Tshepang: The Third Testament

Casting a blinding light on the atrocities of human nature, Tshepang: The Third Testament is a harrowing portrayal of the true story of Baby Tshepang – a nine-month-old South African baby who was brutally raped in 2001.

This piece will have you searching for what it means to hold compassion, or even just for what most of us consider innate: to be human.

With such a heinous and explicit event taking centrefold of Laura Foot’s critically-acclaimed script, there are a number of ways the two performers could have taken it. They opted for a largely symbolic approach, utilising an emblematic miniature model of the village as part of their set. It was an interesting touch to introduce the characters of the event long before revealing their role in the crime, instead focusing only on their daily routines and personal traits. That woman – the one who walks around the village every day; she observed the rape of Baby Tshepang and ignored it out of fear for whistleblowing. The man over there: he lost his job at the dried fruit factory and turned to alcoholism for comfort. He was also accused of being one of the six men suspected of gang rape. Even on a third person basis we were given time to form some sort of emotional attachment. The fact that seemingly regular, initially decent people could commit such an act made the whole piece even more disconcerting, challenging our stereotyped images of what constitutes evil in the process.

Despite this nuanced form of storytelling, though, I must admit I thought the dramatic exploration of the aftermath was underwhelming. The trauma for those involved did not stop when Baby Tshepang was taken away for urgent surgery; it did not stop when arrests were made and it did not stop when the victim’s mother was denied contact so that further analysis could be carried out. An incident of this callous proportion changes lives forever, although in this production that sense was not conveyed. I felt that the monotonous pace of delivery was in part responsible for this - though the content carried much gravitas, a change of rhythm is essential to ensure the audience’s total concentration.

That aside, though, the performance had several strong points. One of the most emotive scenes I have seen at the Fringe was the sodomisation of a loaf of bread (which had been cradled affectionately by Tshepang’s mother as a hollow replacement for her lost child) with a broom handle. As chunks of crumb violently rained onto the floor my heart sank, and if you were still at this point unsure of the situation’s lead-weight gravitas, the destruction of this baby-sized object soon made it apparent.

Tshepang: The Third Testament will shock, sadden and anger you. You will question morality as you learn of the 20,000 annual infant rapes in South Africa and you will come away with a very heavy heart. I have to wonder, however, whether this is the result of flawless storytelling or the plot: the central event being something which will always have that effect, no matter how it is told. Either way, this piece will have you searching for what it means to hold compassion, or even just for what most of us consider innate: to be human.

Reviews by Matthew Sedman

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The Blurb

Based on the true story that rocked the nation and shocked the world, Lara Foot's haunting and uplifting masterpiece of redemption became an international success, presenting a rare and necessary foray into a world that few have seen before. It draws on a South African style of storytelling, combining striking and provocative visual imagery. 'The acting has a massive sculptural simplicity. That, and Gerhard Marx's set, with its toy village and basic props, suggests both the earthy vigour of Barney Simon's Market Theatre and the visionary realistic style of Peter Brook... a wonderful debut' (Sunday Times).