Siva: Seven layers of dance perfection under Sidiya’s capable hand

Magnetic: Julia Burnham in Siva. Photograph courtesy cue.ru.ac.za

Magnetic: Julia Burnham in Siva. Photograph courtesy cue.ru.ac.za

You are led into the space by a series of lit thick short candles, evocative of the memorial-imbued candles of Jewish tradition. You encounter a woman being washed by another, in a ritual context that is achingly intimate even though it is cast in the thick of audience traffic. From this point, an emotional stillness is evoked; it is something that is carried through the duration of this exquisite piece, with respect and dignity, fire and heart.

As Siva, this year’s Standard Bank Young Artist work for dance choreographed by Luyanda Sidiya, unfolds, bringing together isiXhosa words, flames and some of the most extraordinary physical manoeuvring you might have ever seen, so something remarkable takes place. The work is premised on an understanding of godhead and religious ritual. The number seven features significantly in the work’s iconography.

It was conceived and birthed through the input and energy of both Moving Into Dance Mophatong under the leadership of Sylvia Glasser and Vuyani Dance Theatre, under the leadership of Gregory Maqoma, and here is the resolution of a dance language that melds African traditional aesthetic with contemporary dance rhetoric, taking the values of Glasser’s Afrofusion to a new level.

The work is enervating to look at: it sweeps you body and soul into its complex vortex as it stretches the notion of physical and anatomical possibility. The dancers become like magicians, drawing back to the roots of art making, as they segue with one another, in sequences that will make your head spin.

But more than all of this is the astonishing astuteness which with the work is created. It’s a large cast, comprising ten dancers and an ensemble of three musicians on stage. Like line work in a beautifully made drawing, each component of this work has his or her own place, there is no sense of messy collaboration, and yet, the whole is as complex and imposing as the intricate work of a grand orchestra.

And while each dancer operates with scalpel-like intensity, it is the performance and stage presence of Julia Burnham which sets the work on fire and captures its sense of magic, completely. Already quite a seasoned performer, demonstrating a great and brave repertoire for a diversity of approaches and a willingness to cock a snoot at boundaries, Burnham has, in this work, clearly come of age. She grabs your eye with a ferocity that doesn’t allow you to properly focus on the other dancers, even when she is at apparent rest. It has something to do with her immense sense of physical beauty and vulnerability, something to do with the utter skill in which she intertwines between her colleagues and lavishes within the movement and the sound.

And the sound is the other magic ingredient. Like the inimitable tenor and soprano saxophone of Norwegian Jan Garbarek, the music slithers in and out of the choreography, offering an understanding of dance and music and the magic in between that will haunt you, relentlessly.

The season for this magnificent piece was painfully short. It’s booked to travel to China in November. But between now and then, there are seasons pencilled in: seeing this piece should be a cultural imperative on anyone’s agenda. It will change your life.

  • Siva is choreographed and directed by Luyanda Sidiya. It features design by Xolisile Bongwana (musical direction); Gerard Bester (dramaturge); Oliver Hauser (lighting); Fried Wilsenach (sound) and Andrew Chandler (costumes). It is danced by Xolisile Bongwana, Julia Burnham, Roseline Keppler, Peter Lenso, Lulu Mlangeni, Phumlani Mndebele, Otto Nhlapo, Phumlani Nyanga, Nomasonto Radebe and Edwin Ramoba, and features performances by musicians Phosho Lebese, Tebogo Mokoena and Mpumi Nhlapo at the John Kani Theatre, Market Theatre complex, August 12-16. Watch this space for announcements of other seasons for this work.

An Animal Farm to rock your moral equilibrium, beautifully

Four legs good, two legs better! The pigs, Napoleon (Mpume Mthombeni)  and Snowball (MoMo Matsunyane) get into their stride, as Squealer (Mandisa Nduma) looks on.

Four legs good, two legs better! The pigs, Napoleon (Mpume Mthombeni) and Snowball (MoMo Matsunyane) get into their stride, as Squealer (Mandisa Nduma) looks on.

From the outset, before this rollicking monster of a production gets into its stride, the presence of the blood-stained wooden gate, the empty rubber boots and the cawing, mooing, snorting and barking in the sound track, lend Neil Coppen’s Animal Farm its inimitable tone. It’s very dark. It’s loud and terrifyingly hilarious and it enables a segueing of the values articulated by the original book’s author George Orwell in 1945 with the doublespeak of our own era and local politics. In short, it’s a major tour-de-force success for director Neil Coppen and his immensely fine cast.

But this is a play not for the faint of heart. Dressed in what seems to be the broken fatigues of guerrillas, the characters embrace both political identity and farm-animal-hood, teetering between the two in terms of their articulated values and increasing hypocrisy. With Muriel the goat (MoMo Matsunyane) and Clover the sheep (Zesuliwe Hadebe) effectively acting as the narrators in the aftermath of the uprising, the play is cast in an effective framework, completely legible if you’ve read the book many times and seen myriads of interpretations of it, or if you’re a newcomer to the work.

Lodging a very clear indictment towards the hypocrisy and brutality fuelling our very own government, the work is hauntingly constructed: while it is loud and violent, Coppen’s use of shadow puppetry and his general exploitation of the shadows that explode on stage, is simply authoritative, as it conjures up images that will leave you gasping for air – and then for more. There’s a use of colour and a melding of contrast, implied violence and the storyline that enables this classic to affect your adrenalin levels.

This is one scary show, handled with a wise and developed mix of poignancy and horror that will keep you on the edge of your seat. In one or two instances the loud messiness gets the better of the actresses and the casualty is the clarity of the language, but on the whole, this is a show which sings together with a raucousness that speaks of how much the performers embrace their multiple roles, as it generously reflects a strong and sophisticated understanding of the original work.

The greatest flaw in this production is the brevity of its season at this theatre.

  • Animal Farm based on the eponymous book by George Orwell, is adapted for stage and directed by Neil Coppen, with design by Daniel Buckland (choreography), Tino le Roux (lighting), Thando Lobese and Neil Coppen (costumes), Boipelo Moeti (shadow puppetry), Tristan Horton (sound design) and Marcus Wormstorm, Chris Letcher and Johnny Greenwood (music). It is performed by Khutjo Bakunzi-Green, Zesuliwe Hadebe, Tshego Khutsoane, MoMo Matsunyane, Mpume Mthombeni and Mandisa Nduna, and performs in the John Kani Theatre, Market Theatre complex, Newtown, until September 6. Call 0118321641 or visit co.za

Unmissable Epstein: celebrating a secret god

Suave but not without a backstory: Nicholas Pauling is Brian Epstein. Photograph by Pat Bromilow Downing.

Suave but not without a backstory: Nicholas Pauling is Brian Epstein. Photograph by Pat Bromilow Downing.

They controversially deemed themselves more popular than Jesus Christ. Their songs are probably better known than Shakespeare. At 21 they were immortal. But they didn’t do it alone. This absolutely beautiful play reflects on the mysterious character of Brian Epstein, the record shop assistant who became manager of the Beatles: offering a thumbnail sketch of his life and how it interfaced with the success of a boy band from Liverpool that effectively changed the world’s music culture forever. The play has sharply honed language, incredibly three-dimensional performances and an utterly impeccable set. In short, it’s completely flawless.

It begins with the Liverpudlian scruffiness of the “Nowhere Man” played by Sven Ryugrok, who comes onto the scene as a pick-up. He emerges as a freelance music journalist, and therein unleashes the whole world of the 1960s with all its drugs, sex and rock ‘n roll; all its shaggy rugs, Mies van der Rohe evocative furniture and Mondrian-like visual simplicity. It’s a world where fame is within an arm’s reach, and the gods of popular music look as fresh-faced and happy as the proverbial boy next door.

Brian Epstein was Jewish and gay. He came of a conservative family fraught with taboos. With his brylcreemed coif and his conservative suit, he retains 1950s dignity with an understated but not undeveloped 1960s savvy. Nicholas Pauling embodies this larger than life, deeply troubled, obscenely successful and tragic character with a love and a sense of intimate empathy that will make you cry because of its realness, as it will make you love the man with all his frailties and demons.

This is no gentle tribute, in any way. Think of plays like Athol Fugard’s Hello and Goodbye in terms of how the narrative and text, the characters and their predicament are teased out, cleaved together and revealed to be emotionally complex, fraught with barbs, difficult and recalcitrant, and this is roughly what you get in Epstein. The work leaves you feeling a bit battered emotionally, but deeply exhilarated, resonating with that reflection that Beatles music in its raw state had the simplicity and emotional wisdom to act as a prism to the times with its content that was clichéd by life, but affected by happiness, and could “knock you in the chest” with its directness and timelessness.

What the makers of TV series Mad Men have done in reflecting the advertising industry in 1950s Manhattan, so have director Fred Abrahamse and designer Marcel Meyer, with their slice of 1967 – the difference is obviously the time frame in which they have to do it (not to mention the budget at hand). The wisdom in balancing these two supremely skilled performers opposite one another, conjoined with the understated yet wisely constructed icons of the time, offer a sense of intrusion into Epstein’s life, which, engaging and emotional, will take you on a rollercoaster through an understanding of what success on such a fundamental level means.

Easily one of the best plays of the year staged in this province, Epstein leaves you with the impact of a man who was fallible but who turned the world on its head in opening doors for John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and George Harrison. There are frissons of Beatles’ songs informing and fleshing out elements of the story, but this is no Beatles concert. It’s a bitterly fresh portrait of the back story of one of the world’s secret gods. And it’s the kind of play that enriches you, from the first until the last, and it doesn’t let go.

  • Epstein: the man who made the Beatles is written by Andrew Sherlock and directed by Fred Abrahamse with costumes and set by Marcel Meyer. It features performances by Nicholas Pauling and Sven Ryugrok and is at the Studio Theatre, Montecasino until September 27 co.za

Too much pretty in Boychoir

Garrett Wareing is Stet Tate, leading the National Boychoir, in the eponymous film. Photograph by Myles Aronowitz

Garrett Wareing is Stet Tate, leading the National Boychoir, in the eponymous film. Photograph by Myles Aronowitz

It’s odd to think that a director could get some parts of a film so right, but enable an ending for a film that so profoundly negates all its explored values in one foul swoop. While François Girard’s Boychoir probes the preciously transient phenomenon of the soprano boys’ choir, an institution virtually as old as European church music itself, he successfully ramps up the crassly sentimental and harshly formulaic construction, filtering it through with a thick and morally troubling vein of money that even its sterling adult cast, headed by Dustin Hoffman, Eddie Izzard and Kathy Bates cannot save.

The story of a pre-pubescent boy afflicted by the vagaries of a single parent with her own problems, but one equipped with a talent that can take him out of the murk of it all, Boychoir is predictable, even if it has an insultingly ostensible fairytale ending. But it is the music that will generally make your heart sing, and is the central draw-card of this work.

The film begs comparison with the 2000 British dance film Billy Elliot directed by Stephen Daldry, which takes apart how the fragile thread of talent can grow into real life if nurtured and plucked and whittled appropriately. Unlike the latter, which opens up issues ranging from sexual awareness to economic balance, Boychoir remains monolithic in its storytelling. This is a pity. Clearly armed with the kind of seed money that gives it access to beautiful settings, the use of Karl Jenkins’s work and other fine elements, the story itself plods, which severely challenges the overall result.

But further to that, there’s the lack of a master’s directorial touch. Crowd scenes are always an interesting opportunity for the construction of texture; films such as Jean-Jacques Annaud’s (1986) The Name of the Rose or Peter Mullan’s (2002) The Magdalene Sisters as well as Aisling Walsh’s (2003) Song for a Raggy Boy – to say nothing of Miloš Forman’s (1975) One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest all present a coagulation of humanity in a context and the bringing together unusual looking people as well as the uniformly pretty ones, lends the comments the film offers nuance, intelligent and crepuscular insights and sheer brilliance. This doesn’t happen in Boychoir. While Garrett Wareing stands out with his sultry pout and long fringe, in his role as the central character, Stet, the rest blend into blandness.

It’s a strange turning around of values: constructed in the contemporary world filled as it is with the immediate internet and social-media access to everything, something of the quest for perfection, of the time taken to craft something as perfectly as possible is lost, and the film, while articulating some beautiful caveats about the preciousness of time, becomes a hum-drum affair.

  • Boychoir (2014) is directed by François Girard and features music direction by Brian Byrne and cinematography by David Franco. Its cast includes Kathy Bates, Dustin Hoffman, Eddie Izzard, Garrett Wareing and Joe West, amongst others.

Permanent culture; temporary issues in Stephen Hobbs’s exhibition

Signs of a Transforming City, an etching by Stephen Hobbs. Photograph courtesy David Krut Projects.

Signs of a Transforming City, an etching by Stephen Hobbs. Photograph courtesy David Krut Projects.

There’s something dishearteningly unresolved in the overall impact of Stephen Hobbs’s current solo exhibition, which offers a foray into the rhetoric of camouflage and opens a can of vague worms onto a range of hinted at and skirted around army-related political innuendo. The unequivocal saving grace of this exhibition is Hobbs’s printmaking skills: the show brings to the fore some utterly lovely manifestations of techniques like sugar lift, hard ground and aquatint, often not foregrounded in contemporary exhibitions which find themselves too deeply moored in conceptual manoeuvres.

Comprising close to 40 works, the exhibition features table top constructions of cardboard  and chipboard and a looped digital display of all the exhibition’s components on a monitor. The value and relevance of these two elements is not clear at the outset: granted there may be an elaborate intellectual justification for them, but for the casual gallery visitor who does not want to peruse the R100 catalogue, there and then, no clues are offered, and rather than intrigue or entice you, they might cause your eye to glance away from the exhibition’s rich heart.

The digital display feels too gimmicky and slick and the constructions feel not slick enough and give a sense of being projects rather than fully resolved art works. Perhaps this is a comment on bunkers or the makeshift notion of an army identity; either way, they bring a sense of jarring values.

Arguably, the rich heart of this exhibition is in a group of four unframed etchings pinned quietly to the wall. Not so abstract that they lose the focus of the gesture and not holding so tightly to representational values that they lose their guts, the works entitled Pillbox and Signs of [a Transforming City], two relatively demure hard ground etchings which both feature aquatint shimmer with a level of realness that brings you back and will leave you touched. They also offer insight into Hobbs’s pre-established body of work and sit comfortably in his oeuvre.

These works reveal Hobbs’s astuteness as printmaker and one who wields his stylus with perspicuity, reflecting on the city of Johannesburg’s dynamic with nuance and sophisticated understanding. Beautifully printed, they celebrate the way in which acid has inflicted errant bites on the surface of the plates, lending the work a tight sense of authenticity which is delicious.

In a sense, the size of the exhibition hurts its impact. There are several pieces which reflect on the notion of editioned printmaking. Hobbs has worked on printed – and maybe reject – prints and shown them as original drawings rather than as part of an edition, disabusing the work of its attachment to the idea of impeccable copies. While this is a perfectly acceptable means of creating drawings in this context, you do heave a bit of a sigh of relief when you confront the cleanly printed etching, framed behind glass which is not a print in the guise of a drawing.

  • Stephen Hobbs’s exhibition Permanent Culture at 1800m is at David Krut Projects, 142 Jan Smuts Avenue, Rosebank, until September 25. 0114470627 or davidkrutprojects.com

Sister Act’s nuns are too dumbed down for their own good

That's her, in the red shoes: Deloris (Candida Mosoma) with nuns () Photograph by Mariola Biela.

That’s her, in the red shoes: Deloris (Candida Mosoma) with nuns. Photograph by Mariola Biela.

Take an ensemble of the best voices in the business right now. Befrock them in an array of habits and foreground the stage musical based on the eponymous film which saw Whoopi Goldberg’s rise to popularity in the early 1990s, and what do you get? Sister Act is one of those musicals mooted as a must-see and a block buster, but the final product reeks of 1990s flaws in patronising and overwhelmingly silly dialogue and humour which causes it to drag its feet, particularly in the first half. On paper it is too good to be true – and it is.

But if you’ve made it so far, stay for the second half, because this unashamedly feel good bit of musical theatre gets so warmly into its stride that it whisks the rest of the night away and will leave you with a grin on your face.

The question that might remain in your head is do stage musicals with this amount of pizzazz and energy really have to be so very dumb? The humour in this more than 20-year-old work is clunking and unfunny, revealing the characters as so grotesquely simple it hurts. If you think of the dialogue characterising works like The Sound of Music or Chicago – as two very different productions in this genre – you get an understanding of their universalism and timelessness through the impeccable sense of wisdom and dignity applied in the development of each character: the lowest-common-denominator humour in Sister Act arguably is the element which causes it to stumble as a production.

It’s the tale of a young black female singer who finds herself unwittingly vulnerable to crooks and bad men. A nearby church is in dire financial straits and agrees to hide her. Her musical arranging skills, maverick personality and flippant disregard for church rules win the day, enabling the church to gain the kind of street cred that will keep it relevant. It’s numbingly predictable, but tightly woven, in terms of nuances and several ‘wow’ moments, in the set, bringing together the mystery and majesty of implied church architecture with all its arches and stained glass windows intact.

The work features stand out performances by Candida Mosoma as the lead, Deloris; Kate Normington as the Mother Superior and Keith Smith as the monsignor, but it is the combination of the stark costumes and a lot of the ensemble work that keep its professionalism sizzling. Also, significantly, the male ensemble collaborations, featuring the bad guys and the cops, is worthy of mention: a level of totally fabulous sonority and balance is evoked by the guys in this girl-power story.

Sister Act makes for a rambunctious but safe evening’s entertainment. All the elements are in place and are handled with due colour, sound and light, but there’s an element of fire, a point of performative glory that the work as a whole lacks.

  • Sister Act, based on the book by Cheri Steinkellner and Bill Steinkellner features music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Glenn Slater. It is directed by Janice Honeyman with design by Sarah Roberts (costumes), Declan Randall (set), Trevor Peters (sound), Rowan Bakker (musical direction), Nicol Sheraton (choreography) and is performed by Bjorn Blignaut, Caroline Borole, Vanessa Brierley, Caitlin Clerk, Anne-Marie Clulow, Elizca Coetzer, Judy Ditchfield, Toni Jean Erasmus, Trudy Fredericks, Germandt Geldenhuys, Zane Gillion, Clive Gilson, Themba January, Dolly Louw, Mervin Marvey, Noni Mkhonto, Phumi Mncayi, Candida Mosoma, Kate Normington, Dean Roberts, Brenda Sakellarides, Andrea Shine, Shelly Simon, Nqobile Sipamla, Keith Smith, Lebo Toko, Carmen Tromp, LJ Urbani, Natasha van der Merwe and Zano. It performs at the Mandela, Joburg Theatre complex in Braamfontein, until August 15. Call 0861670670 or visit com

Of ‘Crossing’ and solace, blood and mayhem

Photograph courtesy Cue.ru.ac.za

Photograph courtesy Cue.ru.ac.za

There’s a kernel in this play that is so demonic and sinister it chills you to your heart, and while all the tools are there for a wise and raw bit of story-telling, for which director Mncedisi Shabangu’s work has become respected, surrounded by generally unconvincing performances, something of its candidness becomes a little lost.

Hinging on the broader thematics of Zimbabwean writer Tsitsi Dangarembga’s acclaimed novel Nervous Conditions (1988), the play uses the names of the performers, which immediately might confuse you if you know the novel and expect to find the characters you’ve read of.

Instead, we meet Bonolo and Tsholofelo, teenage characters in a narrative about death and the idea of crossing over. The story begins at the end, a well used device to draw interest in, but there are logical flaws as the material unfolds, which leaves you bewildered as to how things work or what you understood from the startling opening that so beautifully evokes tears and crucifixion in a rudely rural context.

Also, while this cast of young actresses work hard to hone their complicated roles, which touch and are spinned about by everything from poverty and illness to homophobia and the confrontation of taboo, there is an element to their approach which begs more physical discipline or a greater deal of debriefing as they transition into frantically violent and often blood-curdling roles.

Shabangu’s use of graphic elements, like blood, nudity, explicit references to sex and illness have become characteristic of his work, and reveal him to be taking off where the teachings of Yael Farber and Lara Foot touched him over the years. The haunting nuances in his 2009 work 13 attest to this. While Crossing features a palpable sense of horror and surprise in its plot, it lacks the kind of balance that would make the blood and gore feel a little less gratuitous.

By the end of the play, you feel a great sense of ordeal on the part of the cast. The tale they have come to tell you is done, but the rhythm of its emotional hardness continues to beat with alacrity in their tears. Crossing is at this point, at work that is all emotion and guts, but it doesn’t yet have the kind of muscle that would lend it subtlety and heart.

  • Crossing, based on Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions is adapted for stage and directed by Mncedisi Shabangu and designed by Neo Joberta, (lighting) and Thabo Rapoo (choreography). It is performed by Jessica Lebogo, Shammila Mosikare, Tsholofelo Saul, Mathapelo September, Bonolo Tlaletse and was part of the Wits 969 festival. It performs at Mmabana Arts Council in Mafikeng, from August 9-15. Visit mmabana.org.za

The scintillating horror of Doubt

Unrelenting: Sister Aloysius (Fiona Ramsay) and Sister James (Janna Ramos-Violante) hold moral authority in a place of worship. Photograph by Germaine de Larche, courtesy Auto & General Theatre on the Square.

Unrelenting: Sister Aloysius (Fiona Ramsay) and Sister James (Janna Ramos-Violante) hold moral authority in a place of worship. Photograph by Germaine de Larche, courtesy Auto & General Theatre on the Square.

What would you do if you suspected something appalling was happening in your midst, where an innocent child’s well-being was at stake, and the issue was a disaster you think you might have the power to avert? This is the kind of dilemma embraced in James Cuningham’s stage version of John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer prize-winning play Doubt: A Parable.

It is not so much the 2008 film version featuring Philip Seymour Hoffman and Meryl Streep that this play evokes, but Jean-Jacque Annaud’s 1986 interpretation of Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose, in its engagement with the blind and stubborn faith of the establishment, played with unforgettable vehemence by Feodor Chaliapin Jr as Jorge and Volker Prechtel as Malachia, the priests who guard the sanctity of the library.

It is this fierce and dark tone created by the stylised set in juxtaposition with severe costumes and utterly honed performances by Fiona Ramsay and Janna Ramos-Violante that embraces the moral contradiction of the play that will haunt you. Ramsay, in particular, embodies the sense of a die-hard old nun without a glimmer of light in her outlook; terrifying to contemplate, but magnetic to behold. Her slight frame embodies something so massive and catastrophic clutching so tightly to the one-upmanship of religious sway, it is unforgettable.

Ramos-Violante is the younger nun, the foil to the tale. Opposite Ramsay’s Sister Aloysius, her Sister James is small fry, a woman easily threatened by the authority of church hierarchy in a misogynist world.

The prescience of this work, set as it is on the cusp of a kind of collapse of innocence of Western culture – just after the assassination of President JF Kennedy – cannot be overlooked, in our world of increasing religious fundamentalism, but also one of increasing social transparency, which sees the unravelling of so much horror that traditionally happened behind closed doors – and where the presentation of young boys and priests in the same sentence leads one to believe the worst.

And yet, unlike Aisling Walsh’s Song for a Raggy Boy (2003) which confronts the same issue, the subtlety in Cuningham’s direction and the collaborative energies of the cast, is almost more devastating, offset as it is by an utterly sterling cameo performance by Mwenya Kabwe as the child’s mother, which is pivotal to the whole work.

Doubt is a cleanly composed, terrifying piece of muscular, unpretentious theatre, unforgivably tight in its use of language, but also completely developed and three-dimensional in how it describes the dilemma. You don’t leave the environment armed with a healthy dollop of homophobia and self-righteous hatred of the establishment of the church education system. But you do leave in an emotional state of turbulence that might keep you awake.

  • Doubt: A Parable, written by John Patrick Shanley is directed by James Cuningham and designed by Tina Le Roux (lighting), Vaughn Sadie (set) and Margo Fleish (costumes). It is performed by Mwenya Kabwe, James MacEwan, Janna Ramos-Violante and Fiona Ramsay, at the Auto & General Theatre on the Square in Sandton, until August 15. 0118838606 or visit co.za

No curatorial hand hurts Colbert Mashile’s hybrid beasts

Mashile

A sheep looks at you blankly from the interstices of a drawing. But is this really a sheep? Conjoined with a human-evocative body and highlighted by a clasped-together pair of chicken’s feet, the current exhibition of charcoal and paint works on paper by Colbert Mashile is about much more than the portraits of animals or idiosyncratic quirk.

Rather vaguely and slightly disparagingly titled collectively This and That, this body of 13 drawings pushes and pulls from around the visual nuances Mashile has established for himself over the last several years. His is a language about therianthropes and sympathetic magic; it’s about the kind of gesture which rendered a sheep’s head into Be’elzebub in William Golding’s classic novel The Lord of the Flies, the kind of gesture which can give a human character the head of a jackal a pig or a sheep but not allow it to slip into trite or silly dialogue about symbolism.

It is also not about an instructive or two-dimensional reflection of how old African culture manifests in contemporary art – the wily rabbit, iconic in so much African legends – appears often, sometimes it’s heavily whiskered, or it has no limbs, or it’s tied to the back of a goat, like a baby.  It’s sinister, endearing, mysterious, but above all, it embraces an ebb and flow which allows the work to speak for itself and the hybrid beasts to speak in a language of their own, devoid, mostly of the trappings of mythology.

In the absence of a gallery-made press release, you’re forced to make your own assumptions about the focus and designs of the pieces in question – and this is both good and bad. From a positive perspective, you’re left alone with these works, bold and outspoken as is Mashile’s wont, but crafted and curious and digressing from his seductive use of the naïve anthropomorphic form.

On the other hand, in being left alone with these works, you become aware of a curatorial absence which compromises how they are reflected. There’s discrepancy between the name of a work and how it is labelled, in one instance, as there’s a void in what This and That really is about. Yes, it’s a joy to see Mashile’s work, but devoid of a backstory, even one filled with platitudes or praise, something feels stripped from the relationship between audience and work.

  • Colbert Mashile’s exhibition This and That is at Speke, the downstairs space at Circa Gallery, Jellicoe Avenue, Rosebank, until August 13. 0117884805 or circagallery.co.za

Jemma Kahn, Roberto Pombo take the piss out of hell itself, with complete aplomb

Dirty: Roberto Pombo and Jemma Kahn in Croissants.

Lascivious with smeared mascara and dirty words: Roberto Pombo and Jemma Kahn in Croissants.

There’s an element of such blatant lasciviousness in the framework, articulation and texture of Jemma Kahn’s new kamishibai-redolent production that you have to laugh. Sex, like death onstage, needs to be handled with a level of spoof that expunges earnest urgency and enables it to entertain without sliding off foolishly. Kahn, opposite Roberto Pombo demonstrates the intelligent sophistication necessary for this work never to teeter into gratuitous eroticism. They retain the upper hand, in keeping the work as light and frothy as possible, without losing the entertaining edge.

And touch on sex and death they do – even allowing their proverbial fingernails and tongues to explore beneath the hypothetical surfaces. The work offers an understanding of power, seduction and horror, and in its narrative tightness and Kahn’s articulate performance, it’s never overstated.

We didn’t come to hell for the croissants, like its forerunner under Kahn’s hand, the Epicene Butcher – boasts a raft of stories for consenting adults. It embraces an unapologetically contemporary western take and loses the Japanese flavour of the first show. The device of Chalk Girl, a theatrical foil written by John Trengrove for Klara van Wyk in the Epicene Butcher, has transmogrified into Pombo’s almost demented silent character, dressed as he is in a hybrid costume that’s part peep-show tawdriness, part magician’s assistant in its rude, oft crude suaveness, which raises a giggle rather than an eyebrow: while the work certainly isn’t tame, its parameters enable it to retain its stage production identity.

This is what successful theatrical entertainment is about – the stories have morals, but they’re constructed to surprise you, to make you laugh and in a grown up sense, be titillated. There’s nothing soft about these pieces which consort with the devil with as much abandonment as you can muster or imagine. The work’s certainly not for children or the prudish, but the level of sublime manipulation of tone and content, the manner in which words are allowed to twist happily on their own meanings or nuances, and the way in which punch lines are delivered with a slick hand and a teasing eye leave you unable not to wonder what magic and poetry this team could create if they were performing Shakespeare or Beckett.

Croissants is an excellent showcase, in so many literal and figurative ways, for the unquestionable skills of Kahn and Pombo – and the writers and illustrators whose work appears in this format. But its existence is about more than frankly being in the world: it’s about the need to reshape one’s identity in a theatre world where jobs are scarce and auditions bad for the ego. Kahn has reinvented this wheel with all the chutzpah, laughter and derision necessary: may she continue with abandon.

  • We didn’t come to hell for the croissants: Seven deadly new stories for consenting adults is directed by Lindiwe Matshikiza with writing by Tertius Kapp, Rosa Lyster, Lebogang Mogashoa, Justin Oswald, Nicholas Spagnoletti and Louis Viljoen and illustrations by Carlos Amato, Rebecca Haysom, David Jackson and Jemma Kahn. It features production design by David Hutt (costumes) and is performed by Jemma Kahn and Roberto Pombo. It was part of the Wits 969 Festival during July and will perform at POPArt theatre in Maboneng, downtown Johannesburg August 26-30 and for an extended run in Cape Town towards the end of the year.