The devastating magic of eight-year-olds in the Republic of Hout Bay

The Year of the Bicycle 7 by Val Adamson

Joyride: Aphiwe Livi (Andile) and Amy Louise Wilson (Amelia) in Joanna Evans extraordinary piece. Photograph by Val Adamson

A PLAY OF binaries and detritus, red wool and solar powered Consol glass, The Year of the Bicycle is a work that begins with the threat of too much whimsy. But then it reaches into the belly of its own sense of momentum and this abstract tale of the friendship of two eight-year-olds across the impermeability of race and class takes flight. And it is ruthless: it doesn’t let you catch your breath, not for one second, until its inevitable, but still devastating closure.

A tale of love and fantasy, politics and American pilot Amelia Earhart, King Solomon’s wisdom and Pollsmoor prison, this fresh and exuberant piece of theatre grapples with the casual mellifluousness and stream of consciousness in the dialogue of children. Interchanging language and gesture, Amelia (Amy Louise Wilson) and Andile (Aphiwe Livi) become friends. She’s an only child. He’s the son of the maid next door. There’s a soccer ball, and his fear of white people and the dog. But together they weave a friendship of imaginary friends and flight, of the candid pondering and prodding the notion and idea of life and death.

And then several bigger narratives in concentric and concatenating circles are woven around them, in a series of stories of crime and chance, of tragedy and broken bodies that gives grown up voice to the children and allows their bond to take flight in a country bruised and confused by political torsion. Staged from 1997 with a ten year trajectory into an unknowable socio-political ethos, this is a remarkably mature and sophisticated yet beguilingly simple piece of theatre.

Featuring a set nothing short of brilliant, which comprises a few bits of wheeled furniture, a circle of solar-powered lights and some plastic bags and used cardboard boxes, The Year of the Bicycle is one of those works which seamlessly marries physical theatre with poetry. It will make you cry, but not in a formulaic, logical sense. A terrific maw opens in your heart and spirit about the irrevocable horror of loss and the inestimable sadness that comes of deep friendships rift and tossed at the whim of the vagaries of others.

But more than any of this, The Year of the Bicycle is a voice of the almost born free generation. Amelia and Andile are eight in 1997, which makes them a little more than toddlers at the advent of South African democracy three years earlier. The play has the rough and tumble integrity and sense of newness that we saw in Mongiwekhaza’s recent work I See You. It’s about a new sense of identity, as it is about improvisation, whimsy and wisdom. This is one of those works, akin to Jenine Collocott’s High Diving that has an acclaimed reputation as a festival piece, doesn’t enjoy long seasons, but it will grab you by everything you’ve got and shunt your emotions in a direction you could never have anticipated. Unforgettably.

  • The Year of the Bicycle is written and directed by Joanna Ruth Evans. It features design by John Withers (sound composition) and is performed by Amy Louise Wilson and Aphiwe Livi. It performs at the Barney Simon Theatre, Market Theate Complex, Newtown, until May 22. Call 011 832 1641 or visit co.za
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Sof’town blues

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AH, SOPHIATOWN. HOME and suburban melting pot of such a rich concatenation of frenetic, beautiful and terrible culture that forms the backbone of who we are as creative South Africans, striving for that precious riff or that elusive line of poetry to make us remember what matters. Ah, the eponymous play, written in the fiery mid-1980s by the members of the Junction Avenue Theatre Company, which included such icons as Malcolm Purkey, Pippa Stein, William Kentridge and others. Thirty years later, has the play stood the test of time? In short, mostly. But in this season, it feels dishonoured.

It was a play that broke the mould of what theatre should be, taking the crust of an idea that was cast into the world by Sophiatown resident, the Drum journalist Nat Nakasa. Written for an English-speaking audience, it filtered a rambunctious slew of everything from tsotsi taal to Hebrew, fahfee codes to dances moves into a multifaceted theatre beast that celebrates and mourns what 1954 meant to so many residents of Johannesburg’s suburb of Sophiatown, which was bought in 1897 as a smallholding by Herman Tobiansky and named for his wife and children.

But more than an essay on forced removals in a suburb that skirted apartheid’s draconian legislation, Sophiatown is a portrait of the people in their time. It’s a fantastic story in which the internal dynamics of a house in Gerty Street comes to diverse and critical life, presenting Ruth Golden, a young Jewish woman, sanctuary from her parents’ Yeoville household, as it offers an understanding of home with all its discontents, desires, disgressions and heart.

But this production of the work is sadly lacking in several key areas. It is scripted with a dialogue that has a very distinctive rhythm and it’s not clear how this young cast has been allowed to overlook this important nuance in the delivery of the work. In any event, the result tramples on the fineness, the humanity and the sparkle of the script, making it difficult to follow and casting a slur of humdrum over the words.

The work’s poignant anti-hero, Charlie (played by Joel Zuma) holds great strength of focus and heartstrings. Hlengiwe Lushaba as Mamariti is clearly the production’s drawcard, exercising her mellow voice and sardonic presence with an authenticity that makes your heart sing, backed as she is by the delightful performances of Barileng Malebye as Princess and Tshepiso Tracey Tshabalala as Lulu.

But the young Jewish woman is played by relative newcomer Christine van Hees. While her singing voice harmonises well with that of the cast, much of this character’s role is acted, not sung. And a more obviously not Jewish Ruth Golden would be difficult to conceive of – it is not clear why the idiosyncrasies of a South African Jew raised in the 1970s with European roots and very specific values has not been given the dignity of proper research.

The highlight of the work remains the music and the choreography: there is acapello work in this production that will give you goosebumps, but there isn’t enough of it. Flaws in the casting and the rhythm of the dialogue knock into rather crude relief the limits of the piece in terms of music, particularly in the second half. If only this work had been more critically tweaked for an audience 30 years older (and ones born in the last 30 years).

  • Sophiatown, written by the Junction Avenue Theatre Company, is directed by Malcolm Purkey and features design by Denis Hutchinson (lighting), Sarah Roberts (costume and set), Arthur Molepo (musical direction) and Nhlanhla Mahlangu and Sonia Radebe (choreography). It is performed by Hlengiwe Lushaba Madlala, Barileng Malebye, Nicholas Nkuna, Sechaba Ramphele, Tshepiso Tracey Tshabalala, Christine van Hees, Arthur Zitha and Joel Zuma in a season at the State Theatre in Pretoria until May 21. This review is premised on its season at the Market Theatre in April. Call 012 392 4000 or visit http://www.statetheatre.co.za

Startled by Coriolanus

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#MartiusMustFall! A young cast tells the dense tragedy of Coriolanus. Photograph courtesy reviewonline.co.za

IT’S RATHER AN odd kind of name to be trending around senior high school students at the moment. Coriolanus is arguably one of Shakespeare’s densest and more difficult works. With no witches or ghosts, monsters or weather patterns to give it verve, it’s a tragedy of political violence and class struggle which resonates with the political morals of our own times, and it’s also this year’s and next year’s English matric setwork for South African schools affiliated to the Independent Examinations Board. This production casts the National Children’s Theatre in a previously unexplored framework: that of the teenaged audience.

And all these elements are to the theatre and the production team’s credit. The pared-down set, and cleverly adaptable costume changes lend starkness and boldness to this rendition. The young enthusiastic cast and their dry-mouthed passion in articulating the tale is infectious and your focus is caught and held very quickly. The play, featuring some astonishing fight choreography, is geared to adapt easily to a range of different venues and to travel easily, but, it seems, having seen the work at the intimate theatre of the NCT in Parktown, the cast has not been adequately prepped in modulating their volume in different spaces.

While it may be all fun and dandy to bang sticks on the floor of a high school stage and shout with great volubility into the faces of youngsters who are studying the work, doing something similar to adult audiences in a tiny space hurts not only the play’s clarity, but the audience’s ability to engage the material. The cajoling of a mob could have been as effective – if not more sinister – had it been conducted in a whisper, in this venue, for instance.

It’s a curious thing: a porous reflection on the theatre’s fourth wall is understood to loosen up the material and render it more casual but offer a more developed understanding of the characters being performed, because responding to audience members effectively changes the nub and current of the performance. Each night. Noble goals, indeed. But it makes some rather astonishing assumptions on the robustness of said audience members. There’s a give and take that happens in this context which puts you, in the audience, who has paid for your ticket, at a disadvantage. This feels wrong: Don’t shout into my face. Move me with your conviction and your skill and your supreme understanding of what you are doing.

The play is sensibly cut to a workable duration of 90 minutes or so. But Coriolanus is not marketed as one of Shakespeare’s more ‘sexy’ works, for a range of reasons. The material, dealing with everything from the ethics of honouring your parents to remaining true to what you believe in, is replete with nuance that takes it back to ancient Rome where it is set. It is dense with cultural references and this young cast doesn’t play a strong role in clarifying the work’s narrative spine. Pieces like Just Antigone and (After) The Flies, for instance, meshed complex historical works with a contemporary understanding, as well as audience engagement, without compromising the material or the focus. But in spite of some hashtag-evocative chants throughout the work, Coriolanus doesn’t offer you any of that loose, wise astuteness, and you leave the work not really entertained or even informed but still startled.

Having said all of that, the difficulty of the initiative must be taken into account. This is a tremendously talented group of creative professionals. Their articulation of Shakespeare’s words is uncompromised and beautiful and their interaction onstage is sophisticated and bold. It’s just their friendliness to an audience that needs more sharpening.

  • Coriolanus by William Shakespeare is co-directed by Rohan Quince and Nicola Pilkington. It features design by Sarah Roberts (costume and set), Jane Gosnell (lighting), Stan Knight (set construction) and Ryan Dittman (combat choreographer). It is performed by Cassius Davids, Emma Delius, William Harding, Maxx Moticoe, Emilie Owen, Thapelo Sebogodi, Carlos Williams and Sanelisiwe Yekani, and is performing a travelling season under the auspices of the National Children’s Theatre, which will be touring to high schools nationally. Call 011 484 1584 or visit nationalchildrenstheatre.org.za