‘Moffie’ – World premiere at Riverside Studios

Images: Kai Luke Brümmer

‘MOFFIE’, the world premiere stage adaptation of André Van de Merwe’s searing autobiographical novel, opens in Studio 3 of the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith on Wednesday (5 June).

‘moffie’ /ˈmɒfi’ – a South African slur for a gay man.

The book, about the author’s experience as a conscript in the South African Defence Force during the apartheid era, was made into a highly acclaimed film by South African director Oliver Hermanus, and has now been adapted as a play by Philip Rademeyer, presented as a monologue.

It’s 1979 and South Africa’s government’s main concern is keeping Southern Africa free of communism, to protect the Afrikaner people, Christianity, and the free world.

To do this, they need bodies, and seventeen-year-old Nicholas van der Swart is conscripted into the South African Defence Force and finds himself in the dark heart of a regime that demands absolute conformity, brute masculinity, racism, and bigotry.

“MOFFIE” traces Nicholas’s struggle against societal expectations and his internal battle in discovering his own identity amidst the violence of South Africa’s border war, which took place between 1966 – 1989.

Image: Greg and Kai in rehearsal

Facing the dread of being labelled a ‘moffie’ and the risk of being outed and the ever-present fear of exposure, “MOFFIE” is an exploration of toxic masculinity and trauma, highlighting how, 30 years into South Africa’s democracy, the emotional wounds inflicted during those turbulent times persist, offering a reflection on the lingering scars of the past and their influence on the present and future.

Talking to The Chiswick Calendar about the production, director Greg Karvellas told me South Africa has a huge problem with gender based violence. Their fathers, a whole generation of white South African men learned their concept of what it was to be a man in the environment of a border war defending the principles of apartheid.

“The play really explores what boys in the ’70s and ’80s went through.”

If it was brutalising for men whose sexuality conformed, how much more so was it for those for whom expressing their sexuality mean imprisonment and torture.

“It was illegal to be gay. There is a part in the play which deals with ‘Ward 22’ – where gay people were went to be ‘fixed’. They were electrocuted and tortured.”

Images: Kai in rehearsals in Capetown

Now, actor Kai Luke Brümmer told me, South Africa post apartheid has the most liberal constitution in the world. Drawn up to protect human rights, it was one of the first to legalise gay marriage. But, like everywhere else, that does not mean to say the LGBTQ+ community does not still experience harrassment.

For him, the role is about more than a teenager coming to terms with being gay in a hostile environment, it’s about toxic masculinity. He was a baby when the new nation emerged from the  apartheid era, but the play’s sound director Charl Johan Lingenfelder went through a very similar experience to André Van de Merwe and his insights have been invaluable.

Also his sound track, a detailed, complex production in itself which helps create the atmosphere of three separate timelines and facilitates the shift between the character Nicholas van der Swart’s youth, growing up in South Africa, army training at infantry school and the border war.

The sound design includes for example an Alouette, a turbo prop single-engine plane used at the time, among some 1,200 sound cues.

Images: Kai in rehearsals in Capetown

Kai Luke Brümmer is considered a rising star. His portrayal of the role in Oliver Hermanus’s critically acclaimed 2019 film adaptation was described by Screen Daily as:

“Triumphant. Kai Luke Brümmer a magnetic centre of an extraordinary young ensemble cast.”

Greg Karvellas says:

““The much-lauded 2019 Oliver Hermanus film adaptation of ‘MOFFIE,’ was a deeply affecting portrayal of a dark chapter in South African history, seldom discussed by the tens of thousands of now old, white South African men who were traumatised by the brutality of their experience as boys.

“Bringing this story to the London stage offers an opportunity to engage with its themes through the medium of a powerful dramatic monologue in this the 30th anniversary year of South Africa’s democracy.”

Images: Kai in rehearsals in Capetown

As a world premiere, so far the production has only been seen in rehearsal by friends and family, but the reaction has been visceral. Already it has opened up a conversation between Greg and his father.

“He opened up about this stuff for the first time”

which they hope is a reaction which will be shared and will start an inter-generational conversation which needs to be had.

Moffie runs at the Riverside Studios from Wednesday 5 June – Sunday 30 June 2024. Tickets are priced at £25 for general admission and £19.50 for concessions.

Book tickets – MOFFIE at Riverside Studios

Read more stories on The Chiswick Calendar