Of baked beans and Hello Kitty, modest bling and uncurbable skinder: Welcome to Boegoespruit Ext 25

The Boegoespruit 'family',  clockwise from back: Twala (Jovan Muthray); Christina (Francesa Matthys); Unti (Sharmyan Kassen) and Shaamiela (Kirsty Marillier). Photograph courtesy www.wherevent.com

The Boegoespruit ‘family’, clockwise from back: Twala (Jovan Muthray); Christina (Francesa Matthys); Unti (Sharmyan Kassen) and Shaamiela (Kirsty Marillier). Photograph courtesy www.wherevent.com

The thrill of being in the presence of fresh young work as it hatches is incomparable. When you sit in the audience of this delightful work, created in entirety by students, you realise the palpable dynamite that there is in this industry, waiting to explode into professional careers. Boegoespruit Ext 25 is a work not without its flaws, and not devoid of a formulaic construction. It’s also rough around the edges and does need more sharpening, but with all these healable bruises, it’s a solid and delicious piece of theatre that offers a self-deprecating glance at the idiosyncrasies of being coloured, being poor and being hilarious that will make you sit up and take notice of these four young performers.

The saga of a spaza, Boegoespruit Ext 25 is an essay on informal contemporary living conditions, replete with gossip and tragedy, humour and pathos that will move you to spontaneous laughter and tears. The characters are larger than life: Twala, a ‘hairchetect’ (Jovan Muthray), who wears golden pants and a jacket zhooshed into bling with bits of hardware from cold drink cans; Unti, the massively bosomed baked beans queen (Sharmyan Kassen), with a Hello Kitty penchant who runs the spaza shop; Shaamiela, a school girl who knows more about social intercourse than perhaps she should (Kirsty Marillier); and Christina, a bank clerk on a trajectory to be somebody in this world (Francesca Matthys).

Together they form an approximation of a family and reflect on the see-sawing of life, punctuated as it is by a lack of material comfort, a rumbling sense of self-deprecating humour and many dollops of rich local colour. The plot is simple, and has a nice hairpin bend in it, but not a satisfyingly developed ending. And while Unti and Twala steal the show in terms of how well their characters are developed, Unti’s make up is so overdone that she reads as a male in obvious drag, from the get go.

Once you realise that is not the case, you quickly learn to roll with the social punches that this play, which borders on being a revue of sorts, delivers, wrapping real issues of homophobia, rejection, deep sadness and drug addiction into the hilarious fabric of this sustainably strong work. More than anything, the text of Boegoespruit attests to the robustness of this community, stained as it is by the detritus of apartheid and broken by social bias. As a theatre piece, it attests to the way in which the students understand the principles of clowning, of playing to an audience and of collaborating with genuine generosity. The set, too, offers an intimate and astute understanding of the society being reflected, and works well. Remember these names: you will be seeing them again on professional stages soon.

  • Boegoespruit Ext 25 is directed by Leonie Ogle with design by Nthabiseng Malaka (set) and Hlomohang Mothetho. It is written and devised by the cast: Sharmyan Kassen, Kirsty Mariller, Francesca Matthys and Jovan Muthray, and performs at the Nunnery, as part of the Wits 969 Festival, on July 21, 23, 24 and 25. Tickets via co.za

My father myself: Kafka’s horror, Nashman’s masterpiece

Alon Nashman is Kafka, father and son. Photograph by Cylla von Tiedemann, courtesy www.alonnashman.com

Alon Nashman is Kafka, father and son. Photograph by Cylla von Tiedemann, courtesy www.alonnashman.com

When a theatre production takes on a classic work of prose and gives it new life, the audience is fortunate. When this new life is articulated with such fire and wisdom that the original words of the master are seared with new energy, the audience is privileged. When all of this comes together under the supreme talents of a performer, such as Alon Nashman, the experience is almost completely overwhelming.

This is what you get with Kafka and Son, an astonishing foray into the problematic relationship Czech writer Franz Kafka had with his father Hermann, a relationship splayed and explored ruthlessly in Letter to my Father, written by Franz in 1919, never delivered to his father, but published in 1966, after both men were dead. It’s an intimate, horrifying and at times hilariously biting extrapolation on a father-son relationship fuelled by narcissism, fear, sarcasm and one-upmanship, on the part of the father, and exacerbated by the son’s low self esteem, physical puniness and inability to fight back. It’s a horror story told with a fierce sense of intimacy that is both riveting and disturbing.

Nashman is an unbelievably fine performer, and it is a true and unforgettable privilege to be able to see this performer in South Africa. Bearing an uncanny physical resemblance to Kafka, he is, at once, father and son, as he offers dialogue that is often difficult to internalise, it is so destructive. Complemented with a rough and potent set comprising feathers and rusty cages, the work has a harsh melodiousness of its own, and the shrill weeping plaint of the klezmer-evocative clarinet melds in to the choreographic repertoire of the piece where nothing – from cruelty during childhood to the boring horror of disdain for Jewish tradition – escapes the son’s critical loupe toward his father’s behaviour.

It’s a paean that authenticates the hollow sadness of anyone who has experienced the lead ball of parental emotional abuse, which intertwines the complication of marriage and independence; it is also a deeply sophisticated ode to the potency of Kafka himself. Evoking Alan Parker’s 1984 film Birdy, which engages with post Vietnam War horror, as it teases open the resonance of language articulated by Kafka in the teen years of the twentieth century, a scary precursor to the texture of Holocaust language, the work presents an eye at a keyhole into the kind of challenges that the real, individual, private Kafka faced, and consequently a level of focus into the work.

Kafka and Son is a defining, uncompromising piece of brilliance.

  • Kafka and Son is written by Mark Cassidy and Alon Nashman, adapted for stage from Franz Kafka’s Letter to my Father. It is directed by Mark Cassidy, features design by Carmellia Koo and Marysia Bucolc (costume and set) and Andrea Lundy (lighting) and is performed by Alon Nashman, as part of the Wits 969 Festival in the Wits Downstairs Theatre, Wits Theatre Complex, Braamfontein. It performs again on Tuesday July 21 at 13:15. Visit webtickets.co.za

Impeccable Crepuscule

Dignity, sophistication and love: Janet (Kate Liquorish) and Can Themba (Leroy Gopal). Photograph courtesy Market Theatre.

Dignity, sophistication and love: Janet (Kate Liquorish) and Can Themba (Leroy Gopal). Photograph courtesy Market Theatre.

It’s relatively easy to glamourise the 1950s. The fashions are beautiful and dignified. The architecture is poetic. The times were ripe with sex and possibilities: the world was on its knees after two major wars, and the cultural pendulum was swinging back: anything was possible. Truth be told, the period, in South Africa, in particular, was very far from glamorous. Apartheid was rife, and while the fashions were indeed beautiful and the Art Deco buildings of the time were indeed poetic, social and human values were rotten and injustice was like a cancerous rash spreading dully all over society. Enter Khayelihle Dom Gumede. This young man has taken a magnificent piece of prose by Can Themba and brought it to life on stage in a manner which not only celebrates the cultural nuances of the 1950s, but opens up the social underbelly of the period with a searingly sharp tool, aided by an exceptionally fine cast.

In short, Crepuscule is a doomed love story, based loosely on fact, between Janet (Kate Liquorish) and Can (Leroy Gopal). Not only was their love hampered by moral taboos of the time, she being white and he, black, but it flew in the face of their other relationships, to say nothing of the miscegenation laws of apartheid that got lascivious cops checking bed frames for evidence.

But in the hands of Gumede, this impeccable piece of theatre is so much more than this simple yet complicated love story. It’s an essay on shebeen culture, and a reflective and full representation of characters in all their dimensions.

There are no real villains in this tale: you might expect the cuckolded husband, Malcolm (Conrad Kemp) to be reflected upon as the classic colonialist, the tight-fisted white man who lacks social savvy and nuance, and is easy bait for mockery in the vernacular, but under Gumede’s direction and with Kemp’s own developed reflection of the role, a great level of empathy is evoked and honed.

Similarly, Themba’s mother, played with astonishing charisma and authenticity by Thami Ngoma reflects not only a woman resigned with disappointment at her son’s love choices, but one who loves her son and must respect him, and one who has the emotional sophistication to tease and contextualise her own feelings.

Further to each rounded character development, which also features the extraordinary Lerato Mvelase who can be a drunk man as well as she can be a shebeen queen, Liquorish and Gopal raise the stature of the characters they perform to historical and emotional icons. You will be seduced by the delicious crispness of the give and take between them, and the succinct and subtle yet ever so sexy representation of their relationship.

But more than that, you will be haunted and intoxicated by the interjection of song – Sophiatown standards – and dance, and physical theatre and movement that gives this work its life blood. With palpably gorgeous language and featuring some truly brilliant set decisions by the inimitable Nadya Cohen, the work is compact and edgy as it is completely engaging. In short, it is flawless: a work where every nuance is thought through and taken care of, a product which offers a portrait of Sophiatown that jives and beats and weeps and lives. See it.

  • Crepuscule by Can Themba, is adapted for stage by Khayelihle Dom Gumede, mentored by Kgafela oa Magogodi. It features design by Nhlanhla Mahlangu (musical direction and choreography), Nadya Cohen (set), Nomvula Molepo (lighting) and Thando Lobese (costumes) and is performed by Leroy Gopal, Conrad Kemp, Kate Liquorish, Nhlanhla Mahlangu, Lerato Mvelase and Thami Ngoma, at the Laager, Market Theatre complex in Newtown, Johannesburg, until August 2. Call 0118321641 or visit markettheatre.co.za

The ineffable immediacy of Salley’s paintings

Dancing. A painting by Rael Jero Salley. Photograph courtesy Gallery Momo.

Dancing. A painting by Rael Jero Salley. Photograph courtesy Gallery Momo.

There’s a glimmer of brush marks, a frisson of lines drawn and redrawn over one another, a glimpse of rapid yet deep engagement between artist, subject and canvas that you access in being in the presence of this exhibition of close to 40 works – the first solo of University of Cape Town-based painting lecturer Raèl Jero Salley, at this gallery. And those nuances of the nurturing into completion of these highly competent, uplifting and deeply sober works contain an element of energy which draws you in with a clarity of focus that will haunt you.

Portraits, figure students and curious sculptural pieces evocative of the mysterious clay heads found near Lydenburg, which are estimated to date back to 500BCE fill the space. These powerful terracotta and acrylic pieces, which offer an approximation of a human head, present an understanding of a kind of sympathetic magic from which the paintings glance, with invisible sparks of narrative energy permeating the space.

The paintings may be understood to fit into a series of frequently used rubrics: the compositions are conventional, as are the poses. Are they people the artist knows personally? Situations that are meaningful to him? Possibly, but whether they are or not doesn’t affect your ability to read them, and to resonate with them, as you glance into their painted eyes and allow your own eyes to wander and meander over the rich yet plain surface of the works.

Largely monochromatic, these paintings slot with a great sense of wisdom into time worn traditions where couples danced in a ballroom, and when men wore tuxedos and moral values were upheld. But Salley’s approach is not crudely romantic, old fashioned or prudish. There’s a painting of a young woman taking a selfie, as there are dynamic images of boxers and nudes. It is the energetic and astute brush marks that are this exhibition’s greatest and most successful drawcard.

Yes, there is an explanation in the gallery’s press release as to what the exhibition is about and why it is called Present, and indeed, there’s a level of engagement with black society and a reflection on the beautiful dignity of black South Africans, and there are comments about freedom and autonomy and the gaps between the past and the future, but more than anything, these are painter’s paintings, giving you access into the sensual relationship between the viscosity of oil paint and the supple resist of the canvas.

You might see mention of Salley’s exhibition in the print or electronic media. Indeed, one of them illustrates this review. But in looking at it, you must know that however beautiful his paintings seem in reproduction, they are beggared by the electronic nature of the reproduction and the bland pixellated perfection which dulls their fire: These astonishingly real paintings need to be seen in the flesh and adored for what they are.

  • Present, a solo exhibition of paintings and sculpture by Raèl Jero Salley is on show at Gallery Momo in Parktown North, Johannesburg until August 3. gallerymomo.com

The victory of Spartacus, in broad brush strokes

Andile Ndlovu is Spartacus. Photograph courtesy www.mediaupdate.co.za

Andile Ndlovu is Spartacus. Photograph courtesy www.mediaupdate.co.za

From the first opening bars of this extraordinarily powerful South African ballet, you get riveted to the score, the choreography and the story, almost exactly in that order, as the monstrous work unfolds. Spartacus of Africa is a mammoth achievement, the likes of which South African audiences don’t often get to experience.

In the authoritative hands of ancestral spirit Isenyaya, performed by David Krugel, the basic structures of the story are explained, with the potent combination of gesture, costume and body all swirled together in a comprehensive and highly readable intelligent mass. He tells you where to look and who is important in an approach arguably as iconic and convincing as that of Italian Renaissance painter Giotto, taking your eye unequivocally through the crowd to the situation at hand.

And while you might not grasp the subtleties and intricacies of the story of Spartacus, king of Thrace, which first saw light of day as a ballet in Russia in the 1950s, you are so well and closely attuned to the broad brushstrokes of a military tale of love and war, murder and victory that the interstices which fall away do not matter.

Of course, the added splendour of a live orchestra lend the spectacle that much more presence and muscle – sadly the option of piped music supporting a grand ballet is something we have become attuned to, as South African dance audiences, and the impact of real instruments being played by real people offers such a precious and timeless reflection on the ballet, it is hard to conceive of the option of reverting back to the technological option.

Spartacus of Africa does embrace a lot of colonialist concerns, and the notion of African tribes head to head with one another is presented with unapologetic directness. In watching these groups at war, you might occasionally become confused: sometimes the costumes of the opposing peoples is not completely distinct, but this too, in the bigger picture does not matter.

It is the manner in which the characters of the principles are developed and articulated that forms some of the strongest building blocks of this work, which invest individual dancers with the power to command the whole huge auditorium: For instance, the presence of Spartacus (danced by Andile Ndlovu, associated with the Washington Ballet, who boasts Ballet Theatre Afrikan roots under the guidance of Martin Schonberg) in all his vehemence and quirkiness is something conveyed through strong characterisation and unbelievable fine proportions of body in relation to other bodies, leaps beyond the restraint of logic and gesture that make him a believably victorious hero.

Veronica Paeper’s Spartacus is an achievement, not so much because there are swaths of cast members – at times, there are 90 dancers on stage concurrently – but because she offers such an intense and beautifully developed understanding of the big outlines which form the drama. And, of course, because of the live music.

Spartacus of Africa is choreographed by Veronica Paeper and David Krugel. It features the music of Aram Kachaturian and design by KMH Architects (set), Dicky Longhurst (costumes), Nicholas Michaletos (lighting). The version I watched was at the Nelson Mandela Theatre and the orchestra, under the baton of Paul Hoskins was the Johannesburg Philharmonic. On the evening I saw it, it was performed by Elzanne Crause, Michaela Griffin, Willem Houck, David Krugel Lwanele Masiza and Andile Ndlovu, in the principal roles and a company drawn from dance companies nationally, as well as two student casts for the Johannesburg and Cape Town seasons. It performs at the Artscape Opera House in Cape Town until July 12: 0214109800 or www.artscape.co.za

Venue fail in Little Shop of Horrors

"Feed me, Seymour!" Little Shop of Horrors's haunting signature line, with Alan Committie as the hapless Seymour. Photograph courtesy Montecasino Theatre.

“Feed me, Seymour!” Little Shop of Horrors’s haunting signature line, with Alan Committie as the hapless Seymour. Photograph courtesy Montecasino Theatre.

In this Hairspray-meets-Faustus 1960s-redolent musical, you get to experience the schlock-horror tradition from which musicals like The Rocky Horror Picture Show were spawned and blending some fabulous rock ‘n’ roll, doowop and Motown moves, Little Shop of Horrors is a hugely palatable production which engages with issues like urban decay, parochialism and abuse all couched in an unashamedly bizarre tale of a flesh-eating plant named Audrey II, which grows spectacularly through the show’s run.

Generally, in a show of this nature, it would be the plant itself that is the central focus and main character – and drawcard – but in this production, the cast and the set win over, in spite of a very vociferous and wittily positioned ‘Audrey II’. The joint-narrator, comprising Ronette, Crystal and Chiffon, performed by Dionne Song, Chantal Herman and Lelo Ramasimong respectively absolutely excels: the three, almost acting like a Greek chorus, lend the work the frisson of horror and camped up flippancy or added narrative that keeps it human and colourful; relative newcomers on Johannesburg’s stages, they’re fabulously cast and have exceptional character and voice.

With sterling performances by Michael Richard as Mr Mushkin, a stereotypical New York Skid Row Jewish businessman and Alan Committie, the hapless Seymour, thankfully holding himself back from too much ad libbing, the production has a kind of acid green-bubble gum pink flavour and this is its drawcard, perhaps, but also its downfall: the work in this theatre offers a technologically-rendered sound which is simply too big for the space, and it lacks nuance. It’s like a colour-by-number show where every element has the same level of intensity. And the effect, after your brain has synced to its rhythm, is deadening.

In this production, it’s like everything is ramped up as loud as possible and while the cast loyally and bravely do their best to retain focus and audience interest, sometimes that blend of really loud piped music that you feel in your molars and amplified vocals is so loud that you cannot hear the words. It’s not clear why this has been done: surely the technology of such a well-established theatre as Montecasino’s Pieter Toerien has the wherewithal to contain nuance or to make provision for what happens to a venue when it’s full of people.

It’s a pity as it reduces this otherwise delightful production, which features an utterly beautiful set that really steals the show, to an irritating squeaky squawkiness, which might well drive you away at interval – as the empty seats in the second half attested to, shortly after opening night.

  • Little Shop of Horrors is directed by Steven Stead, based on the book by Howard Ashman. It is designed by Alan Menken (music), Evan Roberts (original tracks), Justin Southey (musical direction), Janine Bennewith (choreography), Greg King (set), Tina le Roux (lighting) and Mark Malherbe (sound); with puppets by Greg King and Wendy Henstock. It is performed by Alan Committie; Zak Hendrikz; Chantal Herman; Brandon Moulder; Adam Pelkowitz; Lelo Ramasimong; Michael Richard; Dionne Song; Audrey van Litsenborgh; Jaco van Rensburg and Tim Wells, and is at Pieter Toerien Theatre, Montecasino, in Fourways, until August 9. 0115111818 or www.montecasinotheatre.co.za