Making Mandela and history to make children swoon

Don't steal my mealies: Nelson Mandela (Mlindeli Zondi) and his relation Justice, with whom he was raised (Jaques de Silva) are lambasted by Noengland, the wife of the Thembu regent, for nicking mealies. Photograph courtesy bdlive.co.za

Don’t steal my mealies: Nelson Mandela (Mlindeli Zondi) and his relation Justice, with whom he was raised (Jaques de Silva) are lambasted by Noengland, the wife of the Thembu regent, for nicking mealies. Photograph courtesy bdlive.co.za

Armed with a couple of cardboard trees, some simple box-like structures and tiny reflections of buildings and cows, three able young performers tell what could easily be South Africa’s most romantic and beautiful tale, offering a trajectory that stretches from the idyllic rurality of Mvezo in the Eastern Cape all the way to the racially complex rush and tumble of the city of Johannesburg, Making Mandela is a lovely work, albeit with a few dents that affect its clarity.

In February of this year, the work was reviewed on this blog after its 2014 Assitej season in Denmark, during a brief season at the State Theatre in Pretoria and before its season at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown. It’s back on the boards, and offers the same physical theatre fire as it did then, but feels a little bruised for wear.

While the compelling story that highlights Nelson Mandela’s early childhood has been constructed for a young audience, and holds its own with graphic interpretation, half-face masks and choreographic vibes that make it stand out, it seems longer than it was before, and coarse exaggeration in some of the performances hurt the clarity and poetry of the material.

The woman who raised Mandela, Noengland, the wife of the Thembu regent of the time, is a case in point. Dressed in an orange doek and little skirt, and performed by Barileng Malebye, she’s the direct opposite of the humble and ageing woman (also performed by Malebye) who gave birth to Nelson, but Malebye gives her such emphasis that every syllable is characterised by a twitch of her bum, chest or head. While initially, this is cute, it tires quickly and affects the character’s sense of believable gravitas.

While Mandela’s growing human rights awareness is articulately threaded into the body of the work – more, perhaps, than it was in the production’s first manifestation – there’s a sameness in the texture of the work as the second half unfolds that occasionally loses audience focus. It has to do with the delicious and articulate balance of emotion in the work’s first half, and how it lacks that kind of fire as the story glosses quickly through Mandela’s young adulthood.

This is still a production that could hold a whole generation’s imagination, and features stand out performances by Jaques de Silva in a range of noteworthy interpretations of South African stereotypes, from the child in the classroom and Justice, who was raised as a sibling to Nelson, to the Afrikaner broederbonder. Mlindeli Zondi’s stage presence and smile feels just right for an interpretation of Nelson Mandela.

The play is constructed on the twin trajectories that take you from 1918, and the establishment of the notorious Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB) a severely right wing political movement which infiltrated the country’s racist ideology, and the birth of Mandela, in July of that year. It does need more nuance, though; while the physical energy of the work is gorgeous, the work would benefit with more performative shade and darkness that holds its complex whole together.

Telling Mandela’s story to young people is a massive challenge as it is a tale so rich with values, contradictions and real life adventures. In the hands of this talented cast and creative team, it needs a little more massaging, but promises to be the play that will touch and ignite many a young person’s reflections on one of the biggest historical heroes that was a part of South Africa’s bigger narrative.

  • Making Mandela: The Boy Who Defined A Future, is written by Nick Warren and Jenine Collocott and directed by Collocott. It features design by Duncan Gibbon (set), Peter Cornell (sound), and is performed by Jaques de Silve, Barileng Malebye and Mlindeli Zondi at the Auto & General Theatre on the Square in Sandton until October 3. Visit theatreonthesquare.co.za or call 011-883-8606.
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Cheap tricks and gimmickry to make you look

tat

I thought I dreamed it. I remember the words “Theatre is dead in SA” on a street pole advert in black type on a while background under the dark blue logo of a weekly national paper, a few days ago in Johannesburg. And I filed the recollection of the image away as a surreal stray pustule of my overactive imagination.

Alas, others saw it too. It was no dream. <<Though as I have subsequently confirmed, the actual wording on the original street pole headline was “Crisis in SA Theatre?”>> Who would do such a sensationalist stunt, other than a newspaper desperate to sell copies?

Entitled ‘Quo Vadis Theatre?’, the article, written by journalist Tat Wolfen in the Saturday Star triggered really angry reverberations amongst arts practitioners across the board. None of them friendly towards the ideas it suggests, but all of them proactive in affirming theatre’s very much alive.

Several people have vociferously claimed Wolfen is a nonentity in the industry, an idiot, a racist and other colourful variations on that theme. In his bitter rant which tars whole swathes of South African theatre-going society with crude brush strokes, this journalist/arts writer with over 15 years experience in the industry reveals his own inadequacies, in collaboration that is, with the editorial, subbing, photographic and publishing mechanisms of the newspaper which brought that piece of writing to public life.

For one thing, the article is illustrated with two photographs which are mischievous at best. The Alhambra Theatre in Doornfontein, Johannesburg, run by Pieter Toerien since the 1980s, closed its doors as a theatre just before Montecasino in Fourways was launched, under Toerien’s steerage in 2000.  This was a decision which hinged on demography rather than death of the industry, as such. Showing a dead theatre fifteen or so odd years after the fact is unashamedly sly.

The photograph of a ‘dark theatre’ resonates with silly trickery: theatre is not a whirligig carnival which is all popping lights and activity at any given moment of the day or night. All the photographer needed to do was go to any theatre at a time of day when nothing is performing and photograph the empty seats. Better still, in the dark. While the photographs have the power to grab you by the eye and say a million things that the article might not be capable of, these photographs certainly speak of a hollow agenda.

In his article, Wolfen presents four challenges he considers to be sounding the industry’s death knoll: the assertion that audiences are old; that young people are disinterested; the existence of crime; and conservative tastes. There’s a racial imperative so close to the bone in these qualifiers, you can almost see it, but you can’t.

Society is rich with diversity. There are indeed young people who are “bored and shallow” as Wolfen states, but there are also deeply informed and highly skilled young people who will be the arts shapeshifters in the future. One need only look at the programme of the So So1o festival currently on the boards at Wits Theatre to see their creative personas. The likes of Leonie Ogle, a young director; Tony Miyambo, a young performer; Zethu Dlomo, a young performer; to name but a very few. Are these ghosts? Figments of my imagination? I think not.

Has Wolfen never been to the Market Theatre in Johannesburg? That place where the recent seasons of Dominique Gumede’s Crepuscule and Neil Coppen’s Animal Farm earned consistent full houses. When you’re at the Market Theatre, you get the whole range: old, young, black, white people all around you, in the audience. Every time.

Has he never attended a dance work, either at the Market Theatre or under the auspices of the Dance Umbrella, where the work might be experimental and difficult but nary is there a vacant seat, and young black, engaged and articulate audience members sit in the aisles, sometimes. These are not the conservative lot who only see The Sound of Music, at all.

A comment that “suburbanites are being raped, tortured and killed … in their houses” raises such damaging invective to this troubled country that it is dizzying. Yes, crime happens. Bad crime. It does. But to bring such scarlet prose into a reflection on the state of the arts is simply irresponsible. Crime is no elephant in the room and it does, indeed, halt a lot of people in their bid to drive to the centre of the city because they’re frightened, but by the same token, describing it so crudely does nothing but further frighten readers.

Further, a comment that there is too high an age profile of audiences is not only inaccurate, but it reflects cringeworthy parochialism. In each of Wolfen’s so-called challenges, there is a kernel of truth but he’s drawn each out to such an overwhelmingly dramatic extent that they have become grotesque hyperbole giving voice to florid overgeneralisation.

The arts are today indeed in a delicate position in South Africa – as are so many industries, including the media at large – from a financial perspective, a skills-based one and in the face of the shifting options that the internet has presented. An article like Wolfen’s taking up a full broadsheet page of precious print space reflects a total lack on the part of the Saturday Star of genuine commitment to the arts. People in this industry, including I daresay Wolfen himself, are here because they love the arts. They’re fighting battles against a whole gamut of challenges. Surely bludgeoning the industry further with overstatement is counterproductive?

Hopefully Wolfen’s article — and the street pole ad that some sub-editor siphoned out of the original story — will vanish from the sensibilities of wouldbe audiences or wouldbe sponsors of the arts if it hasn’t already. Because Montecasino hasn’t yet staged the musical Wicked, it doesn’t mean that theatre is dead in this country, as Wolfen implies. The industry is struggling to reinvent itself, as is much of the whole world right now. Whether the contrivance of ‘part two’ promised next week will work or not is moot. I won’t be buying the Saturday Star to find out.

Don’t put your baby in the audience, Mrs Worthington

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Corrupting Noel Coward’s lyrics a bit but celebrating the intent of his 1947 song that warns a woman against putting her child needlessly on the stage, I cock a snook at the young mommies and daddies who bring their relatively freshly-hatched babies, still in swaddling clothes to the theatre. Are you absolutely intent on destroying any chance of your child having a real love for the theatre? And why would you punish them thus?

It’s a mystery to me – not very different from the mystery as to why people insist on using their cell phones in a darkened theatre – conjoined with all those values of utter selfishness that many of our theatre-going audience exude. I’ve had this conversation many times. I’ve been asked to remove a posting on facebook by a theatre when I ranted about an 18-month-old child sitting next to me during a huge, loud musical at a big daunting theatre complex, specifically for an adult audience. The child in question teetered between extreme distress, overwhelming boredom and dizzyingly offensive bratty precocity. And then it needed a nappy change. I’m funny that way: the smell of other people’s poo doesn’t do it for me.

And indeed, the theatre was correct (and the post was removed): My comments would bring them bad publicity. While they can state on the tickets and the walls and the telephone and the internet until they are blue in the face that the production is not geared for children under a certain age, the relentless and arrogant idiocy of the paying audience member who insists on bringing their sproglet to the theatre, is louder: is the customer always right? Will the theatre earn a bad name if, at the door, an usher says, “I’m sorry madam, this child cannot go into the theatre?”

Invariably, and sadly, it will. Those members of our society who feel that their money can thrust them into any given situation are not shy. They’re also not unaggressive. Given the current state of the theatre in this country right now, no one can afford to create an unpleasant scene with a customer who barges their way into any scenario without the vaguest notion of how revolting their behaviour actually is. They are paying their way, aren’t they?

And you may argue your baby is exceptionally intelligent, which is why you take it to the theatre. Why, of course it is! It’s yours, isn’t it?

Your baby is a baby and its job is to kvetch and make a noise, to cry and have a short attention span. Plonking a child in a nappy onto a theatre seat in a dark theatre that will erupt into loud music and bright lights should be a sin that’s up there in terms of the multitude of ways in which incompetent and psychiatrically sick adults abuse children. Can you imagine how unbelievably terrifying it could be to be in that situation? Without the ability to talk properly or rationalise sensibly, or understand that the situation is about this great concept called entertainment, a little mite might well be terrified witless by the experience.

And that’s just the child. Your child is brilliant and beautiful and flawless because you made it. But not everyone in the world might see its brilliance or beauty or flawlessness, particularly when it’s running havoc in a theatre’s aisles or crying its head off. Other people have paid money to see a production and seeing the fruit of your union showing off under the stage lights is not what they’re here for.

And I say all of this in absolute cognisance of the genre of theatre directed at the so-called ‘0-year-old’. There is, indeed, such a thing, but it is arguably at this stage, a fledgling discipline in South Africa.

So, don’t bring your baby into the audience, Mrs Worthington. Wait a few years until it can walk and use a potty competently. Wait until it fits the moniker ‘child’ properly. Wait until its attention span has developed long enough for it to sit through a story and listen to it. The children’s theatre industry in South Africa is ripe with magic for your little one, but give him or her a chance to become a person first. For your child’s sake. And the world’s.

Humanity held to an ape’s mirror, devastatingly

The Beast. Tony Miyambo is Kafka's Ape, Red Peter. Photograph courtesy Facebook

The Beast. Tony Miyambo is Kafka’s Ape, Red Peter. Photograph courtesy Facebook

As he clambers onstage in the glimmer before the production begins, you’re discomforted: you are not sure if he’s man or beast. It’s an ambiguity Tony Miyambo holds with sublime authority over the duration of this astonishing piece of theatre, allowing Franz Kafka’s disturbing 1917 tale of Red Peter which was published in fragmentary form, a story about an ape gentrified by human beings, to blossom in Johannesburg, in 2015.

Channelling a heady concatenation of implied references to Joseph Merrick, also known as the Elephant Man in Victorian culture; Sara Baartman, South Africa’s very own monsterised human being; xenophobic realities and homophobia; and the most recently discovered fossil, homo naledi, the play comprises poignant truisms about identity and the danger of shallowly judging others – or putting those who look different from oneself in a context of display for entertainment. In Miyambo’s hands, it is completely mesmerising.

Rather than dressing as a chimp, Miyambo embraces the notion of chimp-hood from within, and as his animal lip-smacking, snorting and gesturing burst through his tamed veneer, as he stands with a potent sense of physical disability and discomfort upon the podium dressed in a red shirt and tie – the story is crafted around an academic presentation on the evolution of man – your empathy for his complex and tragic plight is enriched and informed.

Miyambo confronts the audience, challenging the theatre’s fourth wall, with cautionary respect and the characteristic curiosity of a primate. You might get your foot or hand shaken, or your hair picked through for tasty fleas during the performance, but it’s a gentle level of engagement and doesn’t disrupt the caveats of animality presented here.

Several years ago, Jemma Kahn and Bryan van Niekerk, under the direction of Sylvaine Strike staged a wordless play at the Wits Theatre called The Animals. It was one of those theatre gems with a short season and not a huge public profile, which nevertheless unequivocally raised the bar in theatrical brilliance. Miyambo’s embrace of Red Peter with all his vulnerabilities and embarrassing faux pas reaches a similar level of theatrical sophistication and fire to Kahn and van Niekerk’s. His blend of empathy, self-deprecation and unswerving focus gives this production the wherewithal to turn your head.

But further to all of this, Miyambo is a performer of nimble and great diversity. His interpretation of Red Peter is utterly flawless in his mimicry of a monkey mimicking a human interface and how his unique quandary is cynical and naive simultaneously. Nothing feels out of place in the interstices of this Red Peter. Miyambo’s performance will leave you shattered by how ideas of humanity cleave with the monkey’s reflection on the base hypocrisies of the human race.

Above all, Kafka’s Ape is a story told with clarity and acumen and, coupled with a very simple set and sensitive lighting decisions, its central premises will haunt you. It is, you must be warned, staged in arguably the theatre complex’s most disrespectful venue for an audience, but the levity and intensity of the 50 minutes of this ten-out-of-ten piece of theatre will supersede any physical discomfort.

  • Kafka’s Ape is adapted from Franz Kafka’s short story A Report to an Academy by Phala O. Phala, who also directs the production. It features costume and set design by Leisel Retief and is performed by Tony Miyambo. It performs on September 27 at the Wits Amphitheatre as part of the So So1o festival hosted by Wits University.

Broken Plates: far more than shards of pottery

Teaching them to dance: Renos Spanoudes (in a white shirt) gets his audience onstage, throwing plates and dancing. Photograph courtesy Buz Publicity

Teaching them to dance: Renos Spanoudes (in a white shirt) gets his audience onstage, throwing plates and dancing. Photograph courtesy Buz Publicity

In Ernest Hemingway’s treatise on bull-fighting, Death in the Afternoon, there is a fabulous cleaving of fact with fiction, leaving you not only mesmerised, but informed and entertained. Renos Spanoudes’s latest piece of theatre does exactly that, offering peeks into the complexity of Greek identity in South Africa as it gently blends a mix of history with tradition, spiced with explanation and scented heavily with the emotional baggage of the foreigner. It’s a beautiful production which will find you throwing plates with abandon and dancing like Zorba on the beach.

Spanoudes has crafted three characters – a proud father at the wedding of his daughter; an old woman who mourns; a school teacher who can cry in front of his students – and uses each of them to extrapolate on how the idea of broken plates reflects much more than shards of pottery or wasted crockery. It’s about acknowledging fullness in life.

Amidst happiness there’s a sense of the tragic; amidst tragedy there’s humour. All is woven together in this big and direct text which delves with empathy and fondness far beneath the surface of a foreign stereotype. These three characters draw from cliché but blossom and flourish in the messy complexity of real life. The work is also a celebration of contemporary and apartheid-stained Johannesburg with all its grim contradictions, its racism and its bruised and tawdry history.

Bringing in everything from the sudden demise of a beloved cat named Loopy to the grim realities and grunts which a once-young woman nick-named Helen of Troyeville carries in her handbag and heart to keeping up with the Greek neighbours with 1000 break-worthy plates at a wedding, the work is a slice of life which, like any Greek dessert, will leave you keening with the richness of the material’s fabric, but feeling enriched and privileged to have been in the presence of the thing.

Spanoudes is an astonishing performer who embraces the challenge of vulnerability with a humble gusto. He basks in the unforgiving presence of the audience as he bares his Greek soul, inflicted hurts and broken plates, with a generosity of spirit that is all-embracing and will truly get you off your seat in the audience, and in the arms of strangers, dancing as though on the beach, with nothing left to lose.

As you shout ‘Opa’ and send plates careening noisily into pieces, you realise how life can overflow on stage, gloriously.

  • Broken Plates is written by Renos Nicos Spanoudes and directed by Loren Rae Nel. It features design by Spanoudes and Nel (costumes and set, and lighting) and is performed by Spanoudes as part of the Wits So So1o festival, at the Wits Downstairs Theatre, on September 26 and 27. webtickets.co.za

Nostalgia with a cool head: Karin Preller’s Stilled Lives

Ella's Doll (2015) oil on canvas, by Karin Preller. Photograph courtesy Lizamore & Associates.

Ella’s Doll (2015) oil on canvas, by Karin Preller. Photograph courtesy Lizamore & Associates.

Arguably, Karin Preller is at this moment one of South Africa’s most collectible artists. She’s firmly in a mid-career trajectory, her work is uniformly exceptional and her prices are not (yet) skyrocketing. Also, her pieces are about a heady mix of skill, nostalgia and beauty. It never allows itself to teeter too far into either camp, though and yields an utterly haunting approach. In the miasma of sham, drudgery and oft one-liner conceptual ideas that contemporary art has become notorious for, Preller’s work holds its own. And you can look at it every day.

Having worked with the painterly possibilities suggested by old family snaps for the last several years, Preller approaches the blatant nostalgia of her subject matter with a cool head. As a result her images skirt universality – she doesn’t allow the specificity of her own baby pictures from the 1960s to overshadow the ethos her paintings embrace. Drawing from deeply personal roots, the works are never self-indulgent or self-congratulatory.

So there’s a blurring of the ineffable ether that comprises memory, shifting her memories into yours. The typically harsh South African sun and the way in which photographs age play into the visual poems she casts around her own history. And because you are a person in the world, yours as well. You look at these paintings of her childhood neighbourhood in Montgomery Park, and from far, they look visually tight, embracing the time and space in which she was raised. Step closer to the work and the specificity of those memories dissolve into glorious brush marks.

This exhibition is about more than just often endearingly imperfect family photographs. It’s about sisters. It’s about little girls’ dolls. And it’s about Preller stretching her skills to bravely go where she hasn’t yet.

Stilled Lives is an unpicking of the value invested in things and how they interface with memories. There’s an almost ghoulish nature in some of these portraits of playthings from Preller’s own past. But are they portraits, or still lives? Preller challenges the genre of still life, keeping her approach fluid enough to embrace the memento mori values of the tradition, and tight enough to remain compelling and fresh art.

The exhibition is inestimably enhanced by a body of charcoal drawings which again glance at the clumsiness of the photographic discipline in the hands of everyman: photography in the 1960s was light years from the sophisticated technology everyone has today on their cell phones, and the happy accidents of composition reflect delightfully on the past.

Preller’s approach is not delightful in any easy or recognisable capacity, however. These are works which do not pretend to be photographs.  Breathtakingly quiet, they offer an astute and direct thoughtfulness that reverberates with integrity in this beautiful and generous gallery space.

  • Karin Preller’s exhibition Stilled Lives is at Lizamore and Associates Art Gallery, 155 Jan Smuts Avenue, Rosebank, until September 26. Call 011-880-8802 or visit lizamore.co.za

The impenetrable sadness of Neels Coetzee’s Crucible

Crucible

It was William Blake who wrote of infinity in a grain of sand; there’s a logical, but also a peculiar parallel which happens unintentionally in Crucible, the first major retrospective exhibition of work by the late Neels Coetzee. It’s an odd thing, because the intensity and unequivocal beauty of the work you initially see is so great that you very quickly think you understand, and forgive its paltry quantity.

This damaging misperception has to do with an odd lack of information in the gallery that at first leads you to believe that Coetzee’s first major retrospective is really small and only fills Circa’s downstairs Speke Gallery. It doesn’t. The whole of the above gallery is full of his beautiful work, offering an aesthetic crescendo in your gallery experience which is without compare. Ignore the lack of signage and follow the ramp upwards after you have basked in the glory of the drawn images downstairs.

This aesthetic climax is Coetzee’s eponymous work, a peace monument comprising melted down AK-47 rifles. Completed in the mid-1990s, it’s a work which teeters between inaccessibility and the engaging rigidity of pattern. At the time, it was considered a landmark in South African sculpture, and has been placed in the gallery for this exhibition in such a way that it casts linear and complicated shafts of shadow and light around it.

The experience of seeing Crucible in this context bears great similarities with that of gazing upon an organ in a Gothic cathedral. It judders your emotions and it takes you a little while to gather yourself around the rest of the exhibition. Primarily showing sculpted works in the upstairs space of Circa, and many drawings, maquettes and etchings in the Speke space downstairs, the exhibition is heavily populated, yet feels bare: Coetzee, who passed away in 2013, was a highly self-critical artist, who often destroyed works in process.

So, in perusing this sensitively curated testimony to the value of Coetzee’s work, you understand – in the same way as you understand when you peruse Franz Kafka’s oeuvre, for instance – that this is the tip of the proverbial iceberg, but that the bulk of the body of a career trajectory of 39 years is sadly lost. There’s a deep and relentless focus on mortality with Coetzee’s bronze skull series. And there’s a monumentality to the individual works, which belies their maquette-like size.

In the gallery handout, there’s mention of the works being cast at two- or three times their original size, in compliance with Coetzee’s desire – something which was never honoured during his life time. In truth, the works could well have been cast ten- or twenty times their size, offering as they do a segueing of surfaces and a sense of space that is almost religious in its sense of mystery.

On the whole, a dark exhibition, in intent and focus, this retrospective conjures up a sense of deep sadness. The many monuments to the tormented, like broken gates, populate the gallery’s open vestibule, and one stands amid the fishes on the pedestal facing Jan Smuts Avenue.

Arguably, one of the exhibition’s most moving drawcards is the collation of two-dimensional works in the Speke Gallery. Coetzee’s approach boasted a very distinct line; one so delicate yet scalpel-like in its directness and intensity. He engaged with the stuff and texture of life with a curious and irascible exploratory eye and hand, creating a sense of intimacy which makes you draw close to, and away from, simultaneously.

A tremendously moving testimony to arguably one of South Africa’s more important sculptors, Crucible is not an easy exhibition to visit, but it is a deeply rewarding experience.

  • Crucible, a retrospective exhibition of work by Neels Coetzee (1940-2013) is curated by Koulla Xinisteris. It is displayed at the Circa and Speke Galleries in Rosebank, Johannesburg, until September 26. On October 1, this exhibition will be segued with a response by artist Bronwyn Lace – one of Coetzee’s former students – to Coetzee’s life, work and death. Phone 011-788-4806 or visit circaonjellicoe.co.za