MALEFANE Moshuli arrives fully clothed for our interview. I make this point because at our previous encounter he was naked. What’s more, two days after our meeting, he was to leave for Scotland for three weeks, where he’d be naked for about an hour and a half each day.
Moshuli, Bo Petersen and Jeroen Kranenberg make up the cast of Athol Fugard’s Statements After an Arrest under the Immorality Act, which was written in 1972. The cast, under the direction of the winner of the Theatre Arts Admin Collective’s 2011 Emerging Theatre Director’s Bursary, Kim Kerfoot, was invited to perform at what is considered the world’s largest arts festival, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, until August 27.
As per Fugard’s original stage direction, Moshuli (as coloured headmaster Errol Philander) and Petersen (who plays his lover, white librarian, Frieda Joubert) perform entirely nude which, though some might argue is more appealing than the grey safari suit worn by detective-sergeant J du Preez (Kranenberg), takes some getting used to.
"I hadn’t read the full script when I went to audition for part," Moshuli says. "Initially, Kim only sent me a few pages to prepare for the audition. As I waited my turn with another actor, we overhead someone ask Kim if the production would be ‘done naked’. The fellow actor looked at me wide-eyed and whispered, ‘Who is going to be naked?’ ‘Well, there are only three actors in the play and it’s probably not going to be the cop,’ I replied."
Weeks later, when the cast had rehearsed extensively, fully clothed, and it came time for the first "undress rehearsal", Moshuli concedes he and Petersen were nervous.
"We’d been doing some last-minute movement work with (choreographer) Nicola Elliott — it’s particularly important when you’re going to be naked to know exactly where your arms, legs, hands and feet are going to be at all times — and then the time had come.
"Bo and I undressed privately and shuffled shyly onto the stage, unclothed for the first time. When we looked up, we were surprised and delighted to see Nicola and Kim sitting together waiting for us in the audience — both stark naked. They’d decided it would help put us at ease. It did. Once we’d stopped laughing, we moved on, feeling much more relaxed. Of course, convincing my girlfriend that it was okay and getting her and our friends to come and see the play was the next hurdle!"
The production was first performed at the Theatre Arts Admin Collective in November last year. Fugard, who was in Cape Town at the time, watched it twice and said afterwards: "I am already on record as describing Kim Kerfoot’s production of Statements as one of the best of my work that I have ever seen.
"The sensitivity and delicacy with which he has directed this blighted love story takes it out of the museum of apartheid artefacts and makes it as timely and relevant in today’s world as it was when Yvonne Bryceland, Percy Sieff and I opened the courageous Space Theatre with it nearly 40 years ago."
Fugard encouraged Eric Abrahams to put it on at The Fugard Theatre, where it was sold out for its four-week run this year. Plans are afoot to get it to Johannesburg this year.
Of course, as attention-grabbing as it is, the nudity is not the central point of Statements. It’s a powerful play about love forbidden by apartheid. Errol is a studious 36-year-old principal of the school in Bontrug, a coloured township outside the small Karoo town of Noupoort. Frieda is the 42-year-old unmarried white librarian.
They meet when he comes looking for study material and fall in love. Thereafter, he regularly sneaks into the library through the back door at night and they make love on a blanket on the floor in the dark. Their affair, however, is revealed to the police by a prying neighbour.
However, while the play isn’t all about nudity, the state of undress is highly relevant to the piece. Errol and Frieda are lovers and, because of their differing skin colours, more vulnerable than most. Their naked helplessness and "shame" is laid bare by the glaring condemnation of a policeman’s interrogation and bright torch light. But it’s not just colour that torments the couple: Errol is married. And, although the state is only concerned that she is white and he is black, the fact that he is an adulterer adds to their fear and guilt.
It must have been tempting for Fugard to create an unmarried couple. That way he’d guarantee the audience’s full sympathy for the couple. But he didn’t.
"Mr Fugard doesn’t go for simple and he likes to push you beyond your comfort zone," Moshuli says. "After all, life is not easy. It’s not black or white. There are so many layers to Statements and that’s what makes it such a powerful play, which remains relevant 40 years after it was written. Philander is not an angel. He’s a man, with faults, passion and fear. He and Frieda are in love but their relationship is difficult, not just because of the Immorality Act, but also because he is married and devoted to his family. Statements is about shame, humiliation and guilt that evolve for many reasons."
Although he’s long known he’s happiest on the stage, it has taken Moshuli years to convince himself he can make a living as an actor. "And even now, I also work as a translator whenever I have the opportunity to earn additional income."
Born in QwaQwa in the Free State, Moshuli discovered his talent for the stage when he was accepted at the National School of the Arts in Johannesburg during his high-school years.
"I applied to do music, which was pretty crazy really. I didn’t have any formal training in any instruments and can’t sing. But fortunately the school spotted something and suggested I join the drama department."
But fate intervened and Moshuli was obliged to go back to the Free State and he matriculated in Harrismith before heading to the University of Cape Town to continue studying speech and drama.
"After my second year, however, I decided I needed to get a job and I dropped out. I went to Joburg where I worked as a waiter and took on various jobs that came my way. It was only in 2009 that I realised I had to come back to Cape Town and finish what I’d started and give the theatre another serious go — I knew that’s where I wanted to be."
Moshuli graduated in 2010 and since then has worked in Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Mwenya Kabwe’s Funny House of a Negro. His TV and film credits include the roles of Advocate Thate in the SABC law drama Final Verdict and a taxi driver in the French film Yes You Can.
His greatest love, though, is theatre and Moshuli is hoping that, after the "brilliant break of working in Statements with people with such incredible experience", more opportunities will come his way – perhaps, next time, wardrobe included.
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