AS HE WALKS onstage, you know you are in safe hands, and that the evening will not only be completely impeccable, but that it will take your heart and wring it out in a way that you won’t readily forget. Arguably the single play that defined the Grahamstown National Arts Festival in 2014, Tobacco, and the harmful effects thereof is finally at the Market Theatre, and it’s no less of an utterly perfect theatre experience than it was two years ago.
Ivan (Andrew Buckland) is a nervous man who has been asked by his Wife (Toni Morkel) to do a public talk for charity. And premised on this simple do-gooder idea, there evolves a most extraordinary tale of love and hate, claustrophobia and the feathers of a golden eagle, the discomfort of a picnic with 20 children and the tenderness of a couple who know each other well – and everything in between.
A fine and wild monster of a text crafted by William Harding, Tobacco rests on the almost eponymous Anton Chekhov play of 1886 – or, rather than resting on it, it uses the Chekhov as a quirky starting point. With the aid of an incredibly clever set, comprising a very special purpose-made lectern, a wooden box and an old record player, as well as a pair of plastic noses, the work takes astonishing and brave leaps into the terrain of owls and pussy cats, Mozart and bizarre metaphors that smash grammar and logic aside, yielding an experience which takes you on a surreal and bizarre journey through not only tobacco and its harmful effects, but a whole life of complicated domesticity that is haunting in its brilliance.
Buckland and Morkel together articulate a level of clowning sophistication which makes you remember what perfect theatre is all about. With authoritative focus, they make you laugh at something tragic, and cry at something ridiculous: armed only with their bodies and their skill they invest poignancy into clumsiness and incredible poetry into a hen-pecked middle-aged man in his underpants with a necktie around his sweaty head.
But more than all of this Tobacco boasts a structure that evokes a scored piece of choral music. Tobacco is present everywhere, but it appears like a refrain in a text that is about anything but tobacco. The language has a musicality to it and a flow which is unstoppable, building physical theatre into a momentum that will keep you at the edge of your emotion, throughout.
Under the directorial hand of Sylvaine Strike, this is a remarkable play, beautifully cast and put together with such love and laughter that it sings. If you choose to have one theatre experience in your whole life, make it this one.
- Tobacco, and the harmful effects thereof based on Anton Chekhov’s one act play, On the Harmful Effects of Tobacco is adapted by William Harding and directed by Sylvaine Strike. It features design by Chen Nakar (set) and Sylvaine Strike assisted by Ali Madiga (lighting) and is performed by Andrew Buckland and Toni Morkel, in the Barney Simon Theatre, Market Theatre complex in Newtown until March 6. Call 011 832 1641 or visit http://www.markettheate.co.za
- See my review of this play from the Grahamstown Festival in 2014 here.