When you watch a production of the calibre of Searching for Somebody, you appreciate that perfection is not about choreographed steps in time or smooth delivery. It is about balancing persona with crude realities. It is about a performer standing on stage and reaching directly into your chest and holding your heart in the palm of her hand. It is about language so achingly beautiful, you have to remember to breathe. And above all it is about the sophisticated intermingling of the whole gamut of emotions that sets you laughing and crying, sometimes simultaneously.
Irene Stephanou, the maker of Searching for Somebody, is unequivocally one of the giants of contemporary South African theatre. Having been a presence in the industry since the 1980s, she is – according to So Solo’s director Gita Pather – the pioneer of this very particular brand of monodrama, in which a rich amalgam of humour and sadness, South African complexities and real stories get to see light of day through the voice, pen and heart of just one performer on stage.
Searching for Somebody echoes Stephanou’s previous successes, with a poignancy and a sharpness that reflects a performer in her maturity. Hers is a unique approach in which she takes her own realities and evolves and polishes them into a work so professional and honed that it is able to carry an emotional rawness that touches your essence, making you laugh and weep unashamedly, yet it never digresses into self-serving gesture.
The piece is about the complicated horror of having an incurable degenerative disease, but more than that, it is about respect and self-love. Never teetering even close to the idea of self-pity, it’s a bold and hilarious piece which examines the complex position of the South African Greek community under apartheid, as it glances at Frida Kahlo’s single thick eyebrow, the idea of dating and the tapestry of engagements with the world that a humble dry cleaning business embodies.
Stephanou has scripted and plays Agape Zevlarides (known as Gaby), the manageress of True Elegance Dry Cleaners, somewhere in contemporary South Africa. She has had Multiple Sclerosis for over 30 years. Evading the pity of the world, Stephanou reaches, with searingly uncompromising and searingly funny words into the ways in which the concept – even the language – around disability touches her character.
Like South African born performance artist Steven Cohen, Stephanou, as a proponent of performance, engages with the challenges she has in a splendidly, almost aggressively open way. Cohen is gay, Jewish, white, middle-aged and male – all of these elements come under the intense gaze of his unforgiving speculum. Stephanou carries the challenge of being an MS sufferer and she exposes the anger and frustration, the physical surprises, the disappointment and horror of her illness unrelentingly, but this ain’t no pity party. Stephanou, like Cohen, has the bravery, the acumen and the skill to view all these messy issues with a dispassionate gaze and a level of sophistication that will leave you breathless.
Searching for Somebody is a historic work that celebrates Stephanou in a way that only she herself can. It showcases the magnificence of a true performer engaged in the raw authentic truth, but never losing sight of what a work in state of performative perfection should be.
- Searching for Somebody is developed and performed by Irene Stephanou and directed by Clara Vaughan. Part of the Wits So Solo Festival, it performs at the Nunnery on October 9, 10, 11, 12, 15, 16, 17, 18 and 19.