Our messy world in a clean bromide

Meyersfeld

MADAM, please: Michael Meyersfeld’s ‘The Epidemic of Shame’.

THE SEVENTEEN PRISTINE photographic images by Michael Meyersfeld that comprise his current exhibition, Adaptation would have given French theorist Roland Barthes a run for his money in how they extrapolate on the rhetoric of the world in which we live today. Barthes wrote with a scalpel-like language through photographs, demonstrating how they illustrate the world and answer questions, how they encapsulate subtleties. In Barthes’s absence, however, and without too much wordage, these beautifully crafted black and white photographs are everything that the notion of fine art photography is all about.

They’re printed – on both backlit Duratrans film and fibre-based silver bromide – with a clarity that resonates boldly in your head. With utterly black blacks and completely white whites and all the greys in between focused with precision and delicacy, these photographs are brilliant technically even before you get to look properly at the images and the iconography – and the iconoclasm – they embody.

And then, you do look closer. And what do you see? For one thing, you see a microcosm of what it is to be a South African in a society replete with values that shift by the day. Some of these characters, such as the swimsuit-clad woman in what looks like the underside of the bridge in downtown Johannesburg, or the Pale Male Fading in an image of graffiti, are like the unexpected gods of a place, the guardians of secret gateways into parallel universes.

You might look at these works and think of the photographs taken by French photographer Frédéric Brenner, or that of fellow South African photograph Roger Ballen, in terms of how the works are choreographed and curated, how Meyersfeld places characters in situations that are wont to erupt into a million words.

You might see the complicated futures and layered narratives indicated by the compositions, such as that of Guarded Futures, a composition containing a brown boy, a white boy and an Alsatian puppy. Black and white, rich and poor, joyous and complicated, the characters in this body of work is a litany into the many faces of South Africa.

But it is not boring platitudes or nifty compositional decisions that skirt with the smarmily sensational or the itchily uncomfortable that you will encounter in Adaptations. Meyersfeld’s lens embraces the minutiae in the details of each work with a tender sense of earnestness, almost a sensuous understanding of the value of each tile in a mosaic, and each chair in a room.

The effect is something of magical realism caught unawares. When you look at the naked man in an assembly hall, or the abject beggar whose condition is reflected in the face of the woman from whom he begs; the priest, complete with leopard skins in what was once the Wolmarans Street Shul in Johannesburg and the blend of goats and Gaultier in an image that reeks of one of South Africa’s urban townships, you gain a rich diverse melee of realities, and you realise with a kind of suddenness, how Meyersfeld’s gesture in capturing these people and these scenarios, is one that is not without a smile – a wry smile, granted, but a smile of great fondness for the miasma of values chucked together, which we in South Africa call ours.

These are not documentary photographs in the formal sense of the notion; many seem to be posed. The characters are not named. Rather, this body of work offers a kind of a stage set periscope into how Meyersfeld reflects on and composes an understanding of the sham and drudgery, the broken dreams and precious moments that comprise South Africa’s dark and contorted and sometimes surprisingly witty or beautiful social underbellies.

Given Meyersfeld’s status in the photographic world, these are also immensely haveable works, not only for their intelligence and intensity, but also because of the rapidly shifting currents in our world. You won’t remember these mad contradictory days when they’ve passed.

  • Adaptation by Michael Meyersfeld is at In Toto Gallery, in Birdhaven until July 3. Call 011 447 6543 or visit intotogallery.co.za
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Defiance in a place where there’s no darkness

suttner

AMID THE FLURRY of anti-Zuma material from across the board, this bracingly honest, almost painful to read reworking of a text that extrapolates on South Africa’s sense of humanity, stands out. Raymond Suttner was a bright young academic with great dreams for the liberation of this country, in 1975. That was the year in which he was first arrested by the apartheid government, for disseminating pamphlets that aimed to undermine the racist ideology. He first published the body of this text in 2002 – an account of the ten years in all, in which he was incarcerated, much of which was in solitary confinement, and detained without the possibility of trial whilst South Africa was in a State of Emergency.

The current version, revisited, some fifteen years later, is prefaced with a powerful and deeply angry introduction, which reflects on the politics of our time, right now – in a world where the leadership of organisations such as the ANC and the South African Communist Party are espousing values that makes someone as authentic and thoughtful, as committed and focused on the struggle as Suttner was, feel grotesquely betrayed, and he’s not afraid to say so.

It’s a hard-hitting and soulful extrapolation of the realities which we face right now as a society torn and bruised by corruption of our political leadership. For this, it is a very important work, and in the reading of it, you need to read the text from beginning to end, and then to read the introduction again. But further to that, Inside Apartheid’s Prison should be mandatory reading particularly for the generation of young adults – the so-called born-frees – coming into their own, as we speak. It offers lucid reflection on what was happening in this country through the brutality of apartheid and in its aftermath – and in doing so, it’s a readable work by a man who lived to tell the tale.

Suttner’s prose is clean of self-conscious rhetoric. It’s direct and unapologetically in the first person. And in the material, he offers you a revealing and frank self-portrait as he includes many letters which he sent to his close family and friends during the horrendous years of his incarceration. At times difficult emotionally to read, these are missives which make you privy to devastatingly private moments between a mother and her son, between a brother and a sister, a brother and a brother … moments that offer you insight into the very depths of horror in an apartheid jail – the torture, the isolation, the loneliness, the emotional crumbling and the very real attempts to hold it all together, with the aid of literature, sport and relaxation techniques.

Reading it, you are given to understand the damage that incarceration of this nature inflicts on the identity of an individual, and also the extent of privations inflicted on the prisoner – gestures of cruelty that cause – and are designed to cause – the fabric of a psyche to fray.

It’s a tale of a red-cheeked love bird called ‘JB’ (JailBird), and of a half grown female rabbit – animals that feel surreally out of place in the hard and grey and unrelenting environments of a South African prison cell. In being about the psychology and the emotions, as much as it is about the politics, it is a book that has deep soul. It’s a troubling, haunting read, but a vital one: Above all else, it’s a work of truth to values: the writing is pure and remains candidly and vigorously defiant throughout.

  • Inside Apartheid’s Prison by Raymond Suttner is published by Jacana Media, Johannesburg (2017).
  • Suttner is in conversation with Emilia Potenza (curator of the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg) at the Rabbi Cyril Harris Community Centre in Oaklands, on June 28, at 19:30. Booking: Hazel or René 011 728 8088 or 011 728 8378 (after hours); email rchcc@telkomsa.net or rene.s@telkomsa.net or visit www.greatpark.co.za

Peep show psychiatry

wings

THE unspeakable horror of loss: James (Mncedisi Shabangu) and Paul (Andrew Buckland), caught in time with Sarah (Jennifer Steyn).

THE INDIGNITY OF mental illness is never an easy topic to extrapolate on stage. It can be complicated by drug-induced fantasies and illogical behaviour that fit and don’t fit into the world. For a theatre work being presented to an ordinary audience – and not students experimenting with stretching boundaries – the nub of the challenge is to represent mental brokenness with both plausibility and dignity, not bruising the one over the other. By the end of this piece, it feels as though you’ve been privy to something that is both too ghastly and too private for it to be staged in a theatre.

The Inconvenience of Wings is a tale woven loosely around the magic realism of a short story by Gabriel García Marquez in the 1950s, The Man with Enormous Wings. It is performed with searing aptitude by an incredibly strong cast, against a beautifully functional set, that is punctuated with doors and windows, nuances and keyholes, but you leave feeling uncomfortably manipulated and morally grubby, if not broken and frightened.

Cast in an inverted timeframe that takes you from 1995 all the way back to 1961, in a very linear way, it reflects on the relationship between Paul (Andrew Buckland) and Sarah (Jennifer Steyn), offering a steep trajectory into the very heart of brutal loss and bipolarity. It touches the way in which trauma can reach so deeply into one’s soul that it can change the workings of one’s personality irrevocably.

And while the topic shouldn’t be taboo, the handling of it in this work is unrelenting: the intensity doesn’t let up for one second. Paul’s an architect and his friend James (Mncedisi Shabangu) is a professor of psychiatry, and a foil for the story to weave in political assertions, but also a sounding board for both Paul and Sarah’s challenges. We never do see Sarah in a state of mind that seems calm or lucid. The focus on nearly thirty years of a relationship highlights only the bad and mad areas, making you in the audience feel as though you are witnessing the enactment of a psychiatric case study, evoking Victorian traditions where aberrations were staged in circuses. It also perplexes you as to why they get together at all.

This is a pity. Love and death, witticisms and hilarity shouldn’t be excluded from a tale of insanity. If you watch Miloš Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), you understand the horrendous context of the world and its severe indictment of institutions for mental illness at the time. But while you’re crying and engaging with the characters, you’re laughing: not at them but at the world in relation to them, and at the niftiness and elegance of the writing.

There’s no laughter in The Inconvenience of Wings and the tears you shed are ones of helplessness  against the lurking monster of manic depression and the drugs that can make it better or break the whole entity. The snippets and snatches of poetry in the text are so beaten about by the context of the dreams conjured by mental illness patients that the magic they may contain is blunted and the fire dulled by your understanding that they’re the ramblings of sick people.

A tale of cup cakes and addiction, angels and traumatised children, this is a tough play by all accounts, and one not suitable for just any audience member.

  • The Inconvenience of Wings is written and directed by Lara Foot. Featuring creative input by Mannie Manim (lighting), Patrick Curtis (set) and Birrie Le Roux (costumes), it is performed by Andrew Buckland, Mncedisi Shabangu and Jennifer Steyn in the Mannie Manim Theatre, Market Theatre complex in Newtown, Johannesburg, until July 16. Call 011 832 1641 or visit markettheatre.co.za

To be a man

karelseoupa

FLAWED dad, precious grampa: Tobie Cronje plays Karel Brink.

IT IS RARE for the ingredients of a play, the technique and the outcome to resonate with such a sense of shattering potency that it touches you at the core, from beginning to end and doesn’t let go. Karel se Oupa is a new play by the creative team that produced the inimitable Dop, early this year and a kind of kitchen sink drama in Afrikaans, it’s easily the play of the year – so far. Wading through all the what ifs of family business broken by violent crime, nuanced problems, love that is difficult to utter and illness, it’s a work that could easily have skittered into the terrain of maudlin.

It doesn’t ever – this has as much to do with the crispness of the text, the well developed nature of the characters and the impeccable performance of the cast, to say nothing of the splintering silences into which the piece is embedded.

Veteran performer Tobie Cronjé who has earned his stripes on stage in recent years in comedy and pantomime, in this demanding and incisive role confronts the Calvinist values of hypermasculinity as an elderly farmer, Karel Brink, who is also a cardigan-clad grandpa and a father.

He is supported by his maid, Emma (Esmeralda Bihl), a woman who has seen the Brink family through times of horror and deep sadness, but also through the love and humour of the questions about life, the universe and everything that little boys and girls ask the nanny as they’re being taken through their daily rituals. She’s a magician of practicality and can wipe her own tears, bake bread, make coffee, pray to God, sing and feed the dog while she navigates between difficult men who cannot say things they must to each other, because of who they are.

Neels Clasen with devastating finesse plays the long absent son, Karel Junior. And the child in the work, played in this particular performance by Ruben Lombard (8), is electric in his ability to embrace a nuanced and difficult role.

It’s a tale of would haves and could haves and unspoken love between siblings and parents, as it’s a work about regrets and snap emotional decisions. Embraced in its folds is the narrative of farm murders, the magic of flight and the silent life-changing scream that a single telephone call can bring, it is written in a tight and carefully honed Afrikaans that is understandable in its commonsense, even if you have but a smattering of it.

Karel se Oupa offers a critical, almost cruel, glance at the vagaries and vulnerabilities of ageing, peppered with loss, terrible surprises and the need to sweeten horrors so that you can tell them to a small child. It’s an immensely fine work focused on the mysteries of the kitchen, which is defined by its sense of balance and its ability to reinvent a sequence of events through different characters’ eyes, and thus turn the universe on the concept of separating an egg or kneading a loaf of bread.

  • Karel se Oupa is written by Retief Scholtz and directed by André Odendaal, assisted by Anel du Plessis. It features creative input by Kosie Smit (set and costumes) and Nomvula Molepo (lighting) and is performed by Esmeralda Bihl, Neels Clasen and Tobie Cronje, and two alternative child performers: Ian Roelofs and Ruben Lombard. It performs at the Barney Simon Theatre, Market Theatre complex in Newtown until July 2. Call 011 832-1641 or visit http://www.markettheatre.co.za

Here’s looking at you. And you. And you.

Recognition.jpgTHERE’S SOMETHING UNMISSABLY effervescent about a beautifully written short story. It has not only to do with its brevity, but with the way in which its writer crafts a whole universe in a few pages. And with a particularly good short story, it’s a universe replete with everything, a universe that will haunt you forever. This is the kind of experience you can anticipate with David Medalie’s latest anthology of South African short stories, Recognition.

There is not one of these hand- picked, lovingly formed tales that glares out for being under par or without a voice of its own. Cohesively, this anthology offers a uniquely South African voice. It is beautifully crafted, in spite of the fact that stories deal with a wide range of issues, from feeling unwanted to being broken, from remembering abuse to articulating violence. It’s a series of tales which give you insight into the soul of South Africa, from its youngest and most vulnerable to its oldest and most hard done by.

These 22 stories by a range of South African authors – living and dead, contemporary and historical – are powerful testimonies to our ability, as South Africans, to laugh and cry, disparage truths and describe things as they are. It’s the kind of collection that you must take a breath from, every now and then, so that you can keep the memory of each story pristine in your heart and not allow them to merge.

Loosely bound by the notion of recognition, the focus of this anthology splays wide across the Karoo as it burrows into the poorest, most humble township homestead. It’s a discourse about robbers frightened in rich estates and Muslims who digress from their faith and their family, and a series of essays on hunger and meeting strangers on a train. It’s about what might happen to the widows of apartheid’s leaders, and how a blanket feels to a man who has nothing.

Many of the stories are written in the first person, but this is not to say that they are autobiographical. This is South African fiction at its finest, offering you a taste of everything in a rich and fulsome smorgasbord. Medalie is to be celebrated for putting together this brand new collection – on some levels, it evokes Encounters, a book of South African short stories, also selected and edited by Medalie, that slipped into school curricula and first saw light of day in 1998. Recognition is  the kind of book – if it does become part of South African school syllabuses – with which you know your children will be in safe hands, if they are taught with it, or gravitate toward reading it of their own accord.

As you read this book, many diverse South African voices will fill your head. The brilliance of Medalie’s curation of this selection means that it doesn’t self-censor or mute itself around terminology that is no longer considered acceptable. It doesn’t skew itself apologetically away from racist caricatures or perspectives articulated by writers or their characters. It tells it like it is. And it gives the kind of recognition to South Africans large and small, rich and poor, good and evil, that we all need to read.

  • Recognition: An Anthology of South African Short Stories selected edited by David Medalie is published by Wits University Press, Johannesburg (2017). It features stories by Herman Charles Bosman, Achmat Dangor, Nadia Davids, HIE Dhlomo, Ahmed Essop, Damon Galgut, Nadine Gordimer, Dan Jacobson, Alex La Guma, Mandla Langa, Wamuwi Mbao, David Medalie, Kobus Moolman, Njabulo S. Ndebele, Lindiwe Nkutha, Pauline Smith, Can Themba, Miriam Tlali, Chris van Wyk, Mary Watson, Zoë Wicomb and Makhosazana Xaba.

Lorca, butchered

Bloodwedding

BRIDE on a plinth: The sweetheart of one man, the passion of another, Carla Classen plays the central protagonist in Bloodwedding

BY ALL ACCOUNTS, the idea of Blood Wedding by Lorca conjures up a whole rich and gruesome terrain of achingly beautiful poetry, difficult emotional quandaries and an unrelenting tale of flowers and moons, sacrifice and tradition. It’s not clear why the direction of this production, Raissa Brighi chose to edit Lorca, but more so, why she chose not to hone her cast’s skills in articulation more tightly.

While Brighi’s introduction of African songs and traditional approaches to the idea of a wedding enhances the work, deepening it and giving it a rich local context, it is the cropping and changing in the work’s language which causes it to stutter and stumble – it’s not clear why more contemporary jargon have been at times inserted into the text: this mars the flow of language and forces the Lorca fluidity of form to lose shape and become humdrum, at times even comical.

Featuring some achingly beautiful moments, in the lighting and choreographic input into the work, this Bloodwedding is a very shouty affair with performers too lacking in the physical and contextual gravitas of the roles they embody. The mother of the groom, a fiery and fierce woman in the original text, who has lost her husband and her son, is played by Rachel Swanepoel, and while she works very hard at embracing the text and the gut-wrenching emotion, you can’t help but see her as a young girl. Has it to do with the physical presence of the performer and her body language? Either way, this young performer seems under-directed. Similarly with the father of the bride, Henri Strauss.

As the dialogue of the piece begins, your heart sinks: the piece begins with a fine and magnificently danced overture, one so powerful that you might have felt yourself  prepared to be watching a dance piece with no dialogue and a developed engagement with this text of family feuds, class issues and vendetta, through gesture and form. But no: the characters with their unmodulated voices maul the simple magnificence of the original.

Further to all of that, there are few things as damaging as a cellulitic bum cheek exposed erroneously in a dance move. The female dancers have their dignity inadequately taken care of in this work, which sees them wearing revealing underwear which detracts very emphatically from the main issue at hand. It is issues such as this that should have been more carefully addressed.

But as the piece unfolds, with the sensitive criss-crossing of lights that supersede nebulous and unfocused graphics across the space, something gem-like is still evident. There’s a choreographed fight sequence when the two husbands come head to head that will grab your attention and your emotions, and there’s an inspired use of the venue’s red brick walls that lend the piece a lusty bloody sense of reality. Not to forget an utterly superb an understanding of the malevolent and playful presence of the moon on a scooter that also redeems much.

The question needs to be asked, however, regarding the professional levels of this work. Yes, it was performed in the Market Theatre’s main theatre, which makes you believe that this is up there with everything else that has graced this stage, in terms of professionality. But it is acknowledged as having been produced by the Drama Department of the University of Pretoria. But what does this mean? The cast members and creative team are listed on the programme without reference to what year of study they are in, assuming of course, that they are students. Without such context, you must assume that they are professional. But, by the end of the work, you feel that this cannot possibly be the case.

  • Bloodwedding is written Federico García Lorca and adapted for this production by its director, Raissa Brighi with the assistance of Alice Pernè It features creative input by Eugene Mashiane (choreography), Baily Snyman (lighting), Jacinda Barker, Heleen van Tonder and Robin Burke (audio visual). It was performed by Carla Classen, Cassius Davids, MacMillan Mabaleka, Susan Nkata, Palesa Olifant, Henri Strauss, Rachel Swanepoel and Joffe Tsebe, at the John Kani Theatre, Market Theatre complex in Newtown until June 11. It will perform at Graeme College, during the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown on July 2 and 3. Visit www.nationalartsfestival.co.za

Mind the gap: an essay on elegant dishonesty

betrayal

AWKWARD reminiscences: Jerry (Tom Fairfoot) and Emma (Carly Graeme) meet in a pub. Photograph by Philip Kuhn.

IT’S THE SILENCES and gaps between words and the construction of the unspoken beat in this intriguing Pinter work, that lends it its potency and dramatic verve, but it is this potency mixed with extremely classy performances, an understated set and an unequivocal elegance that gives it the edge that keeps you focused. However, as the play reaches closure, you might question yourself as to whether there can be such a thing as just too much elegance and too many manners.

And as the name dictates, Betrayal is a tale of complicity and untruths. Of secrets and lies. And of revelations.  Emma (Carly Graeme) is married to Robert (Antony Coleman). She’s a gallerist. He’s an editor of a poetry journal. They have two small children.

And for a period of seven years, Emma has had a lover. He knows. Her husband, that is. She knows he knows. But does the lover know she knows he knows? Without the classic English understatedness, this narrative could descend into farcical humour, but it’s kept tight and succinct, demure and hilarious in its own capacity.

We meet Emma and Jerry (Tom Fairfoot) in a pub. They’re excruciatingly awkward with one another, but as they hem and haw and blurt out long sentences of memories of their friendship, and then retract them, you quickly realise this was no ordinary association. Love came into the mix.

But then it left.

This is a tale of how men and women dialogue over the deed of love, sex and relationships. It’s beautiful in its elegance, somewhat anachronistic in its costume choices – this is, after all, a period between 1968 and 1977 as the projection tells us – and the clothes the characters wear are a lot more refined than the period dictated. That said, the Bauhaus-style furnishings that quietly comprise the set are as fitting and as versatile as necessary: they’re just right.

One of the biggest challenges of a play of this nature is the danger of the work descending into blandness. Indeed, once you’ve figured out all the different levels of betrayal articulated from scene to scene, there seems little else, and the plot is exactly that – an unravelling of several intrigues. Looking at it in this capacity, the conclusion of the piece seems unsatisfying: but this is less a criticism of the work invested in it than a reflection of the original.

What happens next after the philandering partners have owned up? Why, that’s another whole story, you might suggest. Betrayal is an elegant, eminently watchable and utterly competent work to watch.

  • Betrayal is written by Harold Pinter and directed by Greg Homann. It features design by Homann (set) and Oliver Hauser (lighting), is performed by Antony Coleman, Jose Domingos, Tom Fairfoot and Carly Graeme until July 1 at the Auto and General Theatre on the Square in Sandton. Call 011 883-8606 or visit http://www.theatreonthesquare.co.za