Pressure Cooker Blues

hittegolf

HOLD tight, it’s a count down, in Martyn Le Roux’s Hittegolf.

WHAT DO YOU do when bad news seems to come in a rolling tsunami? From disappointments at work to unexpected secrets from your children, a wife with an addiction issue and a mother-in-law with a leaking toilet and a mouth that doesn’t let up on the overriding commentary it offers? And all of this in the middle of a relentless heatwave? Tune in to RSG tomorrow evening to hear about Faan Vermaak’s plight, in a beautifully crafted work by Martyn Le Roux.

The narrative of this work is quite straight forward, but it is the manner in which it has been put together, from the gritty texture of the script and its colourful and real expletives, to the interjections of sound effects – from hadedahs to the buttering of toast – to the interweaving of snippets of sung phrases by Freddie Mercury and items from the news, that gives this story life and relevance.

And while the work follows a downward sloping path of catastrophe, there’s a levity to the approach which allows it to not become precious and earnest in its approach. The Vermaak family are real people, trying to deal with the kicks and pricks the world presents. And these come in various forms, including the demon of gambling, a sexy young plumber named Willlem, a history of lies and a box of valiums. Not to mention the yappy dog, Elvis in the house next door.

This dark comedy with its sterling cast will have you laughing at the characters and their impassioned turns of phrase almost till the very end, but it will haunt you because of its sense of realness and its superb reflection on pace. In short, it’s unmissable.

  • Hittegolf (Heatwave) is written by Martyn Le Roux. Directed by Anrich Herbst, and featuring technical input by Bongi Thomas and Patrick Monana, it is performed by Mandi Baard, James Borthwick, Elize Cawood, Cassie McFadden and Franci Swanepoel, and debuts on RSG on Thursday, May 24 at 8pm on Radio Sonder Grense. There will be a repeat broadcast on RSG’s Deurnag programme, at 1am on May 28, and it is also available on podcast: www.rsg.co.za

Incendiary youth: SA style

MyChildren

MY opinion is correct! Student debate with Isabel (Christine van Hees) and Thami (Phumlani Mdlalose), while Mr M (Msuthu Makubalo) goads them on. Photograph courtesy National Children’s Theatre.

A WHITE HIGH school girl lies on her belly on a school bench to read a spot of King Lear as she munches on an apple.  There’s a sense of ‘how things should be’ in everything from her school uniform to her engagement with what is obviously homework. A black high school boy filters a petrol-soaked piece of cloth into a bottle as he fingers a cigarette lighter.  The chasm in values breaks your heart, but says it as it must be said if you’re engaging South African values. Indeed, it’s difficult to get into the shoes of another person, and easier to judge their circumstances with the harshness of your own perspectives. Particularly if you’re a half-formed teenager, even a very bright one. This is something that the cast and the audience discover in Athol Fugard’s My Children! My Africa!. It’s being reprised by the National Children’s Theatre as a touring programme for high schools, and the prescience of this work cannot be understated even if you are all done with high school.

It’s a play about the raw and bleeding discrepancy between haves and have nots that is so central to the complexities of South African existence. Cast in the mid 1980s, in the Eastern Cape, it showcases the fire and passion of black youth attempting to address the horror and shame of apartheid, counterpoised with the traditional educational values of white privilege. And it is here where we meet Isabel (Christine van Hees) and Thami (Phumlani Mdlalose), the respective cream of their own communities, in a debating match that’s something of an experiment, bringing together the energies of youth from contexts not that far from one another, geographically, but a million miles apart in every other way.

The teacher is an elderly man, fondly known as Mr M (Msuthu Makubalo) and while he’s the catalyst for the experiment, his values too are informed and potent. But in being of the previous generation he is intensely vulnerable.

The tale is not an easy one, peppered as it is with language that we just don’t use anymore, as it is a cipher of the kind of extreme violence that set our country on fire, literally in the mid 1980s. This play, which enjoyed its stage debut at the Market Theatre, with Kathy-Jo Wein and Rapulana Seiphemo opposite John Kani in 1989 is one that reaches beyond adults and to the youth in the audiences. It’s about choices and literature, the fury of impotence and how your well-intentioned parents can embarrass you into silence. Or your substitute parents can incite you into violence.

It is creatively staged, with a simple set that can be broken into metaphors of violence easily, but it isn’t clear why the decision was taken to erase the play’s interval. It’s a meaty work with lots to consume and the gap in the telling of the tale is a necessary one, particularly for younger audiences.  Also, a valuable decision is taken in the cast changing into their costumes on stage. This lends a reflection that these are indeed performers, and the manner in which they adopt the age-specificity of their roles is strong and cogent.

Mdlalose plays the young firebrand from the ‘location’, who, armed with an intellect that surpasses most, is subject to the indignities of Bantu Education because he is black. It’s a crucial role, but his articulation is not always understandable, which is a pity as the text is rich with 1980s realities. He’s beautifully supported by the performances of van Hees and Makubalo who lend the texture of the age of their characters as much as they give the text vehemence.

It’s a play that will change your perceptions and your mind, and make you realise that student shenanigans in the 20-teens are as hot and relevant as they were nearly 40 years ago. Or vice versa.

  • My Children! My Africa! is written by Athol Fugard and directed by Siphumeze Khundayi and Francois Theron. It features creative input by Sarah Roberts (set and costumes) and Jane Gosnell (lighting) and is performed by Msuthu Makubalo, Phumlani Mdlalose and Christine van Hees in a touring programme hosted by the National Children’s Theatre, in Parktown. The theatre will be staging a couple of public performances toward the end of May. Visit their website, or call: 011-484-1584.

A place to be as loud as the hell you want!

avenueQ

GREAT expectations: Princeton the man of the Avenue Q moment.

Remember Sesame Street and the values it espoused on generations of children? Well, 15 years ago, the makers of Avenue Q worked with its basic puppetting premises and ramped it up to a whole new set of narrative values. Now, in its 15th year, it explodes in a melange of bad-idea bears, grown up puppet antics and lyrics that take the bull by the proverbials. It’s hilarious, touching, beautiful and rude: an utter tonic.

Avenue Q is about the angst of a just-graduated 23-year-old guy with blue skin and a quaff of black hair meddled with electricity, called Princeton. To make matters worse, his degree is in English and he’s rapidly realised the pointlessness of it all, in a grabby world where he has no skills. But then he finds a place to rent, and some friends and something of a purpose. Of course, it’s not all that simple; there are a lot of tears and some orgasms along the way. There’s also disappointment and rejected advice, broken hearts and masturbation by the light of the internet.

With loud and flamboyant sex and chance encounters along the way, some fierce assertions from a monster that the internet is for porn and a very moving emergence from a closet, it’s a whirligig tale of love and marriage, hate and schadenfreude and above all one about the moment in which we live, because that’s all we have.

Not only is this a beautifully made show, with a complex and well-handled set, strong and intelligent lyrics and puppets that skirt hilarity and cuteness in a way that allows them to be utterly risqué, it’s also extremely well performed. The puppets, in the design parameters of the Muppets are like glorified glove puppets with chasmic mouths and big googly eyes. The ‘monsters’ among them are furry, which gives rise to a whole diatribe about race and racism. The puppeteers, dressed in black play visual tricks with you. Quickly you learn to respond to the puppets as though the voices came from their poly foam mouths.

No, these are not ventriloquists, but similar to the puppet ethos in works such as William Kentridge’s Ubu and the Truth Commission, they’re actors who give the puppets voice. And oh, what fine voice they bring. The directors of this piece clearly chose the best young voices in the field, and what Ashleigh Harvey (who magicks Kate Monster and Lucy the loose woman to magnificent life) and Ryan Flynn (who gives voice and persona to Princeton and Rod, the closeted queen), bring to the stage vocally, is sheer gold.

While the modulation of Rebecca Hartle as Christmas Eve, a Japanese therapist with lots of racism up her sleeves and no clients, is a little too shrill, which often makes her repartee unintelligible, and the Gary Coleman references to the child star from the American 1980s TV series Diff’rent Strokes, might be lost on some, it is the poly foam characters, all the way from Mrs Thistletwat to the New Kid that utterly sweep you away. And at last, this theatre has achieved a strong balance between the sound of music and that of vocals. It’s a true delight.

Nieke Lombard and Graeme Wicks are the “Bad Idea Bears” who bring about havoc and mayhem, as they tee-hee to their electric pink and green paws, and they’re totally wonderful in body and soul and the Trekkie Monster (manipulated with levity and gruffness by Daniel Geddes) is a riot,  complementing every scene he graces.

This is one of those shows that will make you want to bound out of the theatre and change the world, not for ideological reasons, but because of all the possibility there is out there, to grab the moment. It’s a coup for South Africa, and arguably the stage musical that will define this year’s theatre pickings and achievements.

  • Avenue Q is based on the book by Jeff Whitty and the original concept of Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, and is directed by Timothy Le Roux. It features creative input by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx (music and lyrics), Dawid Boverhoff (musical director), Kosie Smit (puppets and scenic design), Stephen Oremus (orchestration and arrangements), Oliver Hauser (lighting), Timothy le Roux (musical staging) and Fried Wilsenach (sound design) and is performed by Ryann Flynn, Daniel Geddes, Rebecca Hartle, Ashleigh Harvey, Songezo Khumalo, Nieke Lombard, Yamikani Mahaka-Phiri, Grant Towers and Graeme Wicks, at the Pieter Toerien Theatre, Montecasino, Fourways until July 15. Call 011-511-1818.

Dog star, celebrated

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DOG at rest, an ink wash work on paper by Sue Pam-Grant.

TANTALLON PEGASUS IS the quirky name of what appears to be a pointer. He’s big, he’s bony, he’s got a patent and well-developed sense of humour and he’s entirely vulnerable. Lying this way and that, asleep, with his ears back, his legs spread or curled up in a ball of dogness, he is the dog you encounter in Dogscapes, a new exhibition by Sue Pam-Grant. But this exhibition is less about the artist’s pet than it is about her curious exploratory line, and the manner in which she plays with a medium brand new to her working practice.

The pristine space on the left as you enter 33 Twickenham Avenue, the building in which the South African Research Chair Initiative is housed, is filled with a body of etchings and monoprints with ink wash; yet its flamboyance seems muted. Until you come up close, that is.

Nine etched images, printed with the assistance of Newtown’s Artists’ Proof Studio, form a curated whole, framed in one frame, on the facing walls of the space. There’s a series of work laid out on the floor and a series of works in wash laid out on trestle tables in the centre of the room. There’s also a large ink drawing of the dog in question lying in a comfortable ball. It’s exhibited on a carpet on the floor. So, from the very outset, this exhibition pushes classical exhibiting parameters.

As you approach the works, however, all the jesting and internal doggy jokes fall away. Pam-Grant’s cursory, exploratory line, sometimes frail under the impact of the subject she draws, and the intaglio press used to make the work, sometimes robust and direct, investigates the anatomy and personality of her dog in a loose and unprecious line. The line is allowed to skirt with abstraction around the proverbial landscape of dogness that Tantallon Pegasus offers, as it retains a modicum of being descriptive. With this line, you get to understand much about the subject of the focus, the medium she is playing with, and the possibilities of a project ring fenced, edited and curated, very well, in this show.

And loose lines and grey backgrounds might offer a digression from the idea of correctness in intaglio printmaking, you might think. In this exhibiting context, however, and surrounded by the professional apparatus of published etchings – there’s a concertina-bound artist’s book magnificently in slip case covers on show with the aid of archival gloves in the gallery’s reception area – the body of work attains and retains a very particular gravitas.

It is through all of these lines and washes, where things are allowed to bleed and flow together and over other things; where chance is allowed to happen, that a dog is revealed and celebrated in a way that makes you fall in love with him, even if you have never met him.  Dogscapes is about an artist taking a line for a walk in the same way that she may,  her big beautiful bounding hound.

  • Dogscapes by Sue Pam-Grant is curated by Alexander Opper at the Gallery for the SARChi Chair for South African Arts and Visual Culture, 33 Twickenham Avenue, Auckland Park, until mid June. 011 559 7221 or visit Pam-Grant’s website here.

Biases, secrets of a sweet old curmudgeon

MrGreen

NOW, you listen to me! Mr Green (Michael Richard) and Ross Gardiner (Roberto Pombo). Photograph by Philip Kuhn.

IT’S EASY TO get emotionally entwined in the harsh finger-pointing that sees the elderly of a community abandoned. It makes for predictable storytelling and indictments on the callousness of the younger generation. What is more difficult is representing the other side of a story that is about rejection and grandstanding, discrimination and a lack of forgiveness. This is the great edge of Jeff Baron’s play, Visiting Mr Green as it slices open the inner life of a little old Jewish man (played impeccably by Michael Richard), with European roots, fresh widowhood and not much of a will to live.

Skip two generations in American Jewry and enter Ross Gardiner (Roberto Pombo), a young Harvard graduate who made a traffic error and is here in this cluttered little one bedroomed flat on a weekly basis, as penance. And thus unfolds a quirky and deeply moving tale that takes the two characters on an unexpectedly intimate journey of self discovery.

And while you think you know what you can anticipate in this story, which on a level seems to echo the narratives lines in works such as Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays with Morrie and Richard Alfieri’s Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks both of which have been staged in this theatre – in that it’s about the fierceness of an ageing person to protect their dignity at all costs, and their making friends with a young stranger, there’s a twist in the tale in this one that will take your breath away. Visiting Mr Green is a play that takes no prisoners in how it reflects on the persecution issues but also the deeply grounded biases of a certain generation of Jewry. And there are statements and interjections that pepper the text to make you cringe. Beautifully.

Ultimately, it’s a work which offers the main protagonist a vindication for values and opinions so old and crusty that he’s learnt to take them as truths. If you were shattered by the volte face movement in Retief Scholtz’s Dop — and his Karel se Oupa — this play will touch you to the core.

The work is crafted with an immensely sophisticated understanding of these people and this generation, and design elements complement the material so well that you can almost smell the must in the neglected apartment as the waterworks reverberate rudely. There’s an interesting use of radio advertisements and Yiddish songs and doggerel from 1950s America to separate the work into scenes, and Pombo opposite Richard is absolutely magnificent. There’s an energy of empathetic choreography here that uplifts the old man as it gives the young one soul. In this, work we see Pombo coming into his own as a serious performer, with a sense of authority, dignity and discipline that is a joy to watch. Richard embraces all the endearing and horrifying curmudgeonly behaviour of Mr Green who softens as the play unfolds, but who represents the hard shell of stubbornness, with utter conviction, Polish Yiddish accent flavoured with a taste of New York, completely intact.

It’s a dream team that lends this work edge and relevance, toughness and beauty in a complex and nuanced context, brought to life with rigorously kosher values and unrelenting judgmentalism. You might have a Mr Green in your own roots. Don’t forget to bring tissues.

  • Visiting Mr Green is written by Jeff Baron and directed by Alan Swerdlow. It features design by Denis Hutchinson (set and lighting), Margo Fleish (costumes), Dean Pitman (soundscape) and Stan Knight (set construction) and is performed by Roberto Pombo and Michael Richard, at Auto & General Theatre on the Square in Sandton until June 9. Call 011-883-8606

The ultimate head hunt

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MY head, someone else’s body: The plight of Set Niemand in Schalk Schoombie’s Kop.

ALL SET NIEMAND really ever wanted to be was a pianist who distinguished himself from the pack. But the universe stepped in with a more complicated reward. This nifty science fiction work penned in Afrikaans by Schalk Schoombie is certainly something to cosy up to the wireless for, this Thursday night. It’s not a drama to warm the cockles of your heart in the conventional sense, but it will keep you glued to the story from the first few notes of Beethoven’s Fur Elise, which is the central thread tying the work together.

Niemand, portrayed as a child by Eloff Snyman and as an adult by Wilhelm van der Walt, is beset with what is known as Kennedy’s syndrome. It’s a spinal condition which is degenerative; deft technical design allows you to ‘see’ the damage inflicted on this young man’s sense of self. In just under an hour, the representation of the passage of time is handled with succinctness and wisdom.

And then, the possibilities of medical science steps in. And you may recall a Lindsay Duncan film in the early 1990s called Body Parts which dealt with the transplant of a murderous hand that has a mind of its own. This is the kind of thing evoked here, in this distinctly Frankensteinian tale, written within a contemporary rubric of plausible science.

While the work ends with startling and unpredictable abruptness which allows for the voice of religious believers, the point is made with clarity that will resonate with your sense of self. It’s about the intelligence of your body as you’ve taught it to do certain things, as it is about the untouchable relationship between body and soul, mind and spirit. Rather than silly gimmickry, the work touches on the magic in the therianthropes of ancient times, the man with the head of a wolf, the god with the face of an elephant, a mix of personas to create something more.

It’s an exceptionally strong piece of writing, brought to life by careful direction and editing, and of course, nuanced performances. Premised on the mythical ethos that in 1967 set Christiaan Barnard’s first successful heart transplant alive with possibility all over the world, the story touches on all the human factors of the ultimate transplant.

Make your coffee and visit the bathroom before you settle down next to the wireless on Thursday: you won’t want to miss a second of this tale.

  • Kop is written by Schalk Schoombie and directed by Johan Rademan. Featuring technical input by Cassi Lowers, it is performed by Susanne Beyers, Karli Heine, Johann Nel, Eloff Snyman, Lindie Stander, Wilhelm van der Walt and André Weideman, and debuts on RSG on Thursday May 17 at 8pm. It will be rebroadcast at 1am on Monday, May 21, part of the radio station’s Deurnag programme. It is also available on podcast: rsg.co.za

Of beauty and raw pumpkin

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NTHIKENG MOHLELE WRITES like an angel. His material flows so smoothly that you just cannot stop reading it, drinking in all the rhythm and song of the concatenation of the words he’s chosen and how they juxtapose and interface. But there, also, lies the rub. This work, premised on a character devised by JM Coetzee in 1983 sails away on its own sense of possibility and as a result, the read, while abstractly beautiful, doesn’t offer much in the denouement department.

Coetzee’s The Life and Times of Michael K gave voice to a socially-disabled character, born with a harelip who travels alone and with no resources through the harshness of South African landscape to visit his mother’s birth place in the off-the-beaten-track Western Cape village of Prince Albert. It’s a kind of a take on some of the premises informing William Faulkner’s 1930 novel As I Lay Dying, as it offers an important foray in what it means to be poor, disabled and alone in a country riven by racism. It was also the novel that won Coetzee the coveted Booker Prize that year.

Mohlele’s character Miles, who is written in the first person, meets “Michael K” at the other end of his life, eating raw pumpkin and subsisting with birds, but the focus of his prose slips in and out of sharpness in this text, as “Miles” contemplates the dementia of his father, his desire to have sex with his young maid and his relationship with a man who was once his university professor. On a level, the give and take between mentor and mentee might remind you of the dialogues in Leonhard Praeg’s Imitation, but that is where the similarity ends.

You emerge from this text feeling like you’ve just returned from an immersion in beautiful poetry, but you’re less haunted by the idea of narrative than you might like to be. Mohlele’s Michael K teeters toward the self-indulgent, the self-consciously meditative for meditation’s sake and the overly reflexive. Names are dropped all over the place and if you don’t recognise them, or appreciate their value, no mercy is offered by way of context. His references to Coetzee as “the laureate in the Land Rover” smack of sense of writerly self-deprecation that is both bitter and jealous, and while there are astonishingly powerful ideas informing this literary novel, they’re not drawn out and given the kind of attention or voice they warrant.

Thus, Michael K becomes a bit of a hollow read filled with gem-like experiences in which you reach at and discover snippets of South African values in small interregnums along the way.

  • Michael K by Nthikeng Mohlele is published by the Picador Africa, Johannesburg (2018).

Paean to The Ones With No Names

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HELPLESS among the dead: Roelf Visagie (Dawid Minnaar). Photo courtesy: The Market Theatre.

GRAVEYARDS ARE FASCINATING and complex ciphers of values. They’re about grounding one’s memories and honouring those who are no longer with us. They’re about a level of sacredness which touches everyone at the core. This is the premise of Athol Fugard’s devastatingly potent work, The Train Driver and the tone is established with simplicity and rawness from the set and the soundscape, from the outset.

So you think of train and you think of graveyards and you probably understand the nub of the play’s plot from the first few minutes: there’s a death. In fact, there are two. But the sophistication and the nuance of this work takes you much further and much richer into what it means to die, what it means to kill, and what it means to bury people whose names are not told to you. It’s a tale of anger and forgiving that reaches to the very vortex of what makes us human.

You might think Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina as you might think Tony Miyambo’s The Cenotaph of Dan Wa Moriri, and in neither association would you be misguided. This is a simple tale told with a deep heart and a developed sense of empathy. It is as much about the woman on the tracks as it is about the man, helplessly guiding his train.

As you sit and watch this yarn unfolding, you might cast your mind to the recent production of Reza de Wet’s Diepe Grond, a play which with subtlety and terror painted the broad and scary bush of South Africa – a place implied with sound elements and echoes, and one filled with ghosts.

And with no less than John Kani opposite Dawid Minnaar, the work will crumble you to your very essence. Kani plays Simon whose real name is Andile – a gloss on so-called white names in the messy bag that is South Africa. Simon’s a man who lives in a shack on the edges of the graveyard. It’s a place close to nowhere and reflects on issues of poverty which are impossible to understand if your basic necessities are covered. His livelihood is based on allowing those who have no names to rest in peace, safe from foraging dogs or violent opportunists.

Roelf Visagie is the train driver (Minnaar), who comes with white South African values and a heart broken by trauma. The denouement is wrenching and it leaves them both broken in different ways. This is the kind of play that is unforgiving in its indictment on the discrepancies of South African values, but in terms of all its collaborative elements, it sings with a clarity that is searing.

  • The Train Driver is written by Athol Fugard and directed by Charmaine Weir Smith. It features design by Thando Lobese (set and costumes) and Mannie Manim (lighting) and is performed by John Kani and Dawid Minnaar until June 3 at the Mannie Manim Theatre, Market Theatre complex in Newtown. Call 011-832-1641

Listen to the hand

Puppetguy

YOU said what?! Conrad Koch (right) with his famous puppet, Chester Missing. Photograph courtesy Montecasino.

HE’S BRUTALLY HONEST, outrageously politically incorrect and aligns farting and bum jokes with political ones. He also fits, head over heels, into a suitcase. If you haven’t yet ‘met’ Chester Missing, and heard his repartee, experienced his friends and gotten a laugh or six out of his shtick, you shouldn’t consider yourself a dinkum theatre goer.

Not yet ten years on stage, he piqued the interests of journalists in 2014 when his Oscar Pistorius jokes reached beyond what some considered polite. At the end of ventriloquist Conrad Koch’s ‘talking hand’, Missing is the bald guy with tiny limbs, googly eyes and a huge opinion. On everything.

In Koch’s latest production, Puppet Guy, Missing is central to the show, but not all you will laugh at. It’s a well-directed piece which doesn’t allow too much of a foray into strictly political jibes. Goodness knows, our world is unbelievable enough, politically, and remains one of the best script writers for comics all over the world – but there’s the rub. There are so many would-be political jesters out there right now – on stages, on social media, in your own back yard, that the giggles and gags, the poking of fun at De Lille and Zille, at Trump’s orangeness and everyone else’s insanity, has wilted a tad.

So, just before your grin begins to melt on your face, Missing is wafted away in his suitcase, and other tricks hold sway – you meet Hilton, who is a combination of a sock, a slipper, some fierce looking specks and a lot of rudeness; a dangerous mosquito with loose eye-balls and no wings; a DJ who takes hold of Koch’s toes and uses them to full effect, and other charming creatures.

The piece de resistance of the show is, however, Koch’s stage presence and easy audience engagement. There’s a cheerful briskness in the manner in which he brings members of the audience into their own on stage, and a delicious evilness in which he demonstrates his deft skill in putting words into their mouths, quite literally.

Ventriloquism, like hypnosis, is a kind of parlour trick which skirts on the dangerous, but used in a safe and entertaining context, will make you laugh. Why? Because you’re looking at the unexpected, the uncontrolled, the ordinary guy who in a second turns into a purring lion with a squeaky voice. Yes, it’s juvenile and unnuanced in its approach, but that is what keeps you laughing like a child. The freshness of mischief blended with deeply jibes and pokes and a curtailment just as you feel your interest beginning to wane, mixed with good skills and a delightful troupe of stage presences keeps this show on its toes.