It is hard to imagine a production premised on the hurly burly melting pot of society that the suburb of Hillbrow in Johannesburg has always been, as weak. But the work written and directed by John Badenhorst playing at Wits Amphitheatre this week has almost no redeeming features.
With a flimsy one-dimensional tale cast around the fact that Hillbrow was sanctuary for people who didn’t quite fit into apartheid’s categories, and things happened around, above and below the rule of law, the work is supported by actors so unformed and uninformed and wooden in their offering that you can almost visualise the words they have learned earnestly and off by heart.
The highlight of this soporifically staid piece which stumbles and drags and suffers too many castless transitions, in spite of one moment of lovely choreography, is in fact the radiogram in the corner of the set, which lends the work one spot of time-related colour. That said, such scant attention is paid to the authenticity of the set it feels insulting to the era, ten years into apartheid, where aesthetics mattered and manners hid the monsters of bigotry.
A comment from the designer in the programme notes which speaks of how the time frame of Hillbrow in the 1950s is “relatively unfamiliar” is actually offensive: in this day and age, where research is fuelled by google which has the capacity to criss-cross the world and timeframes with abandon, it feels bizarre that something within lived memory of some of the audience was not accessible by the designers. Youth should never be allowed to be an excuse for incompetence.
Like William Styron’s 1979 shattering classic, Sophie’s Choice – made into an unforgettable film with Meryl Streep in 1982 – the work is narrated through the aspirations of a young writer, but sadly, Pierre Kok in the role of Jimmy Horwitz is no Stingo.
Indeed, all that befalls Jimmy, from a sexual awakening to losing friends to murder, are handled with such a lack of style or grace or adult reflection that they leave you completely untouched. He is not only unconvincing as a narrator, but he embodies the role of a Jew, living in a post-Holocaust, émigré culture as though this is nothing at all.
The programme notes and publicity material of this work do not indicate the level of drama education that this faltering young cast of nine have been privy to, which lead you to assume they must be professional. If this is the case, however, this industry is in dire straits: the work reeks of a lack of intelligent research, a lack of developed nuance and a lack of conviction.
But wait, there’s more: it’s a matter of utter perplexity that the venue of the Amphitheatre, which comprises three rows of permanent bleachers with movable slippery plastic cushions and no seats at all, on which it is virtually impossible for an adult to find a comfortable sitting position, continues to be used to showcase work. The venue is diabolically bad and can only make a weak production seem worse. What were they thinking?
• Hillbrow written and directed by John Badenhorst, based on a text by Brian Portelli, features production design by Jo Glanville and lighting by Julian August. It is performed by Pierre Kok; Sasha-Lee Kelly; Phillipa Bedford; Tiffani Cornwall; Ivan André; Tutu Zondo; Oupa Sibeko; Benjamin Bell; and Devon Welmers and is at the Wits Amphitheatre until April 25 (011)717-1376