Moffie

André Van de Merwe, adapted by Philip Rademeyer
The Fugard Theatre Archive in association with CHAT SA
Riverside Studios, London

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Kai Luke Brümmer as Nicholas Credit: Daniel Rutland Manners
Kai Luke Brümmer as Nicholas Credit: Daniel Rutland Manners
Kai Luke Brümmer as Nicholas Credit: Daniel Rutland Manners

Moffie shines a light on the ill-treatment of gay men in the Apartheid South African Defence Force in 1979 through the memories of Nicholas, who was unlucky enough at age seventeen to be conscripted for a two-year stint.

In the centre of a darkened stage, dressed in a green military uniform, he sits on a three-layered pile of long, green duffel bags. An ominous rhythmic soundscape quickly replaces a brief sound of helicopters as he recalls a shocking story of gay conscripts being bullied by fellow conscripts and those in charge.

Occasionally, his narrative will shift back to the childhood cruelty of a father who would try and toughen him up with vicious beatings and warnings not to become a moffie, a South African term of abuse for homosexuals.

Anyone in the military even suspected of being a moffie would be maltreated, and there was the ever-present danger they could be sent to the Defence Force special unit Ward 22 for deviants, where they might be chemically castrated, suffer ECT, or simply go missing.

However, during his training, he meets three other men he suspects are gay whose kindness to him makes life more bearable. He even finds himself romantically drawn to one of them.

Kai Luke Brümmer gives a fine, sensitive, sometimes moving performance as Nicholas, at times switching easily to recreate the harsh barking voice of his father or those in military authority.

There are only fleeting glimpses of the black people they are being prepared to abuse. Sophie, described as the “Zulu woman” who looked after them as kids, is remembered sitting incredibly upset by the side of the house as the family loads a vehicle that will move them to a new area. An older black, male stranger sitting in a railway station is hit by a bag of vomit thrown at him from the train of white conscripts.

He is placed with a special task group notorious for its atrocities. When they suddenly encounter a black woman who was raped by an unidentified group, emerging from her home “wailing”, one of their group shoots her dead.

These fragments are just observed by our passive narrator, merely contributing to the story’s bleak atmosphere of sadness tinged with his regret about what he has not said to other gay men he encounters. He is a sensitive gay victim we easily sympathise with, even as we hate the crude, crushing, masculine aggression and ingratitude of the military in which he’s trapped.

Yet there’s an elephant in the room that is never spoken about, though he has lived with it all his life. Apartheid South Africa is a racist state that permeates every aspect of his life. The South African Defence Force was created to maintain white supremacy. But even the word racism is never mentioned, and neither is the organisation’s primary purpose to remind its soldiers of the supposed white purity they were there to worship and preserve.

It leads Jessie Potts in her review of the play to recognise the value of its insight into an area of “history often ignored” but to ask, “would an audience be expected to feel sympathy for a gay member of the Einzatzgruppen who had a mean dad?”

The narrowness of the play’s focus implies an insensitivity or even complicity of the character Nicholas to the racist engine of the world he lives in. It also makes him seem distinctly one-dimensional.

Moffie is a well-performed glimpse of one important aspect of a cruel organisation that should never have existed. But the black Indigenous people of Africa and the rest of the world need a better, more complete picture than this lopsided personal coming-of-age story gives us.

Reviewer: Keith Mckenna

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