For a play set in one room and with only two main characters, The Timekeepers has an impressive sense of momentum and breadth. Another surprising element is the amount of humour in the dialogue – most people who go to see the play would probably expect a sombre and tragic piece, given its setting in a Nazi concentration camp.
Centred on the story of a growing friendship between a gay man (Hans) and a Jewish man (Benjamin) who are made to co-exist and co-operate under abusive and denigrating conditions, the play explores a number of themes ranging from family to prejudice.
The play unpacks the intersection of prejudices and how this situation can lead to unlikely alliances and solidarity. The Jewish character is evidently homophobic yet when he needs some important information that only his gay fellow prisoner can obtain, he is compelled to trust and help him. While by all accounts, the two men come from different worlds, they are bound together by their oppression and persecution under the Nazi regime which the character of Hans describes by saying, “Yellow and pink just aren’t in fashion” (referring to Benjamin’s yellow Star of David and his pink triangle that they are made to wear on their prison uniforms as markers of their categories).
As the plot develops, one is taken on a journey that touches on various levels and aspects of the characters’ lives: from their family backgrounds and the faint echoes of their pre-incarceration existence to the brutality and harshness of their lives in the present. In a sense, by sharing their life stories with each other, they overcome the loneliness and isolation they find in the concentration camp, by allowing their counterpart to live in each other’s histories.
The brutality and harshness of their present situation is personified in the third character, Capo, who makes an occasional appearance. Although he is also a concentration camp prisoner, he represents the oppressive Nazi regime because he is a ‘supervisor’ in the camp. As this symbol of Nazi oppression, his speech and actions highlight the ugliness and malice of the context – which is very relevant to present-day South Africa – such as virulent prejudice (which he expresses by continually referring to Benjamin as the “Jewboy” in spite of Benjamin being an accomplished and mature family man) and sexual exploitation and assault (which comes up in a rather emotionally intense scene that at one point leaves you wondering just how far they are going to take it!).
The playwright, Dan Clancy, makes effective use of the power of “the elephant in the room” by never having a Nazi officer appear on stage or even have such a voice heard from backstage or the theatre wings but the presence is still there and channelled through the abusive and almost malevolent third character.
While well-written with a balance of comedy, tragedy and drama, and well-executed by the performers and technical team (the use of dimming lights to indicate the passage of time is classically and effectively employed), the play’s biggest weakness is that it is likely only to have niche appeal by virtue of the subject matter – strip away the ‘gay interest’ and the ‘Jewish interest’ angles and there’s not very much else left in the characters or the dialogue to have appeal for a broad audience. But that’s OK because, as the old saying goes, ‘you can’t please all the people all the time’ (and, quite frankly, by managing to please the Jews and the queers simultaneously, the play accomplishes quite a feat. The only other thing capable of doing that is a well-toned Israeli Olympic gymnast…who competes topless).
Overall, The Timekeepers is entertaining and well worth a watch and, while not as intellectually challenging or emotionally stimulating as some hard-core frequent theatre-goers might prefer, it is engaging and quite evocative in parts.
The Timekeepers is now on at the Theatre on the Square in Sandton – only until 24 July. Bookings can be made through the theatre on 011 883 8606 or through Strictly Tickets on 073 725 7381 or on www.strictlytickets.com