People: A play that engenders belief in our youth

Humiliating Shortie: Anna Mart van der Merwe plays Millie, opposite Francois Jacobs as Shortie. Photograph courtesy
Humiliating Shortie: Anna Mart van der Merwe plays Millie, opposite Francois Jacobs as Shortie. Photograph courtesy

As she walks onto the stage, bent over by her smoker’s cough and her palpable despair, Anna-Mart van der Merwe, in the role of Fugard’s ‘Millie’ magnetises the audience. She portrays the squalid baseness of poverty and worthlessness in an early 1970s South Africa with a sense of such perfection, you feel your heart sink even as it sings with being in the presence of the brilliant grittiness of arguably, Athol Fugard’s best work ever.

But it is van der Merwe in collaboration with the young cast – of Carel Nel (as Don), Francois Jacobs (as Shortie) and Dania Gelderblom (as Sussie) that truly gives this production its edge. They filter the performance of this play thoroughly with all the incisive wit, bitterness, conflict and anger that bring it up there with words by Beckett, Stoppard or Sartre. While you get glimmerings of Shakespeare in the crisp and trauma-drenched language, you remain deeply aware of the helpless flaws in each persona: Each character has his or her own baseness and inadequacies yet together, the tenants and their land lady harmonise grotesquely and completely in fitting with the ethos of this play, as it carves into hopelessness and poverty.

Tossing into the air the conjoined issues of love and sex, poverty and politics and the ever elusive idea of dreams of happiness, the work is deeply poetic as it is fuelled by the ordinariness of the daily grind. Premised around a birthday party and the challenges of education and acne, cruelty and hurt, it pulls no punches, and doesn’t miss a trick, but never teeters into easy theatre.

The work is astonishingly complemented with a set which gives you a sense of not only what the night air feels like, but also of what the kitchen smells like. The pared down universe constructed here by Nadya Cohen is so carefully layered and subtly informed that as the faulty grandfather clock chimes oft hesitantly and with the prompt of a kick in its solar plexus, you can picture, the rickety staircase and the horror of the residents’ bedrooms, in your mind’s eye.

Such an extraordinarily performed production offers not only courage for the industry itself, but for the high school curricula: People Are Living There is currently a matric setwork. This cleaving together of theatre and education is not a new idea, but it is handled so astutely and with such a sense of professional collaboration, you cannot but have hope for all the matriculants who were exposed to this production: not only for the immediacy of their matric exams, but for seeds cast in their love of the medium and the thrill of being in a theatre.

The season is over and there’s scant indication on the theatre’s website as to whether the show will have legs going forward: but lots of legs it warrants. Also, whilst van der Merwe is an unequivocal stalwart who can change any production – be it on stage, screen or radio – into something mesmerising, the rest of the cast, impeccably chosen, are performers to look out for, each in his or her own right. Each fleshes out his or her character with a bold sense of competence and focus that gives them the timelessness they warrant.

  • People Are Living There by Athol Fugard is directed by Andre Odendaal and features design by Mannie Manim (lighting); Nadya Cohen (set); Nthabiseng Makone (costumes). It is performed by Anna-Mart van der Merwe, Carel Nel, Dania Gelderblom and Francois Jacobs, at the Barney Simon Theatre, Market Theatre complex in Newtown, Johannesburg. The season ended on May 24.

Left wanting: Tamlin Blake’s paper tapestries

Angel in process: A detail of Tamlin Blake's An Angel Fragment. Photograph courtesy Tamlin Blake's blog:
Angel in process: A detail of Tamlin Blake’s An Angel Fragment, in the process of being woven. Photograph courtesy Tamlin Blake’s blog:

There’s a fine and lovely ringing and rumbling set up in the blending, piece by quintessential piece of colour and texture in Tamlin Blake’s latest body of experimental works on show at Circa in Rosebank. And while, according to the exhibition’s press release, there’s a conceptual resonance set up between this body of work and a series of medieval tapestries, the exhibition leaves you wanting more.

Blake is working with the curious idea of rendering tapestry with recycled paper, and the result is often sculptural, resonating with the subtleties evocable in bas-relief, but capable of holding so much depth and focus and colour and light, it can be delicious in its dizzying power.

The work An Angel Fragment is a glorious case in point, where Blake uses stitch styles like brush strokes in a manner which sucks you in, but also demonstrates that the success of works rendered in this curious technique – almost like drawings made with a typewriter or a sewing machine – relies heavily on two legs: the novelty of the technique must marry the compositional strength of the work for the whole experience to sing. This piece resonates with the base simplicity in children’s book illustration, but offers a vortex-like core, which keeps drawing your eye and your heart back to it.

This is not achieved completely in all 12 of Blake’s works, however, leaving the whole experience of visiting the show a little underwhelming. After you catch your breath in the presence of the first piece you encounter in this elegant oval gallery, Second Trumpet, which features the extraordinary face of a young girl staring you right in the eye, you move onto the next … and the next … and there you find an element of turgidity which forces the powerful image to be pinned under the weight of the heavy arabesques that operate as background. This negotiating between foreground and background, sometimes compromises the foreground or has both elements of a parallel tonality, cutting and losing contrast, in several of Blake’s pieces. It’s like a musical performance in which the singer’s voice is drowned by the orchestra.

And then there’s the matter of legibility. A series of works rendered on circular pieces of Perspex, suspended from the ceiling are interesting in concept, but not all are as successful in actuality: Sometimes the relationship between the front and the back of the piece bruise the clarity of the image, and sometimes too many clusters of pieces of similar colour muddy the works’ poetry; while beautiful lines and narratives are cast, they are not always resolved satisfyingly.

But it is Blake’s aspersion and aspirations to the medieval tradition of tapestry that gives this exhibition wings and speaks of its promise. The traditions of those tapestries translated into contemporary South African terms promise gestures of a monumental nature that dwarf the visitor in its sense of awe evoked and its size. That doesn’t happen here.

  • Revelation – Stories and Secrets Disclosed by Tamlin Blake is on show at Circa gallery in Rosebank until May 14.

Go no further: Deborah Bell’s blithe skirting with gods


Veteran South African artist, Deborah Bell’s latest exhibition showcases the kind of muscular body of work that gives you courage: the art world is indeed not comprised only of sham, drudgery and broken dreams, to say nothing of self-indulgent sophistry and vague conceptual ideas poorly translated. Rather, the evolution of her work over the last three decades, dancing blithely away from trend or facileness, has shifted its focus and meaning into more and more ancient reflections on what art began as: magic. And her currently exhibition at the Everard Read Gallery in Johannesburg represents a pinnacle of not only personal achievement, but in terms of gallery acumen.

This body of more than 70 individual pieces does not court magic in any obvious or sensationalist – or even easy – way. There’s a gritty sense of energy applied to the supports in Bell’s drawings and etchings which given them verve and suck you into the compositions in a way which is uplifting and imminently peaceful.

The etchings, paintings and drawings, in a variety of sizes and cast in different groups with distinct focuses feature the figure of a woman. She is sylph like and dispassionate in her mien, a spiritual self-portrait, she is mostly unclothed and offers a sentinel reflection on how to look at the material. Another motif is an angel in the doorway. And then, there are the horses and the lion skins.

Touching and thinking about everything in art history from Marcel Duchamp’s Bride Stripped Bare to Velásquez’s quintessential works, which are about painting as much as they are about context, there’s a hint of Michelangelo here, and a touch of Goya there: this is the work of an artists’ artist: Bell doesn’t refer to her artistic progenitors with casualness or forcedness or without developed thought. The language of the medium infiltrates her own with a smooth synchronicity: this is not an art history lesson or a boastful essay on Bell’s own conversance with the gods of history: rather it’s a comfortable, yet quirky, deliverance of a discipline in which she is comfortable with her role and her contribution.

The resonance between Bell’s knowledge and reflection on pagan and ancient values and story telling is palpable: the manner in which this extraordinary exhibition bleeds and flows through the rooms in the gallery give you the urge to get on your knees and worship, if not simply weep: she reins in the essence of so much that in the hands of a lesser artist would be overwhelming. Instead, there’s a sonority that will not leave you.

And these are all the emotions you will experience before you enter the unquestionable pièce de résistance of the exhibition. Return of the gods is a compilation of five larger than life sculptures, each with a figure protruding from his or her head. As you walk into the darkened space, a device marking your movement activates the ‘voice’ of each figure.

It may be the chord of a single-stringed instrument. Or the voice of a ram’s horn. It may be the sound of a violin or of Xhosa song. Each differs and resonates through your heart and into your soul: it’s like being in the presence of Tibetan bowls being played. It’s a keening resonance that fills you up and gives you goosebumps. Composed by Philip Miller for these works in this context, this coming together of aural, spiritual and sculptural wisdom and beauty is nothing short of overwhelming. It is the kind of keynote experience that will touch you forever and make you feel cleansed and ready to face the crassness of the world. It might also make you feel that looking at art becomes redundant after this experience.

  • Dreams of Immortality, an exhibition of new work by Deborah Bell is on show at the Everard Read Gallery in Johannesburg until June 27. She is also showing work at Everard Read in Cape Town: May 14-June 15; and a body of etchings collectively called Renunciation at the David Krut Project space in Parkwood, until June 12.