Named for a South African lullaby, Siembabma is the touching tale of a young girl from the white community and her relationship with Trudy, the family’s black maid. The bond between the two of them is deeper than those bald facts might suggest: with the child’s natural parents all but absent from her life, Trudy essentially takes on the role of a foster mother. The play has been widely acclaimed in its home country – but given how firmly it’s rooted in South African society, will it survive the journey to Amsterdam?
Playwrights Penelope Youngleson and Philip Rademeyer do a fine job of explaining why their story’s worth telling; why it isn’t just the familiar tale of a mother choosing between a child and a career. Gently, their script explores the uniquely South African backdrop, inspired by Youngleson’s own upbringing at the end of the apartheid age. There are subtle reminders of the country’s past – such as Trudy’s matter-of-fact observation that it was hard for “someone like her” to own a camera – but the story’s true tragedy is revealed quite late on, when we meet Trudy’s daughter and come to understand how both economy and society forced her family apart.
Performed mostly in English, but with occasional forays into Xhosa and Afrikaans, the dialogue at times is lyrical; it’s notable that the script puts the wisest words in Trudy’s mouth. Trudy is also the only character to be given a name, an elegant reversal of the facelessness of a domestic maid. The young white child, meanwhile, embodies curiosity, trustingly accepting the way things are yet asking the innocent questions which the adults around her seemingly fail to.
Less successful, I felt, were the lengthy asides which seek to place this story in the broadest of historical contexts. The sections dealing with South Africa’s development merited their place, but the point that all humanity is descended from a single ancestor feels an unnecessary diversion – do we really need an explanation of why racism is wrong? The direct addresses to the audience were also less subtle than they could have been, often feeling more like a lecture than a theatrical work. This is one play where the author’s voice is very, very clear.
And that voice is an angsty one. While there’s no doubting the hurt and the guilt that’s channelled into the script, the imbalance of privilege means it’s harder to sympathise with the child than it is with her disadvantaged maid. Speaking to an audience unfamiliar with the cultural context, the playwrights gives eloquent voice to Trudy’s dilemma, but could do much more to explain the impact of the situation on her troubled young charge.
Still, none of this detracts from a compelling performance from both actors. Nieke Lombard is effective and restrained as the nameless girl, capturing the essence of childish naivety without resorting to parody. But it’s Lesoko Seabe as Trudy who steals the show, conveying a particular dignified anger when she switches roles to play the maid’s daughter.
The direction’s a touch unimaginative – the isolated spotlights are an unnecessary and occasionally distracting way of marking out the scenes – but the design is elegant, and the mop-heads which form part of Trudy’s costume are a daring but effective reminder of her inflexibly-defined role. So, to answer the question I posed at the start of this review: there’s some tuning to be done for a European audience, but overall, Siembamba travels well.