Kemp (Hopkins) and Grace (Cooke) gazing at the world through skew windows. Photograph by Phillip Kuhn.
Think of a solid mix of the myriad hairpin bends in Roald Dahl’s famous unexpected tales, mixed with a touch of Beckettian bizarreness and a perfect sense of surrealism, performed by veteran performers with an empathetic and generous understanding of the universe and many of its quirks and you will appreciate the magic and wisdom in this theatrical fable called Vigil.
Rather than just an essay on death, as the concept seems to imply, it’s one about life and beautifully couples a frank understanding of love – self-love and love of another – with an unflinching sense of black humour and incredibly well crafted succinct prose.
Kemp (Graham Hopkins) is a nephew to a woman he has not seen in over 30 years. He’s a bank clerk. Asexual by his own admission, and clearly lonely to the core, he’s spent his life on the outside of the world looking in.
Grace (Vanessa Cooke) is an elderly woman, on the cusp of death. She knits, she smokes; everything about her seems to be the same dingy shade of beige, with overtures of pinks and greens in between. She likes the good old standards of popular music from the 1940s – Mac the Knife and How Much is that Doggy in the Window, and she’s bedridden.
Enter the spectre of death – metaphorically speaking – and Kemp arrives to see Grace off, in the bluntest of fashions. But one neck-jamming turn in the tale after another leaves you breathless with side-splitting laughter at the foibles and decisions of this unlikely couple.
The play, with its topsy turvy set all strung together, in cohesion, is as funny and heartfelt and developed as the narrative in Hal Ashby’s 1971 tour-de-force Harold and Maude, and it offers deep and bittersweet reflections on the idea of growing old.
Impeccably performed by Cooke and Hopkins, it’s an easy to watch play, but not that easy that it cannot serve as a supremely fine container for some profound truths about life, loneliness and the value of Christmas. In short, it’s a ten out of ten production, not to be missed.
Vigil by Morris Panych is directed by Christopher Weare and produced by Susan Danford and Stephen Jennings. With production design by Julia Anastaspoulos, it is performed by Vanessa Cooke and Graham Hopkins and it performs at Auto & General Theatre on the Square in Sandton, until June 21. (011)883-8606.
Dudu Yende (pictured) larger than life actress, performer and contemporary dancer, was known and loved for her irreverent manipulation of the English language. A passionate outreach collaborator, a loving mother and a generous friend, recognised as an icon, a diva and a sister to so many, passed away suddenly on April 24. She was in her late 30s.
The foil in the audience in internationally respected choreographer Robyn Orlin’s groundbreaking 1999 work, ‘Daddy, I’ve seen this piece six times before and I still don’t know why they’re hurting each other,’ Yende was also critically respected for her role in the film God is African, directed by Akin Omotoso in 2003. Her most recent work was another Orlin collaboration: ‘Have you hugged your Venus today?’ which debuted in Berlin last year.
“I had these five beautiful African big women being Venus,” said Orlin from her home in Berlin, “and the piece never got to South Africa, because all the venues and festivals I approached considered it too expensive. It really showed Dudu beautifully as a performer. It was my first piece with a big set. It was cast with a mixture of actresses, singers, opera singers… it had a great European tour. And it will never be shown again, now that Dudu is gone.”
Expressing devastation at the loss of Dudu, Orlin remembers teaching her at the Market Theatre Laboratory in the mid 1990s. “I did a beautiful piece with her class, called Shoes. And she was absolutely marvellous. She was an incredibly talented person. And smart.
“She was a very proud, yet genial person,” Orlin remembers. “She didn’t speak about her personal stuff easily.
“She came in on the Daddy work fairly late in the casting process. I knew I wanted to use her, but I wasn’t sure how. So I gave her some ideas and I told her that I wanted her to go out and get somebody to dance with them. My whole thing was to show black women as powerful women and she just ran with it. She was really, really lovely. And she was too unusual to be a headline act.”
Dan Robbertse, director of the Market Theatre Laboratory at the time that Yende studied there, remembers her as a committed but ever entertaining student. “She had one hell of a personality. Sometimes she was quiet and gruff and she would pop out of nowhere with a brilliant one liner that floored all of us.
“She loved to play with language, making nouns into verbs and twisting meanings on their toes. English was like a playground for her. She invented new phrasings for things that had people in hysterics.
“Dudu was often late for class,” he recalls, mentioning that she was slightly older than her peers in the theatre course. “We decided to handle latecomers by making them write a fictional narrative excuse to explain away their lateness. Dudu’s responses were always so fresh and funny that we always forgave her, and kind of hoped she’d be late more often so that we could read more responses from her.”
And she was full of surprises. Robbertse remembers “About a week after her graduation from the Lab, Dudu gave birth to her son, Bendu. No one was even aware that she was pregnant. It has become like an urban legend.”
The creative director at outreach initiative Dudu Yende Creations, Yende was born and raised in Thokoza township east of Johannesburg, where she also went to high school. A frequent collaborator with Oupa Malatjie and Peter Ngwenya, she was a performer whose enthusiasm and love for her craft spilled over with abandon into her audience’s awareness, and she was the kind of presence on stage that you just fell in love with, she articulated such an honest sense of being.
Yende’s elder son Bendu Melodious explained that though she had been of frail health since last December, doctors had not explained the cause of death to him.
Yende leaves two sons, Bendu Melodious (18) and Surprise (15), extended family and hundreds of friends.
When you think of the idea of celebrating the life of a great political icon in song, Argentina’s Eva Peron and the astonishingly flawless film Evita made by Alan Parker in 1996 comes quickly to mind. It was based on the Rice/Lloyd-Webber stage production of the same name, and a more elegant, meaningful and poignant tribute in the entertainment realm, one would be hard pressed to find.
The 95-year-long trajectory of Nelson Mandela’s life, from his rural roots to his demise of old age in the comfort of his bed at home with his loved ones around him, is rich with story-telling possibilities and caveats that are biblical in proportion. Looked at in retrospect, it is a life which embodies all the values that Joseph Campbell suggests in his outline of what a hero’s story is.
And it is sad that an opera – our first locally produced piece of this size since Mandela’s death –falls horribly short of the critical mark. The work does address all the superficial checks and balances; opening night last week saw the country’s bling-laden glitterati in their magnificent best, but sadly, many packed in their diamante hand-bags and custom made braids and beads, and went home at interval.
A celebration of Madiba certainly should not have chased them away. But chase them away, it did, for a range of reasons.
Firstly, the work lacked the rich appeal that a complex history in the telling should have. Think of Steven Spielberg’s 2013 film Lincoln. Think of Peter Grimes, an opera by Benjamin Britten which debuted in 1945, telling the hard-hitting tale of a suspected child abuser. Think even of the Kander and Ebb musical Chicago. Their common denominator? They’re sexy, classy: not didactic. Information is conveyed through nifty writing and developed sequences, not lots of data and detail. Madiba The African Opera is heavy and wordy and limp with historical detail reaching into his childhood Qunu roots. The linear path that the work follows is also tediously numbing.
And then, there’s the music: most operas have an orchestral overture in which the story of the work is relayed through the music, before the curtain rises. It’s a moment in which you in the audience are allowed to drench yourself in the tunes that will flesh out the different characters and scenarios; a moment which you will remember in themes and sequences as the work unfolds. Madiba The African Opera had no overture to speak of; the rural setting, cast by horrendous rocks made of fabric and a high-kitsch throne of faux elephant tusks, started like a damp squib.
With too much detail and not enough context, the over three-hour long work is slow. The performers’ voices are ignominiously dwarfed by the position of the proscenium arch, in competition with the orchestra, and a whole rash of typographical errors sully the sur-titles – proofreading sins which are particularly unforgivable, given that words like ‘treason’ and Pollsmoor, the prison in Tokai, Cape Town where Mandela was held for six years, are spelled incorrectly.
As the work unfolded, so were there some astonishingly beautiful scenes – including the mining situation in early Johannesburg – and some appallingly poor ones, and it is remarkable how the makers of this work clearly didn’t see the vulgar discrepancy. When poor Bongiwe Nakane, doing her level best in the role of Evelyn Mase, Mandela’s first wife, had to sing before a huge, crude graphic displayed digitally on the backdrop, her stage presence was simply crushed.
But more than that were contextual developments that felt, rather than reverent toward Mandela, blatantly disrespectful. In the same scene involving Evelyn, a young Mandela actually strikes her and knocks her to the floor. Was this based on fact? Do we really want our Mandela in the same framework as a man who knocks a woman to the floor out of temper?
Also, the Madiba that countless people adored and cherished, quoted and jived with, is reflected, in this opera as a man in a suit, from the time he escapes the possibility of an arranged marriage in Qunu until his release from prison, when the work ends. So much is glossed over, from his legal profile to his trial, his 27 years in jail to his life afterwards, to his characteristic loud shirts and his ability to talk to all South Africans, it feels like the point is lost – and it certainly would be to an audience not familiar with the story.
Looking at the years between and the heavyweight professionals behind Evita, it seems fair that you can be consoled: this work won’t ever be The definitive Mandela work. But it’s a sad consolation: the performers here have such beautiful potential – Thabang Senekal in the title role is dignified and articulate as is Sibongile Mngoma in the role of Winnie; and the Kopano Chorus is completely wonderful in most of the crowd scenes, but the work stumbles in the face of a lack of creative direction and directorial freshness.
It’s devastating, also, to consider how the enormous space of the theatre is ignored. There’s an amateur show-and-tell feel to the footage screened against the backdrop instead of a set; given the funding that fueled this work, the absence of a mentioned set designer is glaring.
The space itself, on the opening night was remarkably tatty. With errant wires hanging in tiers all over the walls, which are sorely in need of paint, and one of the theatre doors barring use with a strip of red and white plastic, it felt more like a building site than the country’s flagship theatre and the biggest of its kind in southern Africa. Surely brakes could have been put on the launch of the work until everything was ship-shape enough to show its face to the critical public?
What this work needs is an experienced opera hand – this is librettist Unathi Mtirara’s first attempt at a real opera: he became a member of the Black Tie Opera chorus but ten years ago – to guide and shape the piece rather ruthlessly perhaps, but ultimately to yield something that makes us all proud. We certainly have the calibre of performers in this country who can do it.
Madiba The African Opera is not high opera. It should be.
Madiba The African Opera is by Unathi Mtirara (librettist); Sibusiso Njeza (composer) and Kutlwano Masote (orchestrator). Featuring Johannesburg’s Chamber Orchestra under Robert Maxym, it is performed by Ayanda Eleki; Sipho Fubesi; Zandile Gwebityala-Mzazi; Lawrence Joffe; Kabelo Lebyana; Sello Maake Ka-Ncube; Xolani Madalane; Tshepo Matlala; Sibongile Mngoma; Bongiwe Nakane; Matthew Ramsey Short; Thabang Senekal; Nonhlanhla Yende; Mziyanda Zitha; and the Pretoria-based Kopano Chorus. It performs at the Opera, State Theatre, Pretoria until June 1.
You’ll need sunglasses to fully appreciate what glitter artist Leanne Shakenovsky has done with the idea of a painting by well-known South African painter JH Pierneef of the town of Heidelberg in the former Transvaal. Cast into tones and tints of gold glitter, it’s completely dazzling and Shakenovsky’s tight approach resonates beautifully with the quietude of the original – one of the famous Johannesburg station panels – on which it is based.
There are a few similar Pierneef-evocative pieces in this show, which on the whole reflects a welcome digression in former auction house assistant Shakenovsky’s growing personal vocabulary. For some years, she has been doggedly translating copies of well known local art works into a panoply of glitter. Her thought process in these has revolved around the ideas associated with worth, value and wealth. Theoretically justified, the works contained iffy authenticity and as much fire as a colour-by-number painting.
And while this exhibition features some more of the same in a Pierneef mould, it also features Shakenovsky shaking a toe in a new direction. Evoking on one level, the work of local artists Gina Waldman and Kim Liebermann, her boxed constructions come head to head with the kind of values articulated in the Dada movement – in between the wars Europe – the aesthetics of 1950s domesticity are cropped and cut out and assembled to reveal humanoid forms, but ones not without a sense of humour. They call to mind pieces by artists of the ilk of Man Ray, which gave womanly form to an egg beater, for instance.
Most predominantly, in this body of work, Shakenovsky is thinking about two ideals: the happy family and the 1950s wife: both concepts which are moored thigh-deep in ideological conflict and contradiction. She conflates them with layers of fabric cut almost abstractly, and compiled almost like a children’s puzzle. But there lies the rub: the works are not consistently legible as happy family images and they’re not what you might expect; the stronger pieces on show are the more abstract ones. Rather, Shakenovsky articulates how she is seduced by colour and texture and its context, in these quirky, engaging pieces.
Thus one can forgive and look beyond the pretentious name of this exhibition which has a solid academic explanation, as the work is engaging and entertaining on the eye. Thankfully she’s worked through the literal approach and is beginning to allow her own voice space.
Shakenovsky’s work is juxtaposed with several intricately woven landscapes in water-based pigment of Pamela Phatsimo Sunstrum. They soar and reach and ricochet beyond the confines of the paper on which they are painted. While they may give you the urge to read Frank Herbert’s science fiction classic Dune, and occasionally one or two teeter towards a moonscape fantasy, a la children’s book illustrations, they’re competent and compelling.
De-Con-Structure by Leanne Shakenovsky and Pamela Phatsimo Sunstrum is at InToto Gallery, Birdhaven until June 9.
This review appeared in the print edition of the SA Jewish Report, May 23.
Snakes crawling out of the wall might not necessarily be your idea of a beautiful art exhibition, but it will certainly get your attention, and in some of these glimmering, scaly works, you will be horrified, but you won’t want to stop looking at them. In her fourth exhibition at this gallery, Frances Goodman, who has earned her reputation for pushing boundaries into the domain of female vanities, goes one step further.
The bulk of the work on show is made of commercially produced false fingernails and eyelashes. A restrictive medium, you might think. But no. Goodman has glued together millions of synthetic fingernails to form the salaciously creepy snakes that are central to several of the pieces on show. Creeping out of walls, knotted slimily together, they’re patterned, they’re scaly, they’re imminently shocking to the senses. You would jump out of your skin if one of these works moved; on a logical level you wouldn’t be surprised.
But the exhibition is not reptilian in focus. Rather, its underlying thread is that of excess and erotica and in commenting on how women adorn themselves, Goodman has created something that is both compelling and repelling at the same time. A work called Ophiophillia is a veritable nest of snakes, all wriggling together. In another work, called Lacquered Up, comprising red fingernails, blood is evoked, gushing and haemorrhaging from a pipe in the wall.
Less successful pieces comprising glossy parts of cars, great big slices of smooth fibre glass and glittered beads and diamante also feature, but the impact of these pieces is as subtle and developed and a smack on the head with a sledgehammer.
But the work doesn’t stop there. In the Jan Smuts Room on the far right of the gallery, Goodman has created a body of close to 60 small ‘drawings’ made of faux eyelashes and glue. Some bear texts, others are more abstract, but the most successful of these curiously compelling pieces evoke the obscure eroticism in a Japanese woodcut tradition, featuring octopi. There’s a tentacle here, a bit of octopus-evoking texture there. The drawings touch and meander through traditions and notions of eroticism, in a creepy, discomforting way. They feel like drawings made of pubic hair, as they embrace wit and sensuousness with a critical edge that’s hard.
Nail Her is not a show that kow-tows to a conventional art buyership, but it is certainly art that makes you look, even though it does slip into the crevice of the one-liner: once you’ve seen it and ‘got’ it, you move on.
Nail Her, a solo exhibition by Frances Goodman, is at Goodman Gallery in Rosebank until May 31 (011)788-1113.
A version of this review appeared first in the SA Jewish Report.
Jerry Mntonga and Osei Mpho-Tutu as The Man. Photograph by Ruphin Coudyzer.
Something must be said for the unequivocal beauty of intelligent satire handled with such vicious acuity that it makes you laugh with glee to watch morally horrifying corruption at play. Mpho Osei-Tutu and Jerry Mntonga capture an understanding of Zakes Mda’s ‘man’ to an insightful tee, but it is the rhythm, the give and take and the idiosyncrasies of the directed performance that makes this play utterly pristine and delicious to behold.
Written more than twenty years ago in Lesotho, the play is remarkably prescient within the sordid and contemporary context of corrupt government officials. But it is driven to a theatrical level of excess by the two performers who together play the main character.
With his bulging expressive eyes, Osei-Tutu casts a whole universe of rhetoric and mirth, and he has the power to make you fall about laughing or grow goosebumps, with ever so subtle a twitch of a facial muscle. His character’s uproarious laughter, sometimes the fruit of terror and at other times that of bravado and forced nonchalance, lends the work a sinister and compelling tone, all at once. Osei-Tutu is like a machine of expression and you drag your eyes from him with loaded difficulty.
However, when considerably younger performer Mntonga takes the stage, he does so with an enticing sense of authority. There’s a palpable collaborative generosity at play here, which is flexible and thoughtful as it is honed with a sense of dramatic contrivance. The two, forming The Man sync beautifully with one another, making you want the play never to end.
But end it does, and with a moral point to bear, that is almost disappointing, given the deliciousness with which evil is handled.
This play is not only about consorting with the devil of corruption: it is also about how a piano can become a cast member, knocking on the door, making the phone ring, and indeed, substituting for the voice of several characters. It is about the role of reflection on stage, and the impaling ugliness of bling in attitude.
Above all, it’s delicious on the senses: beautifully crafted, thoughtfully directed, with an astute and humorous hand and eye. Quite simply, The Mother of All Eating offers a sense of theatrical rectitude: this calibre of performance is absolutely impeccable.
The Mother of All Eating written by Zakes Mda, is directed by Makhaola Siyanda Ndebele, assisted by Gaosi Raditholo. It features design by Christian Haris (set and costume) and Nomvula Molepo (lighting) and is performed by Mpho Osei-Tutu, Jerry Mntonga and Bernett Mulungo on piano. It performs in the Barney Simon Theatre, Market Theatre complex, Newtown until June 1. (011)832-1641.
Ben Kgosimore is Oedipus. Photograph by Ruphin Coudyzer.
It’s so unnerving and exciting and wonderful to see young performers cutting their teeth in the richness and darkness of Greek classical tragedy that you quickly overlook student faux pas and get swept away by the creative enthusiasm in this rough but thoughtful rendition of Sophocles’ Oedipus.
There are moments, glances, and turns of phrase in this production that suddenly force you to look at the young performers with a different eye. The work is not consistently polished, but there are quirks to it, and the interface between the narrative, the performance and the design is often so close it takes your breath away.
Featuring some very thoughtful shadow work, which lends the piece a depth of focus that stretches beyond the rather nasty confines of the Amphitheatre, and excellent use of reflections and mirrors, the work turns on its own pivot with unmessy simplicity.
The classic tale of the man who, through no fault of his own, kills his father and sleeps with his mother and then puts his own eyes out when he discovers the enormity of the tragedy, is handled with dignity and a respect on the part of this young cast, with a stand out performance by Daniel Geddes, who embodies the idea of being wounded, being blind and being elderly with a unique and internal sense of fire that is convincing and beautiful. And it’s a dignity and respect which is informed and mature rather than paralysing. Thus Sophocles lives into another generation.
Where text is used, in the set and in the costumes, the work begins to teeter on the side of being too academic and you don’t feel sufficiently pressurised in the audience to try and read the projected text or engage with the work on this level. Rather, it is the manner in which chorus members usher the audience into the performance space, the use of repetition and the tasting of phrases and words as though they were delicacies, on the tongues of the performers, that causes much of it to soar.
When this doesn’t happen, the work quickly becomes soporific, given its density, but this is not a frequent occurrence: the main thrust of this heavy but well understood piece, is handled with a sense of sophistication that reaches beyond the students’ status as such. As the drama begins to unfold, you lose all sense of time, and while the piece is relatively short, it sucks you in to its universe almost completely.
The chorus and Jocasta: Emma Tollman; Sizi Keke and Nicola Pilkington. Photograph by Ruphin Coudyzer.
I, Oedipus, a fourth year research project, is facilitated by Sarah Roberts, features production design by Camille Behrens; Catherine Dickinson; Kaimini Soobben; and Andrea van der Kuil. It is performed by Daniel Geddes; Ben Kgosimore; Mark Tatham; Sizi Keke; Nicola Pilkington; and Emma Tollman and is at the Wits Amphitheatre until May 17(011)717-1376.
SA-born television producer Gary Reich, 44, sums up his life, career and universe in clipped English. “It’s all good,” the producer of runaway success sitcom Vicious, says. In a visit to SA, to see his mother, veteran performer Annabel Linder onstage in Twilight of the Golds, he spoke to the SAJR, about living in the golden age of television. “Having fled” from South Africa 26 years ago, he still believes in his roots. (A version of this interview appeared in the SA Jewish Report. Owing to space constraints in the print issue, it was not possible to publish the full interview, which appears here).
“I’ve been running away for over 20 years from South Africa and the complications that that school set off in me,” he speaks of Hyde Park High School, from which he matriculated in 1986. “Looking at the school gives me mixed emotions; not only because of the gay-bashing terror I experienced while coming out flamboyantly – being Annabel’s son, there was no other way.
“I had also politically been woken up at that stage by my rabbi, Ben Isaacson, who galvanised me to be proactive and change my environment. My contemporaries were entirely asleep. The more I kicked against them, the more alienated I became, the more unhappy I was.
“It repulsed me to a career and a life that is enormously fulfilling on the other side of the world. But I am also constantly torn by the fact that I took so much from this country. I gained so much from being here and being brought up here and then fled and gave nothing back. Ever. Now, I’m getting committed to the idea of coming back and giving something back to the country.
“I matriculated in 1986. A State of Emergency was declared. In January 1987, and grounded in Hyde Park’s all-walks-of-life-schooling; I left for mechinah” – an initiative to integrate diaspora Jews into Israeli universities – “I arrived in Jerusalem and woke up. My burgeoning sexuality and my politics had no outlet in South Africa. In Israel, instantly, instantly, I was 20 times happier.”
At the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Reich read English literature, under two Harvard professors who were Zionists. “They reignited my passion for English literature. But the university had a very strict rule: you could only get into your second year if you got exemption in Hebrew.” That was his stumbling block. With the support of his father, he chose to go to Sheffield University.
“I majored in English literature and drama and then did a masters degree in poetry and film, there. Those were my passions. I wanted to be a theatre director. All my childhood, I wanted to be a game ranger. That was the plan. But because of Annabel, I was surrounded from a very early time in my life by the theatrical tradition, the people that were in and out of my life.
“During my MA I took a show to the Edinburgh Festival: it was a stage adaptation of a narrative poem by Ted Hughes. A tv producer was in the audience. So that was it.
“I was 22. I moved to London, and got a job as a trainee scriptwriter for a production company. They had a commission on Channel 4 to do a British version of The Wonder Years (the American version featured Fred Savage). The woman who ran the production company took a big risk and said to Channel 4, if we want to write a show about kids that age, why don’t we give three writers, who’ve never written before, of that age, the commission. That’s what happened.
“We’re living in tv drama’s golden age; not only A-list film actors like Matthew McConaughey are doing tv, but directors are, as well. Drama’s kicking against reality formats and winning.”
Reich’s own production company, Brown Eyed Boy was formed in 2002. “I’d been working inhouse at the BBC as head of new comedy developments. I started to specialise in new comedy formats, because I found that more interesting and I realised I had a good nose for spotting talent that would become stars: Sacha Baron Cohen was my first discovery in 1997.
“At the BBC, my brief was to find multi-cultural talent. And my South African background started to kick in in an interesting way which is probably driven by guilt more than anything: this need to find these people and give them the opportunity and the oxygen to do interesting things.”
It led him to pilot Three Non Blondes, a sitcom involving three black female comics, which gave him momentum to start his own company. “It launched me immediately. A lot of people told me I am insane to start a company by myself, but I was very, very, very lucky. Launching that pilot was my moment that begat everything.”
“I did it on my own, because of Annabel. One reason she’s such an inspiration is her fierce independence. She never relied on the money of anyone, she made all her own opportunities.”
Three years ago, Reich’s company was bought. “I wanted to expand, but needed a cash injection. I put my company out there. Suddenly Shine came into the picture: It’s a production company owned by Elizabeth Murdoch, Sir Rupert’s daughter. On the face of it, I’m known as maverick, left field, left wing, progressive, anarchist producer. The Murdochs are more right wing; Elizabeth is phenomenally libertarian and a very powerful and impressive human being. I fell in love with Shine’s ethos and culture.
Under Shine, Vicious, a sitcom about two old gay men who have been in a relationship for over 50 years, grew. “I wanted to create a very broad mainstream prime time show. Studio sitcoms were the most popular format in the UK so it had to be a studio sitcom, and it needed really big pieces of A-list talent. Then a small channel with lots of money called SkyArts, who had done a show with Daniel Radcliffe and Jon Hamm, wanted to do a brave and mischievous sitcom.”
One thing led to another; Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Derek Jacobi were cast: two grand knights of the British theatre, who were at Cambridge together, but who’ve never acted together, because they were competitors. The show was initially going to be called Vicious Old Queens.
“Vicious – as it came to be called – was my Shine imperative,” Reich says, commenting on how he managed to hold onto his artistic integrity with the comings and goings of writers and the risk necessary for ITV, British television’s biggest television broadcaster. “My love for the studio sitcom was kindled in the late 1970s or so, when my mum was in Oh George!, South Africa’s first ever sitcom. My mother was the kugel. Eddie Eckstein was in it. And Gordon Mulholland.”
“Ian and Derek were cautious about doing this. They’re both in their 70s. They’ve achieved everything they’ve wanted, but the studio sitcom is a very vulnerable-making environment. I was summoned to meet both of them. They said to me ‘what do you know about old actors and their frailties and crazinesses? Well. I told them about Annabel. And they got it.”
Vicious has aired globally, but not yet in South Africa. It is available for purchase through kalahari.com. Reich describes the collaborative energy as alchemical. “I think we’re in this world now, with financial challenges forcing us to collaborate,” he concludes, intimating fantastic projects with South African theatre talent in the near future, “and the future looks very bright.”
The cast of Vicious: (from left) Frances de la Tour (Violet); Sir Ian McKellen (Freddie); Sir Derek Jacobi (Stuart); Iwan Rheon (Ash). Photograph by Gary Moyes.
Deep Fried Man Kills (Joburg Theatre Fringe, Braamfontein), until May 10.
While his stage persona, replete with its expressionless face, and neat bowtie and hat, is enticing, evoking the gods of irony and the kind of juxtaposition of emotional values that Charlie Chaplin’s persona did, the impetus of the work of Daniel Friedman, aka Deep Fried Man doesn’t always convince. And while it feels heavy handed to say unequivocally that he kills or doesn’t (in the theatrical sense), on stage, his performance is underlined by a level of his own terror that kills any potential charm in the piece. You are so aware of his sweaty palms and dry throat, they could be your own.
Friedman’s opening night last week was plagued with a couple of software-based glitches, which precluded us in the audience from seeing the performance of a song invoking Putin and the Ukraine, but more serious to his oeuvre is a bluntness in his political humour and satire, and a level of crudity which renders the material unsophisticated.
What Deep Fried Man needs more than anything, is a ruthless and thoughtful director. As the show, which comprises some twenty new works, unfolds, Friedman’s liberal peppering of the songs and the interregna between songs with explanations and counter-explanations, dull any polish the show might have had.
Having said that, through the trajectory of this show, there are sparkles and gems of wit and observation which glimmer and shine beneath the more humdrum and mundane observations, forcing you to smile and lending you an inkling as to what makes this performer tick, but alas, these moments are too few.
Friedman markets himself as a topical stand-up comic. His digression into song is an interesting one, and but for some heavy handed strumming, which often is too brash to retain any thoughtful edge, it’s an approach which could contain the seeds of provocative material – a la performers of the ilk of Danny Kaye, Johannes Kerkorrel – or even Bambi Kellerman, Evita Bezuidenhout’s more outspoken sister. Like them, Friedman works with famous songs, shifting lyrics to exist within a critical South African political framework.
The comparison with these cynical songsters fades, however, in the face of the subjects, most of which are so over used, grubbied and sullied, there really isn’t any more of a fresh angle on them. We’re tired of Zuma jokes and references to spears and polygamy. Julius Malema bores us. Many of Friedman’s songs embody a one-lineness which is disappointing.
With the delightful exception of a song examining murder accused Shreen Diwani’s sense of being outdone by murder accused Oscar Pistorius in the headline stakes, the corruption of a Justin Bieber song which lends its considerable more nuance than the original, and some lovely hip hop solutions, the work trots out much social commentary that is tired.
The shallowness and sense of entitlement of the privileged South African is one case in point. Pieter-Dirk Uys was condemning and celebrating and laughing uproariously at the foibles and the earnest innocence of Jewish kugel Ja-Well No-Fine more than twenty years ago. For Deep Fried Man to really kill, the material needs to be bleeding edge fresh and completely untrammelled. Sadly it isn’t.
Hot off the press: Brigitta (Rachelle Weiss), Gretl (Ansie du Plessis) and Liesl von Trapp (Carmen Pretorius) examine the poster for their 1938 festival performance, with uncle Max Detweiler (James Borthwick). PHOTOGRAPH BY PAT BROMILOW-DOWNING.
A knee-jerk response to the idea of another production of the Sound of Music, the inimitable squeaky clean musical that was played in many a household in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s on LP records, is a groan. Do we really need to revive these old musicals with their outdated social values and silly costumes?
We do, actually. The sleek efficiency with which this production has been streamlined, from grand set manoeuvres to a deep respect for the time-hewn music, unequivocally places The Sound of Music on a critical par with Jersey Boys and Chicago, for instance, award-winning musicals that graced our stages in past years.
Jeremy Sams, an English director with West End credentials, yields a remarkably beautiful show, attesting unapologetically to the wholesomeness of the original; he’s supported by indefatigable Louis Zurnamer, who heads up a 13-piece orchestra in the pit.
Against a backdrop of the Anschluss on the cusp of the Second World War, glancing head on at the moral choices facing ordinary Austrians at the time, the production would not exist without the children.
Thus it is delicately structured to bring about juxtaposition of hard and soft – unsympathetic Nazis and singing children, a plethora of nuns, a love story that ends in marriage and the landscape between Austria and Switzerland. Not to forget the Edelweiss: the hardy white little mountain flower of the region.
Bethany Dickson in the lead, who wowed audiences in Sunset Boulevard, is as blatantly fresh-faced as Julie Andrews was in the original film; she makes you fall in love with the idea of Maria who makes the nuns laugh and who softens the heart of a man in permanent trauma, armed with her carpet bag and guitar. Baron Von Trapp – Christopher Plummer in the original – is played by Andre Schwarz, with great suaveness.
But what gives this particular production its critical edge is an almost sleight of hand sense of intricacy and authenticity. The Nazi presence is devastatingly real and the manner in which the abbey of nuns is brought to life on stage, is simply breathtaking, from not only a lighting and set perspective, but also supported by the rich voice of Janelle Visagie as the Mother Abbess, who incites a confused Maria to follow her dreams.
Featuring performers ranging from seasoned James Borthwick, Mike Huff and Malcolm Terrey, to fresh faces like that of Mikah Jaye Smith (9), Lia Solomon (10) and Rachelle Weiss (11), the production is a sheer delight from beginning to end.
And the songs? The songs are of everyone’s favourite things. They’re not “hits” in the popular culture sense of the word; instead they embrace emotional comfort that resonates with all good things from your childhood, like peanut butter sandwiches, warm ProNutro cereal and being tucked in bed during a thunderstorm. This beautiful slice of nostalgia will warm the cockles of any heart.
The Sound of Music by Rodgers and Hammerstein, directed by Jeremy Sams is at Teatro, Montecasino Fourways, until June 2.
A version of this review appeared in last week’s issue of the SA Jewish Report: www.sajr.co.za