Disrespecting Barney’s memory, in Cincinatti

Punt: Hedley (Brandon Auret) and Thembsie (Chuma Sopotela) in Cincinatti. Photograph by Ruphin Coudyzer.

Punt: Hedley (Brandon Auret) and Thembsie (Chuma Sopotela) in Cincinatti. Photograph by Ruphin Coudyzer.

A tatty Johannesburg nightclub, where apartheid is rife, the living is edgy and sex is a panacea for everything: welcome to Cincinatti. This play was workshopped in the late 1970s under the direction of the Market Theatre’s cofounder Barney Simon and a cast of theatre heavyweights of the time. Workshopping a play was not yet commonplace in the industry and the approach was feeling its own way, sometimes successfully, sometimes not.

Twenty years have elapsed since Simon passed away; the Market Theatre chose to give this production life in celebration of Simon’s influence on the theatre. From the get go, it seems an odd choice, even if you didn’t know the play in 1979. Is this really a work emblematic of Simon’s contribution to theatre in South Africa? Really?

Enabling a young director and cast to reflect on this script as a hard-boiled fait accompli, is iffy: the different night club characters and their dynamic were essences distilled from the madness of the time when they existed. In this production, there’s a distressing sloppiness around the historical moment Cincinatti represented: the original cast members are unforgivably not mentioned anywhere in the programme.

And this sloppiness pervades the show. The ensemble comprises the ageing hippy (Brandon Auret), the black woman who turns tricks on the street (Chuma Sopotela); the security guard (Paka Zwedala) and the gogo-dancer (Robyn Olivia Heaney). There’s the Indian cabaret singer (Ameera Patel), the English-speaking accountant (Theo Landey) and his sop of a wife (Odelle de Wet). There’s a young wannabe everything, who pretends suaveness with her platinum blond hair and cigarette, a la Miranda Richardson in Dance with a Stranger (Christien Le Roux).

And then there’s the unsophisticated white Afrikaans-speaking kid (Francois Jacobs), who, in just passing through, lends the work its denouement and its spice in an almost uncanny way. Singlehandedly, Jacobs, who we last saw in the astonishing production of People Are Living There, almost turns the play around. He’s an astonishingly fine performer who embraces his role with a candidness that takes your breath away, but alas, he’s too much of a cameo to turn the whole work around.

They are all unashamed stereotypes, specific to the era in which the play grew. They all have secret lives. Put this all together in 2015, where technology is alas too easily accessible, and you’re confronted with a production that begins by assaulting its audience with sound so obscenely loud, that the visual presence of the work is killed. In seeing this play, you might not necessarily want to be part of the club scene, or immersed into its blaring lights and terrible sound. But you are: the play is obnoxiously confrontational from its opening screech of sound and light.

Similarly, there’s a sub-narrative in the piece, featuring texts and audio-visual inserts. Completely unnecessary, these projects not only hurt what is left of the play, but they contradict the notion of theatre pauvre central to Simon’s approach to this work, in particular.

There’s a kind of self-conscious cleverness in this production which speaks of a young and enthusiastic director, focused on “pulling out all the technical stops” much more than he is on respecting the integrity of the original piece.

With a mish-mash of digressions in quality when it comes to the performances, there are two unequivocal stand out roles, which do, actually, make this production worth seeing, but the performances of both Jacobs and Sopotela are somewhat obscured by the too many faux pas in the piece. The work lacks the authenticity that was evident in Paul Slabolepszy’s Pale Natives, drawing from within the same era, that was revived onstage several months ago, under the hand of Bobby Heaney.

South Africa in the 1970s was a completely different beast to what it is now, from the language to the politics to the understanding of the value of sex and drugs. It was replete with young people who knew what they were fighting for and were determined to change the world. It had its own very specific sonorousness. This rendition of Cincinatti sorely lacks any of that, and becomes meaningless.

  • Cincinatti: Scenes from city life, is written by Barney Simon and directed by Clive Mathibe with assistance from Vanessa Cooke. It is designed by Nadya Cohen (set), Lebo Toko (choreography), Nomvula Molepo (lighting) Lesego Moripe (costumes) and Jurgen Meekel (audio-visual) and performed by Brandon Auret, Odelle De Wet, Robyn Olivia Heaney, Francois Jacobs, Theo Landey, Christien Le Roux, Ameera Patel, Chuma Sopotela and Paka Zwedala, until September 13. Visit co.za or call 0118321641.
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