onto every word, and a compelling and tragic love story will reveal itself.
Flame in the Snow is on at Victoria Theatre until 1 July.