Enfant terrible, foul-mouthed and blunt is multiple award winning playwright Louis Viljoen. The worlds of his plays are dominated by fetid characters whose villainous desires and deeds expose man’s infinite depravity. Their contempt for institutions and subsequent power play in order to rise above that which ensnares them is a theme present throughout Louis’ work. From his comedy, Champ, to the dark psycho-thriller The Pervert Laura, there are always acts of transgression which characters must conquer or forever be tormented by. As a theatre-maker Louis has developed a heightened style of language littered with metaphorical vulgarities that tend to polarise audiences into either loving or abhorring his work.
The Kingmakers, which he wrote and directed, is now showing at the Fugard Theatre. It’s a pitch black political comedy with characters who disguise their greed, retain their reputation and power, and believe that the merciless “sacrifice” of a few is for the “greater good”. Starring Pierre Malherbe as Arlow, Brett Palmer as Daniel and Rebecca Makin-Taylor as Amy, the play follows the plan of opposition party strategists who, in the aftermath of an internal power struggle, attempt to turn a vapid but respected politician into an revered leader. Part comedy and part tragedy, The Kingmakers explores the farce that is politics and the consequent travesty of voting for leaders, who we’re hoodwinked into believing will make a positive impact on our lives. We chatted to Louis about his creative process, his general thoughts on theatre and what he wishes he could change about the close-knit industry.
Last year you won Best Director and Best New Script at the Fleur du Caps for The Kingmakers. You’re also the first resident playwright at the Fugard Theatre. How has this impacted your career?
Regardless of how serious one takes the Fleur Du Cap awards, it does provide a nominated play with further exposure and the probability of extending its stage-life increases. The play is then viewed as some sort of success and this makes it a viable choice for funders or major theatres. The Kingmakers was a small show with a three week run at The Alexander Bar, and we may not have made a significant amount of money from it, but it was well regarded and spoken about enough to lead to the wins at the Fleur Du Caps and finally to The Fugard Theatre, where I am now the resident writer. What that entails is less romantic than what it sounds, but it is the opportunity to do new work which begins life in a major theatre and have the benefits that go along with that (marketing, salaries for the actors, production budget). What is slightly worrying is that the new plays won’t find their feet in the relatively low-pressure world of independent theatre before being put in front of a larger, arguably more critical audience. That reality is slowly dawning on me. However, the excitement at the opportunity occasionally overrules the panic-attacks, and it is in those moments that the pure what-the-fuck-is-this of being a working playwright forces me to ignore the possible downside and get back to writing.
Tell us about your journey as a playwright. What has led to you to where you are now?
The complete inability to make something of myself and find success in other areas of life. I say that with a modicum of good humour, but it is true. I am nothing if I’m not a writer, and without writing then my usefulness as an adult and member of society ceases to exist. Writing is the only thing I do well (and I hope I do it well) therefore it must be pursued and improved upon if I am to live any kind of life at all. Writing won’t save me from being a fuck up, but it will provide less opportunities for me to fuck up.
I do not trust structured forms of order because they exist to serve themselves. They are run by humans, after all. Or semi-humans, in the case of our political institutions. Is that too heavy handed? How about: fuck ‘em, let them burn.
The Kingmakers first premiered at Alexander Bar and is now showing at the Fugard Theatre. What initially inspired the play and has re-staging the production taught you anything new about the process of directing your own work?
I wanted to write a propulsive genre piece set in a specific milieu and use that world as the tool with which to carve out a story of greed, manipulation and the act of selling the grand lie of our democracy. And the goal was to do that without it becoming po-faced and taking itself too seriously. The first run of the play was incredibly rushed. All told, the rehearsal period was a week and a half and the get-in and technical rehearsal was one day. Due to a talented cast and support from The Alexander Bar, we managed to put on a reasonably successful show. The restaging at The Fugard Theatre provided us with the luxuries of time (three weeks of rehearsal) and a full week on stage before the first audience sat down. What that allowed us was the further exploration of the play and the fleshing out of ideas and characters. Our intention was not to rehash the show that was, but rather to start afresh and give an audience a more rounded, punchier version of the play.
There’s different schools of thought when it comes to making theatre. How do you approach to the process?
With as little bullshit as possible. One has to remove ego from the process and so often people make the process of rehearsing a play into a sacred ritual where love roams free and hugs are parcelled out and feelings are explored and all other manner of wankery occurs. There is the script, the actors and a director as audience surrogate, and that is that. Make the story work. No one cares about how you feel as a theatre-maker. The audience should not be expected to pay to watch your therapy sessions.
What conventional piece of wisdom about playwriting have you found to be the least helpful?
I have managed to avoid, by choice and by academic failure, most teachings about playwriting. What I have learned was through practice, observing those I admire, watching lots of theatre and never being satisfied with a script. If there is one custom that I keep running into, then it’s that of the theatre-maker as a pure, sensitive artist who has the right to exercise moral superiority over his/her audience. That is what makes bad theatre.
Broadly speaking, many of your plays explore a lack of faith in institutions. Why do you think this theme persists in your work?
At best, we’re constantly being let down by institutions and at worst the institutions that we look at to keep our society intact, our souls unbroken and our lives ticking along, are monstrous behemoths that exist to exploit, degrade and destroy us for their own uses. I do not trust structured forms of order because they exist to serve themselves. They are run by humans, after all. Or semi-humans, in the case of our political institutions. Is that too heavy handed? How about: fuck ‘em, let them burn.
What value do you think theatre reviews have for the artists? How seriously do you take them?
To be honest, a good review warms anyone’s heart, and a bad review stings. A good review can help a small show get an audience, and so can a bad review. But neither is to be taken seriously. Until the quality of arts criticism improves and hacks stop getting paid for the lazy, uninsightful work they churn out, reviews have to be viewed as a tool to promote a show and nothing else. It says nothing of the work if the person reviewing that work is a sub-mental sycophant who uses a press release to flesh out the body of the article and still manages to get the plot wrong and misspell actors’ names and pass themselves off as an industry expert with some sort of insight into other people’s work.
In the past you’ve ruffled the feathers of industry peers for being publicly outspoken about the nature of the business. What influence has this had on the reception of your work?
It gave people certain perceptions of who I am as a person and they then transfer that onto the work, for better or worse. Because we see so much self-aggrandising work that exists to show what a sensitive, moral and gifted person the theatre-maker is, instead of trusting an intelligent audience to go along and be immersed in a story, people have become used to assuming that the playwright (or director) is as good-hearted or nasty as their plays are. People assume I am amoral, cruel and untrustworthy, and perhaps I am, but they assume that because I write characters that have those qualities. As for me being unspoken about what I find reprehensible in the industry, well, they’ll just have to put up a better argument or take it lying down. And “being nice” isn’t an argument.
Oh, and one more thing I’d like to change: Actors who cry during a curtain call. Fuck you, go to therapy. This is a theatre show, you self-obsessed bastard.
If you could change one thing about the theatre industry what would it be?
The exclusion or marginalisation of dissenting (and interesting) voices from festivals, publicly funded theatre institutions and arts publications. Theatre does not survive because of uniformity and agreed upon modes of existence, it survives because of those who’ve had enough of comfortable, headache inducing, old-hat work that aims to talk down to an audience, and instead make plays that upsets the apple-cart and defies any mode of moral categorisation. Oh, and one more thing I’d like to change: Actors who cry during a curtain call. Fuck you, go to therapy. This is a theatre show, you self-obsessed bastard.
Rehearsal images by Daniel Rutland Manners.