An unsilencable voice: a fine tribute to a great South African

Enormity: Ralph Lawson plays Alan Paton. Photograph courtesy State Theatre, Pretoria.

Enormity: Ralph Lawson plays Alan Paton. Photograph courtesy State Theatre, Pretoria.

He sits in a beautiful space, filled with books and he contemplates the relentless enormity of loss. This simple gesture is the delicate pivot to A Voice I cannot Silence, a new South African play which gives flesh and poetry to a reflection on the life of Alan Paton (1903-1988), arguably, one of this country’s most important novelists and educators – and the writer of Cry the Beloved Country (1948).

It’s a three hander, cast with great effect around Paton’s words, paying tribute to his second marriage with a woman called Anne Hopkins – played magnificently by Clare Mortimer – who first came into his life as a secretary. Hinged on his political opinions and gestures, his life, his foibles and vulnerabilities, the play is nothing short of a masterpiece: honed with a great level of respect and dignity, the work, in the hands of lesser performers might have been text heavy, but with Lawson in the central role opposite Mortimer, with Menzi Mkhwane reflecting on the children that passed through Paton’s hands,  text is nimbly cast between performers in a way that evokes the quick give and take of shuttlecocks in badminton.

Indeed, the Englishness of Hopkins is splayed wonderfully across the work, offering an understanding of three very diverse cultures and political positions in a country rooted in racist values and suffocating its own potential with legislation. And indeed, this is a very dignified and respectful play, but the poetry of the language, the construction of the work, the presence of birds, bullfrogs and crickets and the thoughtful weaving together of diverse ideas yields a piece which is delicate and crisp, whilst it remains formal. Never boring, deeply incisive, this is a really special play.

And while Paton is given empathetic three dimensionality as a principal, a politically conscious individual and a crotchety yet lovable ageing icon, the unfathomable void that great loss brings is filtered through this work with a deft hand and an impeccable sense of delivery. If you have known loss in any capacity, these words will talk directly to your pain.

Similar in structure to Athol Fugard’s The Shadow of the Hummingbird, performed in Johannesburg last August, this work offers an even greater sense of reflection. Never stooping to hero-worship or hollow self-deprecation, the piece is a portrait of a great man, which is deeply touching in so many ways, from his sense of self to the heartbreaking tales of the youngsters Paton worked with as a reformatory warden who transmogrified into a principal, touching and enriching their brokenness.

The only issue with the set was the occasional glaring of the desk lamp into the face of the audience, which is distracting. Having said that, the production works beautifully in the generous space of the State Theatre’s Momentum theatre – that small space without wheelchair access at the end of a long corridor and a narrow flight of stairs – but the bigger context of the theatre complex is far from welcoming to the general public: there’s a crass and disturbing haphazardness in the environment which feels disrespectful. Know, however, that A Voice I Cannot Silence is so wisely made, performed with such an intense and rich understanding of the value Paton brought to the South African narrative, that if you’re travelling from Johannesburg to see the work, it will not be a 50km driven in vain.

Hopefully this play will have considerable legs nationally, in the not too distant future. It’s an important and beautiful reflection of one of South Africa’s heroes.

  • A Voice I Cannot Silence is written by Greg Homann and Ralph Lawson. It is directed by Greg Homann and features design by Nadya Cohen (set), Michael Broderick (lighting) and Evan Roberts (soundscape). It is performed by Ralph Lawson, Menzi Mkhwane and Clare Mortimer at the Momentum Theatre, State Theatre complex in Pretoria, until October 24. Visit statetheatre.co.za
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Full-throated and in fine demonic form, Sweeney Todd is a must-see

My friend: Sweeney Todd (Jonathan Roxmouth) adores his blade; Mrs Lovett (Charon Williams-Ros) looks on. Photograph by Val Adamson

My friend: Sweeney Todd (Jonathan Roxmouth) adores his blade; Mrs Lovett (Charon Williams-Ros) looks on. Photograph by Val Adamson

Drenched in blood and delicious in its unrelenting dark humour, Steven Stead’s production of Sweeney Todd, the Sondheim classic that blends some of the finest traditions in vocal music, is a real achievement.

Headlined by Jonathan Roxmouth in the lead, and Charon Williams-Ros as the dreadfully fine Mrs Lovett, the production is non-stop entertainment at its very grimmest. Blending everything from a renegade barber with a sharp blade he’s not afraid to use, to rape and havoc, lunatics set free from an asylum, the grinding of human flesh to make pies for the unsuspecting community and a vortex of revenge made all the more slippery with spilled blood. But don’t be frightened or get moralistic: it’s a delicious no holds barred spoof on the horror tradition. And virtually everyone dies at the end.

But also, literally everyone shines in their roles, from the cameo performances of the ensemble cast, lending texture and energy to the depiction of the grubby grunginess of 19th century London, which is enhanced to miraculous levels by an extraordinary set, which evolves in deft timing into its various levels, leeways and channels. Like any penny dreadful of the time, there’s tales within tales, a lovely damsel in distress – Sanli Jooste – mistaken identities and lots of flagrant murder of bad guys and foolish ones, hairy men and anyone else.

Michael Richard as the totally amoral Judge Turpin who rules the community with a crooked set of values and his sidekick the Beadle (Adam Pelkowitz) form a gruesome duo and a fine nemesis for Mr Todd a.k.a. Benjamin Barker, a man nursing a grievance and holding a sharp blade for many a beard and oft a little more, a little lower.

Polished performances, fine choreography and ghoulish make up and costumes aside, the complexity of the music, the wit and coherence of the lyrics, which threads so many different reflections and opinions into the rich and glorious texture of the material draws you in and keeps you focused. The language is nimble and contemporary, vicious and hilarious.

The only drawback remains the space in relation to the bigness of the sound. Often when a solo performer is jousting vocally with the orchestra, his or her voice is lost. This is compensated for by the beautiful strengths of the ensemble cast, which lend the work the kind of wild hysteria and rich depth, it warrants.

Sweeney Todd will sweep you off your feet and make any meat pie that comes your way a little tainted with the possibility of sheer horror.

  • Sweeney Todd, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, is based on the book by Hugh Wheeler and directed by Steven Stead. It features design by Greg King (set), Neil Stuart Harris (costumes), Rowan Bakker (musical direction), Tina Le Roux (lighting), Mark Malherbe (sound) and Jonathan Tunick (orchestration). It is performed by Cameron Botha, Anne-Marie Clulow, Pauline du Plessis, Germandt Geldenhuys, Earl Gregory, Sanli Jooste, Weslee Swain Lauder, Adam Pelkowitz, Michael Richard, Megan Rigby, Jonathan Roxmouth, Claire Simonis, Candice Van Litsenborgh, Jaco Van Rensburg, Charon Williams-Ros and Luciano Zuppa, at the Pieter Toerien Theatre, Montecasino, Fourways, until November 29. <<Due to popular demand, the run of the season in Johannesburg has been extended until December 13>> Visit montecasino.co.za

Three little words to give you goosebumps: Dis ek, Anna.

Girl alone: Charlene Brouwer plays Anna.

Girl alone: Charlene Brouwer plays Anna.

The filthy scourge of paedophilia has crossed our awareness so frequently and in so much detail in fiction and fact, history and the news, at times lascivious, at times clinical, that it has become humdrum. The film version of Dis ek, Anna (It’s me, Anna) is a fresh and earnest piece of work, bruised by predictability, but enhanced with a crafted texture that boasts moments of sheer directorial poetry.

In the aftermath of years of abuse by her step-father, the central eponymous character played by Charlene Brouwer embraces a narrative which is almost numbingly predictable, from the first still and the way in which a cut-price Barbie doll in a roadside pitstop makes Anna distressingly mesmerised, until the court’s final decision.

But more than the tale of a young girl molested and raped repeatedly by an older man, it is one that sears the underbelly of bullying: casting into relief how a so-believed perfect child becomes hated by her peers, but also, how the very idea of sex is portrayed as poisonous from within a set of Calvinist values, specific to a particular culture.

While drawing from South Africa’s top echelon theatrical performers in Afrikaans, including Marius Weyers, Nicola Hanekom and Elize Cawood in key roles, it features some absolutely astonishing cameos, by the likes of Ilse Klink, Dawid Minnaar and Elton Landrew. While they’re focused on for maybe 12 minutes throughout the whole film, they lend the piece such a sense of local colour and authenticity, they are haunting and pivotal to the tale.

Dis ek, Anna, enfolds a tale of abuse within a tale of abuse in a way that feels almost too neat, wrapping a goodly dose of advocacy in its folds: it’s tied together with the presence of Weyers as an elderly investigating officer with a mission, and there are aspects of the film that might evoke the British crime miniseries Trial and Retribution, from the 1990s, directed in part by Aisling Walsh, in terms of the different unfolding compartments of the tale. Indeed, there are many threads to the work, most of which are resolved and are interwoven around South Africanisms and other truisms, but in all of these occasionally stumbling ways, it yields a memorable punch.

And while the film is not flawless as a production, there are elements to it, which enable it to sing: the unfathomable horror of child rape and how on earth a community deals with the perpetrator of such a deed is held up in the light of Anna’s tale; the dovetailing of an Afrikaans-speaking, church-going level of blatant hypocrisy with the rawness of the relaying of a similar tale of woe from within an informal settlement are placed on a kind of moral scale which provokes thought.

While some of the lines articulated are not only silly and disrespectful to the bones of the story – and the advocate’s blonde assistant’s facial expressions lend a bizarre interpretative foolishness to the court case, and while there’s a pervading pallor in tone and personality of most of the white cast – the coloured and black cast members inject an unequivocal sense of real life into the piece – there’s an overriding value in this film which makes these errors forgivable and the piece, while slightly too long and in several respects begging for more succinct editing, is engaging.

  • Dis Ek, Annais directed by Sara Blecher and performed by Hykie Berg, Izel Bezuidenhout, Charlene Brouwer, Elize Cawood, Nicola Hanekom, Ilze Klink, Elton Landrew, Eduan van Jaarsveldt, Morné Visser, Drikus Volschenk and Marius Weyers. It is produced by Niel van Deventer, Tascha van der Westhuizen and Charlene Brouwer and written by Tertius Kapp, based on the novels Dis ek, Anna and Die staat teen Anna Bruwer by Anchien Troskie and was designed by Jonathan Kovel (photography), Chris Joubert (production), Nicholas Costaras (editor), Nerine Pienaar (costumes), Schalk Joubert (music) and Belinda Kruger (casting). Release date: October 23 2015.

The importance of Johnny

Bosbefok: Craig Morris is Johnny Boskak. Photograph by Kate Janse, courtesy cue.ru.ac.za

Bosbefok: Craig Morris is Johnny Boskak. Photograph by Kate Janse, courtesy cue.ru.ac.za

Very occasionally there comes a play which confronts an era from the inside out, with both a sense of empathy and one of hard-edged objectivity, with as complete and yet vulnerable an understanding of how riddled with complexity a given issue can be. Even more occasionally, do you find that the text of the work is completely impeccable: authentic to what it reflects, entertaining and satisfying to hear, and able to splay and contain emotion with a sense of mastery. And hardly ever, do you find a performance that melds the beauty of a text with physical theatre, interpretative possession of the material and an unrelenting ability to hold you, in the audience so mesmerised from the word go, that you can barely breathe. This is what you can anticipate in the current season of Johnny Boskak is Feeling Funny, performed by Craig Morris, which closes this year’s So So1o festival with astonishing aplomb.

The work grew out of a cameo character in playwright Greig Coetzee’s White Men With Weapons, and arguably holds an even more dynamic sway over the complex material it handles. Touching everything from the horror that white young men were compelled to face in the South African army, which was mandatory for them under the apartheid regime, to Jesus – with a Capetonian accent – and a distinctly Coloured devil rapping in tandem, to love, and death and rhyme and mime and hatred and racism, Johnny Boskak evokes the kind of seemingly-effortless perfection you find in works such as Steven Berkoff’s Decadence. Bringing the unique culture which surrounded the South African apartheid army and seriously damaged so many white South Africans, the piece plays with unfashionable taboos in its exploration of white society, replete as it is with 1980s white slang.

The language fills the story it tells with an exuberance which never allows it to be too slick, but holds its grittiness with a sense of moral itchiness. You want to hold onto each magnificent turn of phrase and astonishing metaphor, but alas, they slip through your sensibilities and memory as others vie for your attention, and yet others after that. The language is so rich with local colour, viciousness and malignancy in its description of a world tainted by conflicting and complicated values, you want to eat it: it’s rich with its own wisdoms but it never becomes silly or self-indulgent and flows with a rapidity and a fineness that leaves you breathless: you can’t hold onto it, but are left the richer for having experienced it.

And it all could very easily have been written for Craig Morris who embraces it all with such provocative focus that he is hauntingly magnetic. Armed with just an army kitbag and a piece of the kind of traffic barrier that separates a highway from the landscape it severs, some brilliant lighting work and the 1980s sound of Syd Kitchen, Morris evokes a whole wide landscape, from Estcourt to Van Reenen’s pass en route to Durban, coloured with drugs, sex and violence, conflicting values and terror, reality and scary dream fantasies, all seamlessly conjoined in a breathless stretch of 70 precious minutes.

It’s a complicated tale which feels like Bob Dylan’s Masters of War meeting one of Bitterkomix’s more graphic stories.  As the narrative unfolds, you feel as though you’ve been tossed into a cauldron of delicious evil and terrifying South African history, which blends the hateful illogic of Kafkaesque horror with the conundrums of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.

In short, it’s a ten-out-of-ten production which is not only completely flawless, but serves as an important theatrical anthem to that troubling and messy era in South Africa’s history.

  • Johnny Boskak is Feeling Funny is directed by Roslyn Wood-Morris and Craig Morris. It is written by Greig Coetzee and features costume and set design by Craig Morris and lighting design by Barry Strydom. Featuring original music by the late Syd Kitchen, it is performed by Craig Morris, as part of the So So1o 2015 festival, hosted by Wits University. It performs in the Wits Downstairs Theatre on Saturday October 10 at 14.30 and 19.30 and Sunday October 11 at 14.30 and 18.00. Tickets through co.za. Visit http://www.wits.ac.za/witstheatre

Response: a conversation of broken skulls, transparent pelvises and chance

Call and response: Bronwyn Lace's pelvis sculptures in contradistinction with Neels Coetzee's skull works cast in bronze. Photograph courtesy Circa Gallery

Call and response: Bronwyn Lace’s pelvis sculptures in contradistinction with Neels Coetzee’s skull works cast in bronze. Photograph courtesy Circa Gallery

Artist Bronwyn Lace enjoyed an important friendship with the late Neels Coetzee. She graduated from Wits University two years before she first encountered his work and knew him more as a friend and master of South African sculpture, in the latter part of his life, than as teacher. In so many respects, her artistic voice is the most ideal to form a dialogue with that of Coetzee’s, in this, an extension of the unmissable retrospective of his work, entitled The Crucible, curated by Koulla Xinisteris.

Like The Crucible, Response embraces a profound resonance with musical rhetoric and tradition. The construct of call and response – where two musicians or groups of musicians create dialogue by repeating musical phrases that are distinct but different from one another, reaches throughout the history of musicmaking. Lace’s work interfolds with that of Coetzee’s without upstaging it, in a visual phraseology that really does respond to it, respectfully enhancing your experience of the work of both artists.

Coetzee’s work engages very directly and poignantly with the crushing presence of death – through his skull sculptures, his maquettes of monuments to the tormented and the bones and metal detritus of AK-47 weapons. Conversely, Lace offers a subtle and detailed contemplation of the beginning of life: the pelvis. She presents a series of resin casts of the bones, and has worked into x-rays of a human pelvis with gold thread.

The most powerful of her works on this show, however are her “light sculptures”, pieces that take the sheer poetry of her crepuscular contemplation of the atmospheric phenomenon of God’s fingers, exhibited in this gallery some years ago, and tweaks it into a greater and deeper sense of subtlety. Collectively entitled Ascension, the three pieces silently, yet dramatically, speak of chance encounters, of the glancing of light against thread, of the bittersweetness of transience and the way in which death leaves us all in awe of what life may mean.

This is not a religious work in the conventional understanding of the idea, and yet, in the ways in which it flows and blooms, teases and upbraids the layout of Coetzee’s work, it touches deeply.

Most of the piece informing The Crucible remain in the gallery space, as and how they were since early September when this retrospective opened, including Coetzee’s achingly fine line drawings and lithographs. Lace’s pieces have been inserted into the space with an astute sense of space, of composition, of time and light. While the sense of grand finale that you were deeply aware of in Circa’s astonishing oval well, as you encountered the eponymous work itself, is modulated and slighted diluted by the strong light in Lace’s two Ascension pieces installed there, the sense of ritual balance is not lost.

  • Bronwyn Lace’s exhibition Response, curated by Koulls Xinisteris is in the two spaces of Circa gallery, Jellicoe Avenue, Rosebank, until October 31. Visit circaonjellicoe.co.za or call 011-788-4806.

Rough diamonds and ‘Kullid’ identity

Sweet drunk: Kelly Eksteen embraces the stereotypes of Colouredness at full throttle. Photograph courtesy Leonie Ogle.

Sweet drunk: Kelly Eksteen embraces the stereotypes of Colouredness at full throttle. Photograph courtesy Leonie Ogle.

What does it mean to be Coloured in contemporary South Africa, backgrounded as it is by a context replete with all manner of insulting histories and stereotypes, which teeter between hilarity and deep tragedy, simultaneously? Young theatre practitioners Leonie Ogle and Kelly Eksteen have cast this curious and rich identity under their collective loupe, realising Kullid.

It’s a new work, segueing three historical and theatrical texts that tease the Coloured phenomenon apart, which are laced with a concoction of everything from beer to methylated spirits, and which offer the construction of Sofia (played by Kelly Eksteen), a character who carries the three tales with an engaging sense of exuberance, threading hilarity with tragedy in a way which often finds you laughing at the deep sadness – not because you’re inherently callous, but rather because of how the characteristic Coloured ethos is handled: as with Yiddish narrative where there’s a motif called a tragic story – a bittere gelegte – which is self-deprecating and wise, self-mocking and sad and hilarious, all at the same time.

Eksteen is a supple performer, who moves fabulously in sync with the lurid colours of Coloured slang. Her performance is slightly hurt, however, by her lack of nuance in her interpretation. All of her characters are handled full blast, and the casualty is sometimes the clarity of the language, and the narrative and context it describes.

The work’s unequivocal gem is an interpretation of a young Coloured child, central to the piece: Eksteen embodies the crispy innocence of this child with such developed and empathetic veracity, it is like watching magic unfold and time reverse before your eyes. The other two characters are handled with too much of a similar technique for them to be distinguished; ultimately, you are left with a generalised smearing over of Coloured idiosyncrasy rather than as devastating and crafted an approach as we see with the child.

Eksteen is the kind of performer you want to see stretch her interpretative acumen in surprising directions. She embraces the flaws and faults of her own people with a brilliant and authentic sense of alacrity and directness, and Kullid is a deliciously entertaining production which feels alas too brief. But in line with much of the pickings of the So So1o festival, so far this year, there’s been a tendency to focus on identity. It’s an obvious but not unengaging solution to the festival’s defining parameters, but hopefully next year, and as this festival grows to maturity, more metaphor and nuance will filter into its programme.

  • Kullid is written and directed by Leonie Ogle, based on texts by Oscar Peterson and Heinrich Reisenhofer (Suip), Lueen Conning (A Coloured People) and Rehane Abrahams (What the Water Gave Me). It is designed by Leonie Ogle and Kelly Eksteen and performed by Kelly Eksteen, as part of the 2015 So So1o Festival at the University of the Witwatersrand theatre complex.

Goldendean and the treachery of the pronoun

Bold: Goldendean. Photograph by Delwyn Verasamy

Bold: Goldendean. Photograph by Delwyn Verasamy

Walk into any environment. Engage with strangers. What are the basic signifiers that enable you to do so? For one thing, language. For another, gender. An understanding of whether someone is a girl or a boy fundamentally affects how you respond to them. Call it upbringing. Call it social context. Call it psychology.

But what happens in a situation in which the very pronouns that you have been using all your life, are revealed as tainted? As potentially offensive to one to whom they do not apply. Everything, but everything, gets cast into disarray, and you are threatened with a kind of paralysis in expressing yourself.

Dean Hutton’s debut performance in The Cradle dismantles your sense of comfort in the world in a way that leaves you unsure who you are when you leave the space – and even unsure as to who you had been from the outset.

This is not to say that it messes directly with your own sexuality, but rather, it presents such a rich conundrum of being that it can shake you to your very foundations. On the exhibition’s opening night, an environment, a sense of mystique was created, and as you entered the space, your every sense was subtly seduced with tactile richness that made it difficult to be in the space for a long period of time because it was so intense.

From the fact that you were instructed, at the outset, to either take off your shoes or don plastic shoe-protectors, to the smell and feel of the soil so richly blanketing the space, to the sound of the bell, both in the performance itself, and the videoed performance, a sound which was also punctuated with that of a water fountain in the exhibition space and that of thunder on the sound track, every element played together to embrace you.

People were shy to begin navigating the space. The sacrosanctity of it all was complete. The artist, in golden nakedness, stood amidst the soil, sweeping swaths of it clean: perhaps in the shape of a map of Africa? Either way, Hutton wore a large bell at the waist. It rang and rumbled as Hutton swept, dangling like a metallic scrotum.

There is a sublime subtlety which contains Hutton’s nakedness as it contains the images of Hutton’s dogs, Comet and Luca or the natural environment on film. Audiences do not laugh with characteristic embarrassment that you might anticipate from such a situation. Having conquered their shyness, they move into the space and respectfully interact with the artist, who responds to them, while sweeping and ringing bells.

Hutton’s work on The Cradle begs comparison with that of South African-born performance artist Steven Cohen, who is currently based in Lille, France, given the use of performance, of nakedness, of environment. Hutton’s aesthetic, however, digresses vehemently from the invasiveness of Cohen’s persona. There’s less of a sense of adornment here, and more of a critical self-exploratory nakedness. The work is unsettling in a different way.

A low point in this extraordinary piece, was the positioning of Alberta Whittle in her role as Mummywatter. Playing with the ancient myths surrounding the Mami Wata, which ties the notion of the mermaid with that of fertility, Whittle performed the piece adorned in flowers and an impenetrable blueness. She sat in a plastic bath, making origami of money and distributing pieces of paper which reflected on the sangoma flyers that are handed out sporadically in urban South African traffic. A powerful performance in her own right, embracing enormous mystique, Whittle was positioned against the far wall of the gallery.

You were so swept away by Hutton’s presence and performance that it became easy to overlook what Whittle looked like, or was doing. This element of The Cradle should have been more confrontational, posing different challenges to the visitor.

Hutton’s debut as a performance artist is a gesture that cannot exist without follow up: a new character has emerged into South Africa’s performance art litany. What happens next?

  • The Cradle, an exhibition of new work by Dean Hutton in collaboration with Alberta Whittle and Anna Christina Lorenzen is at GoetheonMain, at Maboneng downtown Johannesburg, until October 25.