Doo Bee Boobies comes of age deliciously

Robert Whitehead heads up Doo Bee Boobies. Photograph by John Hogg, courtesy Auto & General Theatre on the Square .

Robert Whitehead heads up Doo Bee Boobies. Photograph by John Hogg, courtesy Auto & General Theatre on the Square .

Even before the lights go down, in anticipation of the start of this, the 21st season of Doo Bee Boobies, Eartha Kitt’s 1953 number I want to be evil filters through the bordello-like redness of the theatre, lending a lush and earnestly hilarious tone to something so extraordinary, skilful and delicious, it will lift and move you and make you laugh with sheer abandon, no matter how dreadful your day was. And as the lights go down, and the mascara brushes are raised, that lushness is taken and stretched in every conceivable definition of the term. There are even a couple of sisters bearing it as a surname as they shakily emerge from the confines of the Betsy Verwoerd Rehab Centre.

On and off stage since the early 1990s, this fantastic slice of men only burlesque would make Fanny Brice, a queen of the discipline, proud. The ‘horrible prettiness’ we see on stage in Doo Bee Boobies is about the very nub of what entertainment means. In stripping down the petty vanities informing stage divas, in taking apart the notion of ageing bodies and in celebrating seriously mature stage presence, it will make you laugh till you sob.

There isn’t a moment in this lipstick-smeared revue where you catch yourself thinking deeper into the shenanigans you see on stage, but as you wend your way home, drunk as you are with having laughed too much, the reality of the show having reached the milestone of 21 years is a sobering thought. This all male revue is not a drag show. But it is a show which celebrates sex as frankly and directly as it can. It’s gay, it’s crude, it’s direct and it’s most certainly not for the easily offended. Embracing a contemporary world that would have done more than frown at the gay abandon of the piece 21 years ago, it is about a level of freedom of expression that we have imbibed in this internet-riddled generation.

The production wasn’t banned in the 1990s when it first debuted, but it might have been less gritty in its hilarity: the stalwarts of the piece, Robert Whitehead, Mark Hawkins and Tony Bentel may have been more svelte and beautiful than they are now, on one level, but as they become longer and longer in the tooth, their performance becomes more and more delicious in its wise, fond and developed celebration of life, the idea of ageing and our irrevocable ownership of this moment.

Stephen van Niekerk, who has been with the production since 2010, has one of the finest voices we’ve seen on stage for a while, reaching across registers. Kingsley Beukes, formerly of Kelsey Middleton’s KMad is a beautiful young dancer and reprises the role of The Baby. Both of these performers touch classical beauty in their approach. Their solo works are curious: when they happen, your mouth is already so strained from laughing, you’re not always sure how to respond to their pieces: are they too pretty to pump up the laughter stakes? Ultimately, their presence lends the piece balance, even in the presence of dancers armed with cigarettes and supported by aluminium walkers and extremely high heeled shoes.

With a thin storyline of mayhem and badness that reaches from Madrid to India, the work comprises a range of music – from Saint-Saëns’ Swan to Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake; from a celebration of James Bond and Pussy Galore to a hilarious lip sync of Tammy Wynette’s (1968) Stand by your Man. Some of it is spoofed lyrically. Some of it is spoofed through movement. With a bit of Afrikaans poetry tossed in here and the excruciatingly funny Bulgarian Balloon Dance there, it’s a rollicking tribute to the tawdry, the tempered and the tiresome; it’s a context in which you might get to see more of Robert Whitehead than you’ve ever wished for, but one in which you might well be tempted, unsolicited, to rush onstage and dance.

  • Doo Bee Boobies, the 21st Anniversary Season is conceived and directed by Mark Hawkins with lighting by Nicholas Michaletos, choreography, set design, costume and jewellery design, staging and musical arrangements by Mark Hawkins. It is performed by Tony Bentel; Kingsley Beukes; Mark Hawkins; Robert Whitehead; and Stephen van Niekerk, with guest appearances at Saturday shows by Mark Banks, Bruce Little and Robert Coleman, until November 15 at the Auto and General Theatre on the Square in Sandton.
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Take yourself for a spin in Ballroom

Ballroom

Seldom does one come across a debut novel which sings so sublimely from each page that you don’t want it to end. Alice Simpson’s Ballroom is one such whirligig of a read, leaving you heady and happy and weepy, all at the same time.

Modelled fairly conventionally, with the development and fleshing out of several distinct characters, using the motif of a dance hall as a means to give them voice and life, the novel rests on the interface and intercourse between people who regularly come to dance with each other. And they’re mostly there for the magic of the dance than for any social interaction. The novel celebrates the parquet floor and pressed steel ceilinged nostalgia of the traditional ballroom with clarity, as it delves into the complicated reasons why people choose to dance with strangers.

The book is characterised by a beautiful fleshing out of characters and language which grasps at and embraces all the different foibles of the characters. Several are offered in tightly honed detail applying not only to their physical characteristics, but also the narrative of their existence. Others are drawn more sketchily, to create a sense of the dynamic complexities of dance hall politics.

Simpson’s writing is crisp and clear. She views her characters with an overriding godly fondness, embracing the good fortune with the mishaps in the lives of these amateur dancers.

Featuring quotes from nineteenth century guides to the etiquette of ballroom dancing behaviour, the book is clearly a labour of love. The pages have deckled edges; there are splutterings of marbling on the frontispiece, and the whole object is conceived with an eye to the beauty of old-worldliness. Linen bound with a gorgeous watercolour image of a dancing couple by UK artist Philip Bannister on the dust cover, the book teeters between being commercially published novel and artists book, leaning heavily on book nostalgia and a sense of beauty.

Above all else, this is a book about ballroom dancing, and as you skitter and leap and glissand through challenges which face characters like dance teacher Harry, star performer Angel, wannabe babe Sarah and dancer with domestic secrets Gabriel, you get to experience the rhythm of the rumba, you hear the frisson of a foxtrot and you glory in the dance music ethos of a bygone era.

The tale is bittersweet, holding up a mirror to the lonely vanities and foibles of both men and women, but it is told with such buoyancy and smooth delight that lends even the coarsest of characters a lightness and brilliance you won’t forget.

  • Ballroom by Alice Simpson (2014: Harpercollins New York).

As good as it gets: War Horse

A charge scene. Photograph by Brinkhoff Mogenburg.

A charge scene. Photograph by Brinkhoff Mogenburg.

War Horse is unequivocally the show of a lifetime: if you don’t see another theatre production ever again in your life, see this one. It brings together all the unmitigated magic of hand hewn material constructed with sheer love, courage and self-belief; the four brief months in which you can see this South African-born production on local soil is too rare a chance to pass up.

From the moment the stage lights go up until the finale, this beautifully crafted masterpiece will keep you riveted to your seat. The three hour duration of this tale of the love of a horse, the Great War, loyalty and betrayal zips past so quickly, you don’t have time to lose focus, but you do get to fall in love with an oeuvre of puppetry by Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler that brings base materials to sentient, real life.

Joey is a horse swayed and bruised by the vagaries of humanity. He’s auctioned; becomes the butt of a bet; and the apple of a young boy’s eye. He’s also the pivot to one of the most compelling and direct reflections on the First World War staged in this country in the last two decades. Replete with its reflection on trench warfare; the bravado of young men engaging in a war the likes of which had never before been experienced in the world; the horror of those same men, a couple of years down the line; the surreal irony of the no-man’s land and parents’ sense of helplessness in the face of conscription; it’s a deeply thoughtful piece, told with a deft hand and a beautiful sense of horse choreography.

From the moment the young foal puppet is walked on stage, the puppeteers become invisible. This model of work is not along the lines of any Japanese traditions where the operators wear black. Rather, there is no contrivance at all. Dressed in period costumes, the men and women that give these beautiful puppets life handle them with such delicacy and sensitivity that they disappear in the face of the fulsome presence of each puppet, from the horses to the birds to the tank.

The work is further enhanced by what appears to be a torn swatch of paper across the upper reaches of the set. It reflects projected charcoal and pencil drawings which meld so beautifully into the narrative, the effect really takes your breath away. Further to that, languages and dialects are dealt with with a sense of brilliance which never compromises the legibility of the work, which is woven through with Irish ballads, humour and sadness in careful and succinct measure.

Never teetering into the realms of twee-ness, War Horse is a hard-hitting, gripping tale of love, hate and ownership. It is intensely focused on the internal dynamics of the puppets but soars beyond your wildest expectations in the magic cast by the interface of performer and puppet. The creators of this work are magicians. Nay, gods.

  • War Horse is based on a novel by Michael Morpurgo and adapted for stage by Nick Stafford in association with the Handspring Puppet Company. It is directed by Alex Sims and features a set design and drawings by Rae Smith and William Fricker; puppets by Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones; lighting by Paule Constable and Karen Spahn; choreography by Toby Sedgwick; music by Adrian Sutton; and sound design by Christopher Shutt and John Owens. It performs at the Teatro, Montecasino complex until November 30, and at Artscape Opera House in Cape Town from December 5 until January 4.
  • It is performed by Matt Addis, Lee Armstrong, Peter Ash, Emily Aston, Ashleigh Cheable, Joe Darke, David Fleeshman, Adam Foster, Bob Fox, Jason Furnival, Thomas Gilbey, Oliver Grant, Karl Haynes, Karen Henthorn, Steven Hillman, Michael Humphreys, Linford Johnson, Andrew Keay, Rebecca Killick, Tom Larkin, John Leader, Tim Lewis, Harry Lobek, Helen Macfarlane, Sean McKenzie, Alex Moran, Suzanne Nixon, Tom Norman, Joseph Richardson, Gavin Swift, Simeon Truby, Peter Twose, Richard Vorster, and Martin Wenner.

Pondering the validity of the humble trout

Trout

Think of beautiful prose about the ebb and flow, the life and death of humble fish and you might turn to Margaret Craven’s remarkable little 1967 novel I Heard The Owl Call My Name  in which the salmon is celebrated with language so delicate and crisp, so succinct and gentle, it heals broken things. Duncan Brown’s publication on the legitimacy of trout in South Africa reaches in a similar direction in terms of the caveats offered to describe the poetry of fly fishing; as a researched inroad into xenophobia, it balances different writing styles with good intention.

Writing as both an academic and as a guy who fell in love with the choreography of fly fishing when he was a small boy, Brown yields a text here which teeters on the side of being too academic, and yet the intent and focus of the material which looks at the history and present of trout in South Africa is compelling, touching as it does on the mindset behind xenophobia, be it applied to people from elsewhere, trees that are not indigenous, or indeed trout, brought from 1890 to stock South African rivers to lubricate the recreational sport of fly fishing.

It’s an immensely readable book, with language succinct and clear in its articulation, but if you’re not a seasoned fisher, or one who has never indulged in the sport at all, you might find yourself being eased by Brown’s words into terrain which feels too deep with the technicalities of the field and you might experience the urge to struggle and try to escape the detailed grasp of the material.

Ultimately, it’s worth the determined focus: while it does not bring to life the urge to fish, it does offer a sensible and beautifully developed insight into how the natural world cleaves to that of humankind, replete as it is with gross inconsistencies in its moral behaviour and the rule of ego on so many levels. It’s an important book, coming at the complexities of xenophobia from what seems an unexpected angle, but in doing so it offers caveats of truths about the horrors of racist behaviour.

But more than that, the text is peppered with moments of true poetry which evoke Craven’s beautiful love affair with the salmon and make this book worth holding onto and dipping into again and again.

  • Are Trout South African? Stories of Fish, People and Places by Duncan Brown (2013: Picador Africa Johannesburg).

Verwoerd’s Assassin: a bloody tale of brilliant nuance

VerwoerdsAssassinpic

Murder is a sexy topic, in any entertainment sphere. Murder carrying a factual trail of political blood and racial acrimony, moreso, but there’s always the threat, the possibility that the gory denouement or headline might drench the whole work in blood, thus compromising credibility and coating it with sensationalism. In the hands of Renos Spanoudes the story of the murder of Hendrik Verwoerd by Dimitri Tsafendas goes beyond story-telling. It’s a completely astonishing work in which Spanoudes magically becomes Tsafendas, and in doing so lends this much maligned historical figure the dignity and complexity he warrants.

On September 6, 1966, Tsafendas, then employed by Parliament in Cape Town, as a messenger, stabbed the then Prime Minister Verwoerd to death, whilst Parliament was in session. The gesture was the result of years of unbelonging and exile; a lifetime of being relentlessly pushed from pillar to post, with a lot of brutality and bullying thrust at him from all quarters, in between. And Verwoerd, as the author of the racist system which prevented him from a life of normalcy, was the target.

The illegitimate child of a South African Greek man and his Shangaan domestic maid, Tsafendas teetered irrevocably between racial classification. Not light-skinned enough to be considered white nor dark skinned enough to be considered black, he never knew for sure whether he was white or Coloured, and spent his early life in the impossible double bind presented by apartheid. He could not marry because he was considered white when he fell in love with a Coloured woman. He travelled out of the country, and was not permitted to return because of his being this curious anomaly.

This play, embracing everything from a contemplation of dust, to the drowning of Wolraad Woltemade to the voice of a tape worm, debuted in a slightly different form, over ten years ago. It rips into the intestines and heart of the issue, without pulling punches. It’s an essay on the horrors of apartheid brutality, conveyed with deft hands, in the directorial, writing and performance aspects of the story and represents an energised and self-critical but deeply intelligent collaboration.

Spanoudes is a completely wonderful performer, who takes Tsafendas, body and soul and allows him to soar with the kind of authenticity that keeps you completely magnetically transfixed. Neither a chronological account nor a contrived one, this is storytelling at its wisest: it opens to present a bloody and bruised Tsafendas in his jail cell, and expands and contracts around his past and present. In entirety it presents a tale of hardship and humiliation, but ultimately it is the kind of work that leaves your empowered and simmering with a sense of victory.

Yes, Tsafendas lived out his life in horror and sadness, having survived the pricks and kicks of a vindictive Afrikaans policing, and horrifying privations like being installed beneath the gallows, where he was constant aural witness to hangings, for instance, but the work is constructed less as an essay of injustice and more as a nuanced and well-paced paean to the historical figure himself, a man not unintelligent, but plagued by demons.

Featuring a relationship with dark transitions on stage, which cloaks the text in sinister allusions to other presences, be they hidden members of the police, out there to drench the prisoner in water or piss in his tea, or be they the voices in the elderly Greek’s head, ostensibly drawing from the tape worm from which he suffered chronically, this play offers a very satisfying give and take in how this performer winds his presence through the text and the character, creating a work so developed and wise that even the notoriously horrible space of the Amphitheatre falls into irrelevance.

Spanoudes, in a tour-de-force performance, at times reminiscent of Ron Perlman’s unforgettable monk Salvatore, in Jean-Jacques Annaud’s The Name of the Rose (1986) allows your heart and soul to leap and fall and leap again, with the challenges Tsafendas faced in his long and tortuous life. It’s not an easy play to watch; it’s a very important foray into an otherwise poorly explored history.

  • Verwoerd’s Assassin is written by Anton Krueger and based on the direction of Jose Domingos and Lynne Maree. It was performed by Renos Spanoudes, at the Amphitheatre, as part of this year’s Wits-hosted So Solo Festival.

Zandile: a play that must be seen

MoMo Matsunyane is Zandile. Photograph by Ruphin Coudyzer

MoMo Matsunyane is Zandile. Photograph by Ruphin Coudyzer

Gogo. These two syllables, under Gcina Mhlophe’s pen in the classic South African play Have You Seen Zandile?, embrace everything that a loving, hard working grandmother is about: Vulnerable, pugnacious when necessary, and above all, capable of real love. On stage 28 years ago this astonishingly fine work comes back to full fresh life in a glorious production, which honours the play’s roots and heart yet offers its own fabric and texture.

On a microcosmic level Have You Seen Zandile? is a tale of eight-year-old Zandile and her Gogo in Durban and of how she is spirited away to the rural area of Transkei by her mother, to be raised in the traditional rubric: she cannot be educated, must marry young, must work her body hard in the field. It’s a tale of deep love stamped on by financial dearth, political complexity and heart break. And it’s about broken dreams and ultimately broken hearts.

Carried with dignity and such beautiful authenticity by MoMo Matsuyane and Zethu Dlomo, the work reflects the dynamic of little girls – it opens with Zandile as an exuberant eight year old, and takes us through her teen years. With just a tweak to her hairstyle and costume, and considerable adjustments to her delivery, Matsuyane, an utterly extraordinary performer, embraces with such rich truths all the values of being a child: from the way in which she draws or speaks to the flowers to the beautiful artlessness of how she declares her dreams for a beautiful future.

Dlomo, too, in the role of the mother, grandmother and Lindiwe, a school friend, is able to beautifully manipulate her body to embrace the age of the character she is performing, fleshing out the susceptible yet gutsy Gogo with heart and soul, as she paints a reflection of the child’s mother with severity and coldness that comes of hurt. Mhlophe has constructed all her characters with a genuine human fondness, enfolding everything from myths and horrors of menstruation from within a pre-puberty sensibility to the age-specific games that children play.

Indeed, the games form a considerable part of the absolutely wonderful set, which utilises the blackness of the theatre space as immediate blackboards. Chalk drawings of stick figures and fishes and a house with a pointy roof and flowers with smiles adorn the space with the gritty realism of childhood happiness. There’s also a brilliant set which forms part of the work. Part cupboard, part screen, it reflects the moon and the grass as it is a repository for important things like letters from a child.

Have You Seen Zandile? is one of those unequivocal theatre moments, which bring together script, design, direction and performance with an impeccable sense of respect for the discipline, the work and its history, but not without a rambunctious sense of fun and real emotion. A lot of the dialogue is not in English, but if you do not speak isiXhosa, you are not left out. There’s a melding of language with movement, a kneading of gesture with word that makes for an imminently legible and totally consuming play. You leave this theatre knowing exactly why it is considered a classic.

  • Have You Seen Zandile? is written by Gcina Mhlophe, directed by Khutjo Green and designed by Wilhelm Disbergen. It is performed by MoMo Matsunyane and Zethu Dlomo at the Barney Simon Theatre, Market Theatre complex, Newtown, until October 26.

Speaking of loss and hair in The Cenotaph of Dan Wa Moriri

Tony Miyambo. Photograph courtesy So Solo Festival, Wits University.

Tony Miyambo. Photograph courtesy So Solo Festival, Wits University.

Loss is central to who we are as human beings. It is the ever-threatening fragile hinge that makes us hold tight to our loved ones: and the spice that makes the time we spend with them so achingly precious.  Enter Tony Miyambo, a dignified, under-stated performer who has a sense of deliberateness in his articulation that offers his work compelling prescience.

The idea of loss is magnificently extrapolated in The Cenotaph of Dan Wa Moriri, a piece brought to life with collaborative engagement. Repetition forms a kind of Beckettian chorus in the work’s language, touching as it does on how memories, people, ideas, numbers can lose themselves and blur into an overriding obscurity. Central to the narrative is a son mourning his father taken by a stroke.

Without becoming crude or medically explicit, the work confronts the idea of a brain attack, where the gate to a person’s knowledge and values, sensibility and persona can become physiologically locked and that person can become irreparably lost in their own head and body. Geographies of the city, the house, are described with broad brush strokes, but ones which resonate with visual touchstones.

The tale’s life blood and humour, like that underlining the narrative in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2013 novel Americanah, is hair. Indeed: this play should run in conjunction with the hair exhibition currently on show at the Wits Art Museum: ‘s’ curls, dreads, being killed by burning chemicals, having your hair as your crowning glory: everything about hair is intrinsic to this piece.

It’s an intimate yet universal work, made all the more compelling with a curious yet theatrically fresh use of wooden blocks on a table, arranged and re-arranged to form a city, a metropolis, a cemetery, a miniature reflection on urban busyness. This microcosm of the main protagonist’s world is both robust enough to be tossed hither and yon and fragile enough to break apart at will. It’s a beautiful device, knocked into focus by its clean simplicity.

Sadly, two elements in this work bruise it quite badly and make your engagement with a really wonderful text and performance very difficult: the lighting and the venue.

At a certain point in the piece, a light, constructed to illuminate the miniature set on the table blasts directly into the eyes of the audience. It depends on where you are seated, but that’s a difficult decision to take before the work begins. Shining a light into the eyes of the audience makes them close their eyes. And having them close their eyes might put them in danger of falling asleep. This work is too visceral and tight and big and well conceived to suffer this consequence.

And the venue, Wits theatre aficionados will know as this complex’s worst. It used to be an open air theatre in the 1980s. Later, it was brought into the internal structure of the theatre with a roof and a couple of cushions on the concrete bleachers. It’s neither comfortable nor kind to the production: if you’re not a lithe twenty-year-old, it’s hard on the body and this too can affect your engagement with a work that has the wherewithal to soar beyond petty physicalities.

Physiological challenges aside, The Cenotaph of Dan Moriri celebrates real skill in its writing, collaborative engagement and performance. And if you have known loss in any of its multifarious permutations, it will touch you deeply.

The Cenotaph of Dan Wa Moriri is created by Tony Miyambo and Gerard Bester in collaboration with William Harding. It is performed by Tony Miyambo, directed by Gerard Bester and features dramaturgy by William Harding and design by Julian August (lighting); Phala Ookeditse Phala (set). Part of the Wits So Solo Festival, it performs at the Amphitheatre on October 9, 10, 11, 12, 16, 17, 18 and 19.