Incognito: A Breathless Read for All the Right Reasons

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Writing vigorous material is not easy. And documenting a life from within a first person perspective can be a pit of snakes: what you might consider utterly fascinating about your own life might not be enough to get your reader to turn one page before soporific murkiness pulls in. Vigorous, funny, real and in the first person, Mark Verbaan’s Incognito is unputdownable.

If for the past decade or so, you looked forward to his various print media columns under his pseudonym Ben Trovato, which ruthlessly and relentlessly pulled opened the blinkers and poked into the sensibilities of South African crass stupidity and governmental mediocrity, you will completely relish this book which gives the back story of how the name and the idea of the pseudonym grew.

Admittedly, this element of the rich life Verbaan has lived, in, under, over and alongside the proverbial radar, only crops up from chapter 18, but the writing has so much wisdom and magnificent ability that it is not only a book about a pseudonym explained and set free, as it were. Or one about a columnist and sub-editor who was given short shrift by the newspapers he wrote for, or gave them the finger when he’d had enough of their petty politics. It’s not even only about a young man sailing, traipsing and gingerly wading through the poisonous contradictions and heady nuances that being young and white and articulate in a country rotten with apartheid values was like.

It’s about all of these things, but it is underpinned with such flawlessly crafted writing that you will want to eat this book from beginning to end, and will have difficulty not reading it all in one night.

Resonant with the kind of breathless pace in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, Incognito might remind you a little of the focus of JH Thompson’s An Unpopular War, as it offers a running commentary on life, love, loss, letting go and bewilderment in a manner that reeks with such honesty and genuineness that you will laugh – and at times cry – out loud. Never sinking into the maudlin, it’s a breathless read for all the finest reasons, but the laughs conjured up are never hollow. Cynical, yes. Obscene, certainly. Amoral, indeed. And totally laden with drugs, sex and rock ‘n roll. But as you read, the rhythm of the language is audible in your head, and it’s cast with such unselfconscious capability that it leaves you reeling. And makes you fall a little bit in love with a man who can write with such rigour.

This is a lovely book which keeps the mystique of Trovato behind his dark glasses and black Fedora intact as it celebrates Verbaan with all his flaws and graces, offering simultaneously, beautiful, brave and critical insight into the monstrous incompetence that makes our world turn.

Incognito: The Memoirs of Ben Trovato by Mark Verbaan (2014: Macmillan, Johannesburg)

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Boykie and Girlie: Engaging classic couple stakes

Contemplating life, the universe and everything, Boykie (Robert Hobbs) sits on the most comforting seat of all. PHOTOGRAPH BY EVANS MATHIBE.

Contemplating life, the universe and everything, Boykie (Robert Hobbs) sits on the most comforting seat of all. PHOTOGRAPH BY EVANS MATHIBE.

With direct points of homage to the likes of Samuel Beckett, Athol Fugard and Ariel Dorfman, Boykie and Girlie is a fresh new piece of theatre which sparkles with its own beauty, but lacks punch in its denouement.

Meet the eponymous characters: he’s a writer waiting for work, for inspiration, for something to give his life a level of cohesion. Dressed in a ‘Time of the Writer’ t-shirt which has been rather self-consciously made holey, he’s hungry, starving for something to give meaning to it all. She’s a self-made lawyer, holding the relationship together financially, pragmatically. Their almost anonymous names, denoting their gender more than much else, lend them a universality which is quite breath-taking, making you think, on various levels of other classic couples, like Athol Fugard’s Boesman and Lena. Overlooking the specifics of their issues, they are in a sense every couple.

Robert Hobbs opposite Khutjo Green simply sing in relation to one another, and as they breathe performed life into this beautiful script, replete as it is with cutting and barbarous insult and acrimony that comes of familiarity, the combination of performers, words and context are simply delicious to watch unfold. They’re backed by a fabulous set which casts a nod in the direction of Ariel Dorfman’s Delirium, staged in South Africa a few years ago, replete as it is with an ostensibly functional toilet onstage.

There’s a realistic grubbiness to the work which in exploring this well-established relationship between two adults, doesn’t relent in unpicking petty malice that becomes borderline threatening in its approach. Do they love each other? Certainly. Will he leave her? Will she leave him? Probably not. But the viciousness of their repartee at times reaches almost tidal proportions in its ebb and flow. The choreography of the work is splendid.

But the project in entirety is hurt by the narrative’s lack of a meaningful denouement. When you watch Green opposite Hobbs, you get this happy but almost frightening sense that this could go on forever: it’s both a positive and a negative realisation, simultaneously. The work is strong and impassioned enough to hold its own for a considerable time – way beyond its designated hour – but, conversely, there are no great revealing elements to puncture the plot enough.

There’s a moment of theatrical experimentation involving donkeys and casting a self-critical eye at the performance art arena and its habits, which is glorious but under-exploited, and ultimately the work leaves you hanging: as the clapping and bowing begins, it leaves you feeling vaguely cheated of a theatrical or narrative nub to hold on to.

Boykie and Girlie has the potential of slipping into the realm of the classic South African couple, representing the quintessential values and contradictions of being a mixed-race couple in this hurly burly world, but the writing just doesn’t go far enough.

  • Boykie and Girlie written and directed by Allan Horwitz, features Khutjo Green and Robert Hobbs, and performs at the Wits Downstairs Theatre until August 1, and in the Nunnery on August 2. It is part of this year’s Drama For Life SA Season.

 

Freckleface Strawberry: Good on the eye, sweet on the heart

 

Bouncing and bounding onto stage in choreographic sequences — designed by Shelley Adriaanzen — which are satisfying to behold, is a fabulous young cast, telling a tale as old as time itself: The inestimable sadness of being different in a world where your greatest desire is to fit in with everyone else. And, not a story about a misfit duck or a child who’s smaller than the rest of them, but along the same themes, it’s a plea, with autobiographical undertones from playwright Julianne Moore that would warm the cockles of the hearts of most people, especially South African artist Anthea Pokroy, who has created a considerable body of work on the issue: to be red-haired and freckled really does distinguish a child from the rest of the pack.

Armed with caveats like “you don’t have to be the best at what you do, but you do have to love it,” the play, directed by Francois Theron, could very easily have slipped into silly schlock, but it retains its frisky freshness, against an ingenious set by Stan Knight. The cast of young adults, including relatively heavy-weights in the industry, Sarah Richard, Abel Knobel and Sihle Ndaba as well as Marike Smith, in the lead, clearly take what they are doing very seriously and in turn yield a delightful product, which is good on the eye and sweet on the heart.

Strawberry is seven years old. She has just learned to ride a two-wheeler, she’s losing some milk teeth, and she loves who she is and how she fits in to the general scheme of things in her world. That is, until her world realises that she’s different from them. And the ensuing teasing bruises her. Badly enough to make her want to hide from the whole world. There are some bizarre sequences in which she is chased by a band of evil freckles, and a give and take of characters and actors that flesh out an understanding of Strawberry’s domestic life. And ultimately a denouement in which Strawberry learns to embrace herself with gladness.

With deliciously stand-out performances by Smith as well as Dale Scheepers, the work also features demurely lovely and unaccompanied songs sung by Sarah Richard. The only draw-back in this utterly lovely bit of young people’s entertainment is the fact that Sihle Ndaba, a performer with an absolutely exquisite voice, as fans of Seussical Jr and Kwela Bafana will attest, doesn’t get to shine. She remains one of the company and her unique voice never does reach beyond that of her peers.

You’ll need a couple of tissues handy in this frank and articulate reflection on childish cruelty, self-hatred and embarrassment, but will leave the theatre a little lighter, a little happier.

  • Freckleface Strawberry, with music and lyrics by Gary Kupper, based on the books written by Julianne Moore, is directed by Francois Theron. Featuring design by Stan Knight (set), Rowan Bakker (musical supervisor), Shelley Adriaanzen (choreography), Sarah Roberts (costumes) and Jane Gosnell (lighting), it is performed by Emma Victoria Hayden, Abel Knobel, Sean Louw, Sihle Ndaba, Lindi Niemand, Sarah Richard, Dale Scheepers and Marike Smith, and is playing at the National Children’s Theatre in Parktown until July 20 (011)484-1584.
  • A version of this review appears in the current week’s issue of the SA Jewish Report (www.sajr.co.za)