Happy insanity in the insect-riddled heart of a giant peach: remarkable theatre

“Oh James, we’re not going to eat you,” Samuel Hertz (centre bottom) is James Henry Trotter, surrounded by his new bunch of giant insect friends: (clockwise) Miss Ladybug (Kyra Green), Mr Grasshopper (Shaun Koch), Mr Earthworm (Veronique Mensah), Mr Centipede (Gamelihle Bovana) and Miss Spider (Dolly Louw). Photograph courtesy National Children’s Theatre.

The utter madness of Roald Dahl’s 1960s runaway success involving a giant peach, a solution to the unhappiness of a small boy at the hands of revolting grown ups and an investment of hope in the future rickety and full of peach flesh though it may be, has been ably translated to stage by Francois Theron.

Not an easy production technically, by any manner of means, the work entails different English-speaking accents – an American component is flush with a British one – conjoined with the illusion of flight  and that of floatation, containment in a vast fruit and the entrapment of insensate seagulls, to name but a few. From an issues-based perspective, it involves the representation and reflection of the violent death of both loved and hated grown ups, and a sense of heroic potency which will touch the young performers – there’s an alternating cast of fours Jameses – for the rest of their lives.

Armed with the need to resolve all of these problems within the small space of the theatre, viewed up close by myriads of enthusiastic audience members, both young and old, and those who know the book and the animated film of the story well, as well as those who don’t, this production is a remarkable achievement.

The adult cast is beautifully selected and honed – each of them, from the dignified and gorgeously dressed violin-playing grasshopper (Shaun Koch), to the boisterous centipede who relishes being known as a pest (Gamelihle Bovana), to the terribly insecure earthworm with a low self esteem and blindness, but a warm heart and a beautiful skin (Veronique Mensah), not to forget the supportive ladybug (Kyra Green) and spider (Dolly Louw) – the larger than life insect component of the work is top class.

The boy in the eponymous role, is however, the one on whom all attention is focused from the proverbial curtain up until the closing credits, and this is a really tough role for a child of 10 or 11. On opening night, Samuel Hertz played James, with a level of aplomb that at times was so delicate yet boisterous and at others, reflected such a mature understanding of what a four year old – or a seven year old – would do, that his performance resonated with that of child performers of the ilk of the Barclay Wright in Alan Bleasedale’s 1990s series Jake’s Progress, who also is obliged to switch accents during the course of the work.

The English accent does, however, at times prove challenging on the ear of the listener and while the intonation is kept uniform, sometimes the language’s clarity is compromised. But mostly, it isn’t, and while elements like the Cloud-Men, the silkworm and the glow worm have been sensibly omitted from the stage version, other elements like Dahl’s delicious poetry about revolting food concoctions that insects eat and other fine things, and his completely lovely representation of James’s two nasty aunts, Sponge (Mensah) and Spiker (Louw) are highlighted and handled with the kind of nimbleness and acuity that the written text exudes, offering young audiences much to treasure in terms of  richness and idiosyncrasy and a sense that anything is possible – including a completely charming and hilarious vignette of the spotting of the peach by a ship at sea.

Much can also be forgiven in this production: one element to the work’s construction makes it feel too quickly brought together – the segueing of the narrative with the changing flows of the set is rough and tends to bruise your focus on the story being told. Curtains make a noise when they’re opened and closed, which force you to remember that this is not a giant peach on a sea filled with sharks, but just the illusion of one, in a small space. While the set comprises drawings strongly and deliciously evocative of those by Quentin Blake which adorn many editions of Dahl’s published work, there is an interface of story and special effects that is too heavily coated with stage smoke: the magic is so powerfully inherent in the cast’s performance that the smoke masks rather than emphasises it, and could credibly be excised from the work.

James’s tale is a totally unapologetic madcap one, the kind of wild fantasy that children of this generation, hampered as they are by social media and technology and the commercial accessibility of everything imaginable, need. It’s a tonic with a blush of frenetic peach-coloured energy that will leave you clamouring for more.

  • James and the Giant Peach, based on the eponymous book by Roald Dahl (1961) is adapted for stage by David Wood and directed by Francois Theron. It features design by Stan Knight (set), Jane Gosnell (lighting), Sarah Roberts (costumes) and Dale Scheepers (sound editing) and is performed by Gamelihle Bovana, Kyra Green, Shaun Koch, Dolly Louw and Veronique Mensah, and an alternating children’s cast comprising Caleb Botha, Samuel Hertz, Taro Lue and Gabriel Poulsen. It performs at the National Children’s Theatre in Parktown until December 23. Call 011 484 1584 or visit org.za

What makes abstraction sing: Behrmann and Stadler

Gail Behrmann’s Square in Grey (2015)

Abstract painting may be seen to have had its day, in the avant-garde 1940s and 1950s in the West, when painters of the ilk of Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock and Barnett Newman, to name but a few, were in their heyday, cocking snooks at the notion of literal narrative or perceptual painting, delving into a deeper more mystical aspect of what makes something beautiful, and challenging perceptions, as they were. If we look at the South African context, and the 1980s, and the work and initiative of the late Bill Ainslie, we might be able to see something similar, oh that we were able to turn the clock back and change things.

The founder and director of the Johannesburg Art Foundation, Ainslie was significantly instrumental in honing an abstract aesthetic which existed and might have grown beyond the confines of the academy, but then he was killed in a car accident in August 1989 and many of his unexpressed dreams went with him.

Looking at the work of the two veteran painters, Jenny Stadler and Gail Behrmann, whose work is currently on show at Gallery 2, one needs historical context, but also an open heart. It’s very easy to dismiss work of this nature as incomprehensible – or worse, incompetent – if you don’t allow yourself a reflection on what makes abstraction sing, given the fact, also that abstraction is not as trendy as it may have been twenty years ago, or more.

Because in the examples of both painters’ work in this show, there are elements that will make your heart soar and incidents in the works themselves that have nothing to do with how you see things in the world, but will touch you in an inestimable way and leave you changed, given the way in which texture and history, colour and light bang and clash and run in conversation and argue amicably and intersect in harmony with one another.

Characteristically, Stadler works with undiluted colour – the neon greens and electric pinks of the plastic palette, as well as bits and bobs of commercial logos, bubble-gum wraps and match boxes. An unrelenting, irresistible concatenation of visual noise is evoked in each of the seven works she shows, and some are named in musical veins – such as Verdi and Rite of Spring – which speaks of the old traditions and the more modern ones.

On the other side of the spectrum is Behrmann, who these days is working largely with white. Her paintings are titled with poetic phrases resonating with reflections on the moon, drawing from poetry composed in the Chinese Tang dynasty which you might consider arbitrary until you have had the privilege of standing under the shoulder of one and looking, really looking into its midst.

Through the Pine Trees Comes the Moon does exactly this. A large work, in the scheme of things, it envelopes olive green references, and there is a frenetic energy in which the way white splays on white, and edges are cast and resolve. There’s a sense of potency that you cannot safely pin anywhere; buy one of these works and it will fill your wall, spinning and spilling beyond the confines of the canvas, even more so than something you could recognise as representational.

The conversations set up between the work of Stadler and Behrmann are multi-tongued and leave your head spinning. Curated so that the paintings of each are comfortable together, but promoting dialogue in the very distinct colour of both, the exhibition is poetic as it is challenging.

  • Two painters, work by Gail Behrmann and Jenny Stadler is on show at Gallery 2, 140 Jan Smuts Avenue, Parkwood, until December 19. Call 011 447-0155/98 or visit www.gallery2.co.za

Lovely panto: pity about the lights

What a gal: Tobie Cronje's fabulous Dame Nora Nursey. Photograph courtesy Joburg Theatre.
What a gal: Tobie Cronje’s fabulous Dame Nora Nursey. Photograph courtesy Joburg Theatre.

If you or your child don’t mind hectic lashings of strobe lights and multiple doses of high impact bass noise, you’re in for a splendid treat at this year’s pantomime in Johannesburg, Sleeping Beauty, directed by Janice Honeyman.

Featuring the inimitable Tobie Cronjé, as Dame Nora Nursey, who almost steals the show with his utterly delicious persona, the show’s a non-stop rollercoaster of broadly one dimensional and blatantly commercially-hooked  jokes, with oft nimble wordage, quick and rude innuendo, crisp and lovely choreography and a sense of cohesion that is second to none, ticking all the boxes of the panto genre, which reaches all the way back to 16th century England where it was born. As it should, it brings a tale of romance and terror, trickery and magic that we all know, inevitably making the pretty stars – Christopher Jaftha and Nicole Fortuin as the golden couple – work much harder to gain audience attention, than the ones more wildly and colourfully exuding character – including a delightful Jester Crackerjack (Clive Gilson) and Wicked Fairy Kakkamella Khakibos (Michelle Botha).

But like anything with too many special effects, or a dessert with too much sugar, it suffers a casualty in the watchability department because of those wretched lights, ripping their way through your sensibilities to ensure that you are suitably startled every time a joke is cracked or the bad fairy (Botha in immensely fine form) appears on the scene to do some khakibos mischief. Oh, and there are some tricks which got the littlies seriously screaming with what sounded like terror that didn’t really get laughed away.

Having said that, there’s a fluorescent pink crispness and a sense of cohesion that makes this panto stand out from previous manifestations, featuring, as it does, everything from pretty little ballerinas to cultural references that reach from the 1976 American film Network to our president’s latest bit of parliamentary bluster, but it is nevertheless a dire pity that effectively, the magical measuring tool for these lights that blast directly into your eyes, seems to have been broken in the production’s recipe. The end of year pantomime at the Nelson Mandela theatre over the last 20-odd years, has become such a powerful fixture in the calendar of Johannesburg that people book a year in advance for it. It effectively signifies that the end of the year is nigh and that after a long series of challenges, the broader community can kick back its collective heels and have a rest. But if you’re prone to migraine or seizure, don’t go: while the theatre is responsible in warning that there are strobes, if you close your eyes every time an invasive streak of synthetic lightning blasts its way through your sensibilities, you might miss almost the whole show.

  • Sleeping Beauty: The Pantomime of your Dreams! is written and directed by Janice Honeyman, with directorial assistance from Timothy Le Roux, features design by Bronwen Lovegrove (costumes), Graham McLusky (lighting), Trevor Peters (sound), Marga Sandler (musical director) and Nicol Sheraton (choreographer). It is performed by Matthew Berry, Michelle Botha, Tobie Cronjé, Kiruna-Lind Devar, Keaton Ditchfield, Daniel Fisher, Nicole Fortuin, Clive Gilson, Suzaan Helberg, Christopher Jaftha, Bisi Bangiwe Kajobela, Michele Levin, Sean John Louw, Venolia Manale, Timothy Moloi, Candida Mosoma, Tshepo Ncokoane, Sarah Richard, Dale Scheepers, Dionne Song, LJ Urbani, Maryanne van Eyssen and Mary-Jane Zimri, featuring dancers Robert van den Aardweg, Tayla Anderson, Alexia Bazzo, Michaela Fairon, Alexa Lipchin, Winita Main, Leroy Mokgatle, Tyla Amber Spieth, Bobby Strong and Crystal Viljoen and musicians Deon Kruger, Sipumao Trueman Lucwaba, Drew Reinstra and PW van der walt, at the Nelson Mandela Theatre, Braamfontein, until December 30. Visit joburgtheatre.com

Surface detail to make you melt

Only connect: The world in a web of delicate line.
Only connect: The world in a web of delicate line.

Before binaries like politics or gender, what really determines our sense of place in this world? Our grip on the veracity of maps? Our understanding of the sinisterness of germs?  Our ability to access colour? Richard Penn’s current  exhibition, Surface Detail, may, by and large, be seen  to be abstract, but it seduces with the power of the excruciatingly fine line, as it entertains with a wall text that throws the concept of taking oneself too seriously to the wind.

Scottish writer Guinevere Glasfurd-Brown writes with a grittiness that you can taste. You can smell the characters she describes and empathise with their awkwardness. A contemporary twitter-based fiction writer and poet, Glasfurd-Brown is featured in Penn’s exhibition – or rather, an excerpt from a text she wrote engaging with the magic of colours hooks you by the eye as you enter the gally space. Not kowtowing to the tradition of a solemn and dense wall text, describing the process of the work exhibited, these enlarged bodies of text pull you in, as great fictional writing must, and they cast an understanding of the emotive thrust of colour that sets the tone for this beautiful little exhibition.

It’s not that little, admittedly – Surface Detail comprises over 30 pieces, nine of which are paintings, which offer a new understanding of possibility for Penn, but still, the pieces that hold Penn’s reputation with the firm grasp of conviction, are the pen and ink drawings. So fine, you’re scared to breathe too close to them, in case the line work is altered and shivers and shatters under your gaze, but so robust that they will make you think of the value of the world in which you exist.

A play on weather maps, as they shift into the realm of imaginary geographies, challenge the preciousness of borders and sweep you away in delicate hyperbole, these drawings marry landscape art with abstraction in a way that would have made the Surrealists ache. They’re works that speak of the tight, intrusive and introspective detail  for which Colin Richards was known and held in awe and yet they skirt from being derivative and maintain a sense of signature which is deeply satisfying.

Penn’s paintings offer a completely different insight: they’re brash but fine, slick but awkward in their sense of self. They seduce you in the same kind of way as the drawings do, but with their strong blacks and electric whites, they embrace an understanding of value that at turn shimmers and blinds, like LED light.

  • Richard Penn’s exhibition Surface Detail is on show at the Origins Centre, Wits University campus, Braamfontein, until November 26. Visit origins.org.za

Goldblatt and the unassailable dignity of viewpoint

A monument to JG Strijdom, late prime minister. A 1982 photograph by David Goldblatt.
A monument to JG Strijdom, late prime minister. A 1982 photograph by David Goldblatt.

Curating an exhibition of as important an icon in South African visual art as David Goldblatt might sound like a simple task, from the outset: behind the lens and darling of galleries all over the world for close to seven decades, Goldblatt needs no formal introduction to frequent gallery visitors. His work remains astonishing, in its wryness, its sense of wonder and its lack of crude judgment. It’s intellectually and politically sexy, never stooping to the crudeness of taking sides. But, truth be told, we’ve seen it often, in a range of exhibiting contexts, in books, all over the world.

So, curator Neil Dundas needs to be very specifically singled out and celebrated in this extraordinary exhibition which offers a fresh sheen on Goldblatt’s important and magnificent oeuvre, in a way that will challenge you, in the gallery, to relook and be seduced all over again by the work. Brooking everything under the notion of values, and playing with what scale does to the consumption of a photographic work, Dundas skilfully blends historical narrative with humour, beauty with tragedy, leaving you with a richer understanding of Goldblatt’s work and his presence in the South African story.

As you emerge at the top of the gallery’s staircase, you are hit in the solar plexus and the heart, simultaneously, with three large scale photographs that confront value head on. There’s a group of South African leaders at Parliament’s Senate in the centre; a view onto the degradation of Freedom Park, a post-apartheid dream which has been thwarted on the left; and a photograph drawing from within apartheid’s belief system on the right. They’re like three exclamation marks of sound that grab you by the eyes and the memory and don’t let go. None of them enable you to look with bias. Each of them is about very specific ideological perspectives. And each of them leaves you with great empathy of the situation captured.

But the exhibition is very far from being monolithic or predictable. Around the central well of the gallery are numerous photographs from different projects and focuses of Goldblatt’s over the years. They’re important photographs, printed up like the ‘snaps’ that were de rigueur in the sixties and seventies: small square formats, black and white, with a white border around them. Cleanly framed, they are as legible and potent visually as they would be printed up enormous, but the different scale pushes something new into the mix which makes you read them with a nostalgic sensibility that doesn’t undermine their vitality or their potent sense of moment.

Further to that, this rich and beautiful showcasing of Goldblatt’s work gives presence to Goldblatt’s voice in reflecting the thinking behind making these photographs, behind the Transkei in the 1970s or Gammaskloof in the 1960s. We see powerful excerpts from Goldblatt’s series on Boksburg, on the Transported of Kwandebele, of asbestos mining, of people of the plots of Randfontein in the early 1960s … a photograph commemorating some of apartheid South Africa’s most iconic sculptures neighbours one documenting the dethroning of the statue of Cecil John Rhodes, at the campus of the University of Cape Town, earlier this year. The juxtapositions make your head spin with their wildness and their dignity.

One of the primary delights of Goldblatt’s work is how his titles are embedded in so much. The images take your eye and your head into the deep interstices of a situation. You notice many things that make your blood pressure soar, or bring tears to your eyes, but then you focus on the mother and child; the girl at a bus stop; the real person who is never inconsequential, but might be compositionally shadowed, that gives the work its name.

Victoria Cobokana is one of the more potent and astute essays on Aids prevalence that you might ever see. Goldblatt’s portrait of this woman with her two small children in the home of her employer in 1999 resonates with the clear values in a Renaissance painting of the Virgin Mary with the Christ Child: in terms of colour and light and simplicity. Without stooping to gimmickry or self-conscious smartness, it’s a portrait which lends this woman and her little family enormous, overpowering dignity. But don’t go away from the work until you have read its caption.

The Pursuit of Values is more than just another retrospective of one of South Africa’s most important photographers: It’s an exhibition which speaks articulately of the unassailable dignity of viewpoint and the beauty inherent in every single situation. What a way for the Standard Bank Gallery to end 2016.

  • The Pursuit of Values, photographs by David Goldblatt is curated by Neil Dundas and is on show at the Standard Bank Gallery in central Johannesburg until December 5. Visit standardbankarts.co.za or call 011 631 4467.

How to fall in love with Afrikaans

Brilliant: Nataniel tells the impossibly delightful history of the fork, and other fine things. Photograph courtesy kyknet
Brilliant: Nataniel tells the impossibly delightful history of the fork, and other fine things. Photograph courtesy kyknet

What is it that can take a language coloured by historical violence, a conservative community with historical bias on its hands, and turn them completely around, enabling the community in question to view itself in an hilarious and truthful mirror? The unequivocally miraculous phenomenon of Afrikaans culture that singer-storyteller-performer of many additional talents Nataniël has been bringing to South African stages since 1983 is arguably amongst the best success stories in the arts of this country. And he continues, relentlessly: Banket met Nataniël (Banquet with Nataniël), a radio show that will be flighted on November 20, on RSG, as the finale of this year’s RSG Arts Festival, is one of those impeccably delicious bits of theatre that will leave you completely the richer.

This afternoon saw a live studio recording of the work, in the SABC’s magnificent if desperately underused recording studio, and within a set comprising large candles, an orchid and black drapes, the inimitable performer gave the spellbound and oft almost hysterical audience another beautiful gem.

A concatenation of his stories told in Afrikaans, and his songs, mostly performed in English, features in this show, which is about the back story of food and etiquette and what makes human society, tick. Above all, it’s a one-man revue which will make you remember why the arts are important to society and why you need to cherish each day, and make the simple gesture of eating a piece of toast with a lump of butter melting into it, as memorable and beautiful as a banquet.

Delivering a heady mix of home truths, hilarious nonsensical juxtapositions, and asides in his characteristic deadpan approach, Nataniel cocks a fond and gentle, but nevertheless blatantly honest snook at the society from which he originates; a master of succinct storytelling, he conjures up such delights as the young opera singer with a lazy eye that made everyone too frightened to look at her when she sang; the woman with a body resembling in Volkswagen beetle, in light blue crimplene; the security guard with beautiful muscles but a cake-less history and a detailed and thoughtful glance at the underbelly of manners in our society.

He tosses in a bunch of clichés about life being unpredictable and precious, but never allows himself to digress into the maudlin or even the anticipated. Rather his material, like his reflection on a dark chocolate-covered koeksister, remains hard and crispy to the first bite, but blending sweet and sour tastes. Indeed, his material, like his fondness for aligning seemingly contradictory flavours, throws salty in juxtaposition with sweet, hot with cold. But above all, it’s about a celebration of the nuances and texture, the spiciness and caveats in the language of Afrikaans itself.

The experience is astonishing. The show will not be repeated but should not be missed.

  • The RSG Kunstefees, comprising a rich array of culture that you can imbibe with your ears runs from Sunday November 15 at 3pm until Friday November 20 at 10pm. This, the third radio-based arts festival in South Africa may be accessed on 100 to 104FM or on DStv channel 913. The festival is also available online on rsg.co.za – where the full programme is available.
  • Banket met Nataniël will be broadcast on November 20 at 8.40pm.