’Variations On a Blue Bench’ [opinion]

In a world that champions youth, fast pace and gossip columns, it’s a treat to see two actors getting on in years just take a seat and talk about things. Seemingly important things. Things like religion, Rodin, begging and personal philosophy.

In director Joseph Molapong’s ‘Variations on a Blue Bench,’ actors Aldo Behrens and David Ndjavera do just that.

Setting the scene at the National Theatre of Namibia’s (NTN) Backstage with nothing but a blue bench – a wooden one, a green rubbish bag, some rubble, street art and projections, Molapong created a rudimentary mole in Swakopmund which set the scene for what was going to be an interminable play.

Though Ndjavera and Behrens certainly have a watchable rapport as the facetious hobo and the grudgingly impressed and privileged white man, the play lacked that spark of disagreement which is essential to a play that is just two people talking to each other.

Instead, the bum and the old white man tend to agree and while it furthers the aim of the script which is that people worship religion rather than worship God and that the only real religion is love, it doesn’t make for engaging watching as there is little debate and instead there are simply two dissimilar men congratulating each other on being somewhat fallen masters of the universe.

While the play is demanding and certainly begs for concentration as Behrens and Aldo discuss the virtues of bumming, whether or not animals are religious and how appearance informs perception and often leads one to untrue conclusions, there is too little friction for it not to play out as some sort of live Public Service Announcement that says: God is love. Don’t judge a book by its cover. Life is ironic.

Some of the writing is great. Behrens’ character speaks of bums “perpetually intercepting handouts,” and calls them the “professional needy” and Ndjavera expounds on ideas like “I believe in God but not religion” and “just to be is an act of praise,” but the play never seems to catch fire.

Instead people watched in the universal stance of boredom and bewilderment cloaked as engagement and intelligence, with their hands under their chins. And their eyes glazed over.

As for the supporting characters, they seemed a little superfluous. The blind singer did, however, underscore the play’s largely religious leanings by singing a hymn that said: “Who am I to judge another, help me God I pray…” which highlighted the fact that Behrens had judged the bum as ignorant and basic when his life was in fact one of education, mystery, tragedy and irony.

Though the play flitted around some interesting ideas and Behrens and Ndjavera are an effortlessly easy watch, an opportunity was missed to focus on and create an exciting debate or expound on some significant differences in opinion.

Particularly with the idea of begging.

At some point Behrens’ character describes bums as “talking pidgin German, shoving ikipas in my face and making me feel guilty.” At this point you expect the play to ignite and focus.

You expect the old white man to talk about white guilt, the country the whites built and maybe even enter the old chestnut about how lazy blacks are and Ndjavera to counter with why whites feel guilty, why he is unable to find a job, why his mental state after the war has led him to bumming, how the ikipas shoved in Germans’ faces are guilt assuaging souvenirs of superiority complexes and slavery displayed on mantles over fire places far from the mess they made.

Or something like that.

Something of substance, not just some clever lines before the next clever line about something else which all gain gravitas because the men are older and therefore wiser and must be doing this whole thing well.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case.

The play had some gems and some ideas but they never came together in a format as intimate and as demanding as discussion. Definitely an instance in which less would have been more, the play wasn’t bad but it wasn’t something you’d spend an hour discussing on a blue bench either.

Source : The Namibian