Lest we forget

ubu

OH, Ma, have you forsaken me? Pa Ubu (Dawid Minnaar) faces some awful truths, cast by Ma Ubu (Busi Zokufa) onscreen. Photograph by Val Adamson.

WHEN 20 YEARS have elapsed after your first experience in the presence of true greatness, you might have forgotten the unequivocal brilliance that a work such as Ubu and the Truth Commission has brought to South African theatre. And indeed, more than 20 years on, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that brought exposure of the horrendous atrocities that were part of the secret political landscape and a semblance of closure to apartheid, might also have slipped into the nebulousness of memory. The value of the current staging of this work can not be understated.

Ubu Roi was an anarchic character penned in the late 19th century by French playwright Alfred Jarry. When it saw light of day onstage in Paris in 1896, it was nothing short of revolutionary. The character’s opening word was famously “Merde!” (shit) to the horror of Parisian audiences. The inflammatory nature of the work is celebrated as having lit the fuse for the anti-establishment movement Dada.

What William Kentridge, in collaboration with the Handspring Puppet Company and Jane Taylor, evolved in Ubu and the Truth Commission is a rich mêlée of every bit of sinister absurdity that Jarry’s Ubu represents, conjoined horrifyingly with apartheid’s values. And there opens a splendid miasma of everything from horror to hilarity and back in a production that will haunt you forever.

Busi Zokufa and Dawid Minnaar reprise their original roles of Ma and Pa Ubu respectively. He’s out there perpetrating brutality on black people. She thinks he’s cheating on her with other women. But the truth is revealed through the lies that he’s literally fed to the couple’s pet crocodile, Niles. In an impossibly fine mix of political association, fact, diatribe and fantasy, the truth and lies and terrors in the night which saw people being electrocuted and tortured, burnt to ashes and dismembered, in the name of the ‘Swart Gevaar’ are brought to the fore.

In the 1990s, when this work was emerging, Kentridge was working with hand-made film, and the rough edges we see in this work resonate impeccably with the narrative as it unfolds. Zokufa and Minnaar, supported by puppeteers Gabriel Marchand, Mongi Mthombeni and Mandiseli Maseti, are in impeccable form: the sense of possibility evoked by a shower that becomes the translator’s booth for the TRC, a suitcase that is the body of a three-headed dog, the vulture on stage, a cat that turns into a camera tripod and microphones that wriggle away from lies, not to forget the interplay of shadow, technology and performers is astonishing yet profound, witty and terrifying all at once.

Your head is consumed by the parallel language of apartheid and its transgressors, by the smooth and astonishing relationship between human being and wooden puppet, by the interfacing of translations central to the texture of the TRC and by the way in which this work, by all accounts, a terrible tale about a man whose soul is rotten by power, remains deeply entertaining and a resounding achievement. This is truly one of contemporary South African theatre’s most important classics, and the privilege of seeing it again in Johannesburg cannot be underplayed.

  • Ubu and the Truth Commission is conceived and directed by William Kentridge and Janni Younge, and written by Jane Taylor. It features design by Adrian Kohler (puppets), Wesley France (lighting), Warrick Sony and Brendan Jury (Music) and Robyn Orlin (choreography). It is performed by Gabriel Marchand, Mandiseli Maseti, Mongi Mthombeni, Dawid Minnaar and Busisiwe Busi Zokufa, at the John Kani Theatre, Market Theatre complex in Newtown, Johannesburg, until September 11. Call 011 832 1641 or visit co.za
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Saving face with ghouls and filigree

BaneleKhoza

SLEEPING with ghosts: A digital work on paper by Banele Khoza. Photograph courtesy Pretoria Art Museum.

THE BELEAGURED GRANDE dame of visual arts in Pretoria, Pretoria Art Museum, is aware of her flaws, which in many respects are not of her own making. Like many state-run institutions dealing with the arts in South Africa right now, the neglect of the building, its environs and the ugly 1970s redolent design is something that is far away from the current issue of the day on a back-burner which may well, at this point, be ice cold. Given these limitations, the heart and soul of the museum – its staff – are clearly still hard at work in keeping the space relevant. On show in one of the museum’s smaller spaces is a gem of a debut solo exhibition by relative newcomer Banele Khoza (b. 1994).

This young product of the Tshwane University of Technology, who comes of a rural background in Swaziland, has seen an exponential rise in the interest his work has enjoyed, and this is completely warranted. Capable of working with such an intimate sense of filigree in his pen and ink drawings, that it sometimes beggars belief, Khoza is stretching his skills into the realm of watercolour and installation.

What you will see in Temporary Feelings, the first solo exhibition hosted under the ‘For Sale Project’ run by PAM – in the past, this project featured group showcases – is ghoulish images, with an intense sense of soul and wit, redolent in many ways of the work of artists such as Robert Hodgins, not only in terms of his wild and oft outrageous use of colour juxtapositions, but in his use of narrative and composition. Khoza looks at life and death, sex and identity in the curious, complex and candid way that is the privilege and blessing of his youth.

The work is not stripped of cynicism, neither is it sugar-coated, but it is exploring the sense of possibility that Khoza’s instinctively beautiful lines embrace.

Central to the exhibition is an installation behind glass deemed “artists’ books”. Gaze closely at these and you will realise that while Khoza has remarkable aptitude for the book arts, these works in question are books bursting with his distinctive mark-making, bleeding over into written words and back into drawn elements, rather than artists’ books with their own identity and reason for existing.

Overwhelmingly, Khoza is not only a ‘new kid on the block’, but the energy and fierceness he brings to PAM’s environment is an injection of hope and new blood for the institution. Whether his transient presence here, in this far room of the museum, has the fire in it to develop its own momentum, remains to be seen. The exhibition’s initiative is the brainchild of its curator, Mmutle Kgokong – and hopefully art lovers will continue to see developments under this young professional’s steerage – that has the power to override PAM’s currently crumpled reputation.

  • Temporary Feelings by Banele Khoza, curated by Mmutle Kgokong, is at the Pretoria Art Museum until September 4. 012 358 6750.

Forever gems and smiles to set the world aglow

khokho

WHAT comes around … Cruelty and ugliness become synonymous when Hyena (Sandi Dlangalala) meets Fudukazi the tortoise (Nomonde Matiwane). Photograph courtesy artslink.co.za

Occasionally, very occasionally, a creative work seems to make itself. Is it about the universe taking control? Or God? Perhaps it is about having done a thing so often you go into autopilot and don’t think about the hugeness of what you are doing. Either way, when this kind of small miracle happens, everything, but everything, fits into place, in such a way that you can almost hear it click. This level of theatrical brilliance is what you experience in Khokho’s Treasure.

A couple of years in development, this work, which began as Under the Baobab Tree is a clever cipher for a range of African stories. An old man, beloved by the community in which he lived, has died. His legacy is contained in a big suitcase. And what can it be? Is it money? Is it jewels? Rather than anything crassly material, the suitcase is a repository of triggers to stories, songs and memories. And Francois Theron and his cast take the possibilities of these values and shine them up to an astonishing level, which will touch you – and your child – deeply.

Stripped of cliché, the stories are told with a developed sense of empathy and a generosity of spirit. The cast, including established NCT performers such as Suzaan Helberg and Nomonde Matiwane, and newcomer Kealeboga Tshenya, is young enough, yet mature enough, to inject a fine level of wit and self-deprecation into the range of characters that inform the material, which makes you love each and every one, not only for his or her good qualities, but for his or her flaws too. Arguably the highlight is a new tale by Gcina Mhlophe, about Fudukazi, the magic tortoise, epitomised in beautiful detail by Matiwane, who is not afraid to lend such heart to her performance that you weep out of love for the hapless beast.

But something must also be said for Helberg’s smile. This young actress, who plays the gogo and narrator of the work, in her very competent and linguistically flawless performance, exudes a sense of happiness which is so uncontrived and so giving that you get swept up in its glow. Indeed, the positive energy of this work is infectious, as it sidesteps triteness. Not all of the five stories told are happy ones, but each of them presents an energy that gives cultural miens – and South Africa’s different languages – a place. From Afrikaans to Ndebele, isiXhosa to Sesotho, there’s an easy and legible flow of the idea of cultural relevance, be it with a blanket in hand, or under the spell of Nomhle, the African Cinderella, be it in a soccer tournament or on the rural hills of KwaZulu-Natal.

Brightly coloured and direct, Khokho’s Treasure could be an ambassador to all that it good and hopeful in this beautiful land of ours. And while very little tots might become restless before interval, because of the work’s length, as a creative manifestation, it’s as good as it gets.

  • Khokho’s Treasure is adapted and directed by Francois Theron and features design by Stan Knight (set and costumes), Nicol Sheraton and Phillida le Roux (choreography), Jane Gosnell (lighting) and Dale Scheepers (musical direction). It is performed by Sandi Dlangalala, Sibusiso Nhlapo Ferguson, Suzaan Helberg, Nomonde Matiwane, Mark Tatham and Kealeboga Tshenye at the National Children’s Theatre in Parktown until September 3. Visit nationalchildrenstheatre.org.za or call 011 484 1584.

How to turn a requiem inside out

requiem

A miscellany of praise singers: Requiem for the Living touches on myriads of cultures and perspectives. Photograph courtesy of artslink.co.za

“PLATO SAID TEACH your children music because that way they will learn all the patterns of existence,” says composer Rexleigh Bunyard, who not only sees music in different colours, but she dreams it too. “I don’t think there’s anything supernatural about this. I think this about your psyche rearranging patterns. We come into the world with archetypal patterns and we put them on the outside,” she tells My View about Requiem for the Living which enjoys its world debut in Gauteng this weekend.

“It’s like teasing out wool,” she explains how she uses germinal chords that have been irresistible to her, as a starting point. “I pull them apart, horizontally, vertically, and suddenly the whole composition opens up and it almost writes itself.”

Another part of this work, one movement of which was performed in Johannesburg in 2008, is “a very slowed down kwela, derived from the tortoises in Camille Saint-Saëns’s Carnival of the Animals. Those tortoises are dancing the can-can. It’s such a precious image, that tortoises would attempt to do something as incredibly feminine and extravagant as the can-can. So I decided to create the dance of the universe, of Shiva, with kwela, connecting us to the earth of Africa, but slowed down to such a degree that you don’t hear it necessarily as a kwela, although it has some of the rhythm.

“But it is the basis and it is the connection to a feeling that a lot of our history and our ancestors are somehow embedded in the African landscape … The journey in the requiem is a turning away from death to the life, but in order to be able to do this, you reach to the very depths. It’s a rebirthing.”

Bunyard, who was educated in Cape Town, Paris and Pretoria, has taught music part time at Roedean School for almost 20 years. She explains the work’s focus on the child, on regaining the child spirit, rediscovering the original wholeness of the self. It draws attention to the plight of children who suffer abuse, neglect and illness. It also supports the bereaved: children who have lost their parents, parents who search for their missing children, visit their graves, sit in their hospital rooms, and others who have no children, but long for one.

“Music was always there,” she recalls, thinking of her own childhood. “I remember watching from the crack in the door as a very small child. I was supposed to be in bed and my parents would have parties and they would play Benny Goodman and Bing Crosby music.

“I used to try out my sister’s piano pieces when she was at school. My dad picked up that I was musical. He would whistle to me – he had a beautiful whistle, like Roger Whittaker,” she says, speaking also of her father’s violin making skills.

“My first music lessons were spent with me playing with the teacher’s cat. And then they brought Hermann Becker to teach me. He was a little old Eastern Cape music teacher, who called himself ‘Professor’. He would play my pieces once for me – I would memorise them and practice them from there. I have an audiographic ear.”

Her musical path, however, was not a smooth one; after not playing for many years, she was teased back into musical relevance with an impromptu improvisation session with Francois Le Roux, the Ha! Man at the Theatre on the Square in Sandton, in 2008. “I thought I was just going there to listen to a ‘cellist. And Francois called people to be up on the stage. He was fantastic. He said, would somebody like to play with him. And I said, I’ll go. My family was shocked. I hadn’t performed since 1987, when I was a concert pianist. He played a note and something amazing happened.”

Never having nursed a dream to be a professional improviser, Bunyard adds “since I was about 11, I always wanted to compose. Teachers deterred this dream, saying that it wasn’t one for girls, as was conducting,” she grins mischievously. “So, I took conducting lessons … a conductor works from the outside in. A composer starts from nothing. We start from the inside and work outwards. It’s a different mechanism and a totally different kind of composition.

“I’m curious to see what somebody else does with this requiem,” she adds, praising Rick Muselaers, an expert choral conductor from the Netherlands, who will conduct it. “He may expose an earlier Rexleigh who wrote the work between 2002 and 2006 during a particularly dark time.”

“It’s very eclectic,” she explains how she has reworked the order of the traditional requiem. “It’s a mixture of Christian theology and my own perspectives. And praise singers in different languages: French, English, Afrikaans, isiXhosa, Sesotho, Hindi, Mandarin, Cantanese, Portuguese and Hebrew. I was inspired to bring in the notion of praise singing by Zolani Mkiva, who performed at Nelson Mandela’s inauguration. It was unbelievable. It’s a celebration of life.”

“It’s very layered,” she grins, acknowledging the multiple ideas the work touches. “I’ve told the conductor he can bring out the layers he wants to hear. The basic structure will still be there… it’s a bit like life. You can bring some things into focus, but not everything at once. It’s would be too intense. The work is a bit like a drawing by a small child who got hold of the whole box of crayons and has now used them ALL UP,” she says, fiercely. “I had a marvellous time with it!”

  • Requiem for the Living, has its world premiere on August 27 at 8pm at Johannesburg’s Linder Auditorium, and at Unisa’s ZK Matthews Hall, Pretoria on August 28 at 3pm. Conducted by Rick Muselaers, its soloists are Ryan Hoffmann, Claudia Pike, Olusegun Soyemi and James Venables and its choirs are Gauteng Opera and the Horizons Project. Visit reqliving.org and see an excerpt of the work from 2008: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yYhreMTWAZU&feature=youtu.be

Dirty, smarmy secrets

Smallanyana

HE ain’t heavy, he’s my mop: Jerry Mntonga plays Handy Andy. Photograph by Mariola Biela.

THE POMP AND flippancy of a political leadership blindly consumed with its own intrigues and self importance comes under the brutal gaze of seven young Wits writers in Smallanyana Skeleton, a parody loosely cast around South African values. Blending a multitude of talents, from beat-boxing to set design, the work is fresh and vital, cleaving irony and wit with a deeper message, but on the whole, it is bruised by a lack of polish.

As you walk into the rubbish-strewn theatre, it is being mopped by a guy in overalls. The wet mop on the theatre’s black floor becomes a cipher for a multitude of messages, from sex to death, as the guy, “Handy Andy” (Jerry Mntonga) is part outsider and part insider in this tale of sordid immorality based on getting down and dirty in secret, stealing big things such as monuments and fooling tax payers.

With unquestionably inimitable value as a new South African story, the work is hinged  too closely to real people on the current political stage: a character called Honourable Godzille, compromises the parodic thrust the work promises. Is this a play about Helen Zille or is this a broader-based attack on hypocrisy and the skeletons in cupboards of a generic political leadership?

While there is an occasional tendency toward overacting by some of the cast, there is also an energy which leans a little too closely to cinematic dynamics, downplaying formal theatre conventions and hurting the clarity of the tale itself.

Having said that, this work contains some of the self-reflective humour of a selfie-obsessed, social media-dependent society that only writers of this generation can articulate with as much internal knowledge, and harsh criticism, as the work requires. There are some truly fine moments of nuance and improvisation in this play, which is built against a very nifty set conflating newspaper street posters with media interaction rather deliciously.

While the tale is a smarmy one which languidly flows from the issue of rubbish disposal pipes being too wide or too long and into sordid hotel bedrooms, thence to toilets and closets, it is hurt by too many transitions where you’re left in the dark while the cast changes scenes. These breaks in the narrative flow hurt the focus of the story, and often, you’re left proverbially in the dark as extraneous bits and pieces of narrative are strewn about, sometimes not completely coherently.

But the immense value of a play of this nature, featuring students ranging from first years – Nambitha Tyelbooi who plays Jenny List (the journalist) and Thando Mulambo who plays Honourable Humdrum, to young professionals – cannot be underestimated. The fun that was had in the construction of the work shows unquestionably, and is contagious. But the hilarity of the tale, and to an extent, its darkness gets bewildered in the overall messiness of the story.

  • Smallanyana Skeleton is written by Samantha de Jager, Sam Kentridge, Lehlohonolo Mmeti, Sarah Nansubuga, Daniella Oosthuizen, Caitlyn Spring and Joe Young, facilitated and directed by Kgafela oa Magogodi. Featuring design by Julian August (lighting) and Edmund Braatveld and Tsholo Ramosepele (set and costume), it is performed by Bradley Cebekhulu, Abongile Matyutyu, Jerry Mntonga, Lucky Mqoboli, Thando Mulambo, Danielle Oosthuizen and Nambitha Tyelbooi, in the Wits Amphitheatre until August 27. 011 717 1376

To simply gaze into the face of Matisse

By Lilly Oosthuizen

StudentReviewMatisse

SIMPLE lines: Matisse’s confident line work is mindblowing.

ONE MOMENT OF awe in this widely publicised exhibition of the work of Henri Matisse is his quick and bold portraits: in particular his self-portrait; Mask (1945). Self-portraits are a looking glass into the world as the artist sees it, turned on himself; it is a tense moment.

These portraits are a great marker for how Matisse came to his famous paper cutouts. Following the line of the drawings, you can see how deft and confident his marks are. You could probably count the amount of marks he has made on one hand: each one with purpose and a crucial need to describe character.

These portraits are like signatures. They are so well practiced and knowing. You cannot copy the marks he has made without being completely sure of your hand. The marks are musical in their composition. You can imagine the artist’s hand; ba dum dum dum, flick swish swoop, all to describe a face. How beautifully he does it.

It is no surprise then, how musical his cutouts and his plates for the Book of Jazz are. They, like the portraits, are confident – each snip has such a precise yet fluid purpose. Although the work seems to be made with precision, it is not serious. The atmosphere in this exhibition is playful. His cutouts are joyous and they do indeed emit an enormous sense of rhythm and meaning.

Rhythm and Meaning takes the audience through the steps in Matisse’s career, from his student work right through to his paper cutouts. Although the story is a brief overview, the exhibition really gives insight into Matisse’s “signature” as it were, and how it developed.

  • Rhythm and Meaning is at the Standard Bank Gallery in central Johannesburg until September 17. 011 631 4467.
  • Lilly Oosthuizen is a third year visual arts student at the University of Johannesburg. She is currently one of the participants in a course in Arts Writing, given by Robyn Sassen

Framed afresh: King Shaka

Ilembe

OUR captain, our king: Sangomas played by Charity Hlophe and Tholani Miya set the scene as chorus to iLembe. Photograph courtesy http://www.culture-review.co.za

In 2004, the late historian David Rattray single-handedly performed the tale of the Battle of Isandlwana, the first military encounter in 1879 between the British Empire and the Zulu Kingdom. The heady mix of energy and fact, sound effects and drama, politics, supposition and legend, drenched as it was in a splendid and discursive array of blood and heroism, was simply unforgettable, cast as it was in the humble Benoni-based hall of Sibikwa. iLembe, which was staged albeit briefly in Grahamstown and Johannesburg – also under the auspices of Sibikwa – echoes this supreme level of storytelling with guts and vigour.

Taking apart the historical figure of Shaka, king of the Zulu nation, the work offers a clearly woven tale which is a combination of song, gesture, spoken English and isiZulu (with surtitles) as it exposes the traditionally accepted history’s controversial underbelly, posing contradictory questions about the character of Shaka. This is achieved through the words of four characters in the history: Henry Francis Fynn (Jeremy Richard) a British immigrant trader-turned-medical adviser to King Shaka, complete with his brimless straw hat; Shaka’s interpreter Jackot Msimbithi (Andries Babalo Mbali); Shaka’s attendant Mbopha (Sabelo Mnisi); and Shaka’s sister, Nomcoba (Busisiwe Nyundu). Replete with a duo of sangomas onstage (Tholani Miya and Charity Hlophe) who chillingly and beautifully play the role of a kind of a Greek chorus, the work is compelling and driven.

And while they raise controversial issues that die-hard Shaka fans might find enraging, they offer the kind of three-dimensionality to the man that the makers of HBO series Oz do in their portrayal of men so capable of horror, but so endowed with humanity that your morals get confused and swayed. Is this man good? Is he bad? Is he, like most of us, an indefinite mix of both good and bad? King Shaka is not represented as a character in the play, but his presence is palpable and engaged with splendidly. You know you are in the presence of royalty as you enter the theatre.

Further to that, there are nuances and decisions in gesture and direction, dealing in particular with a sloped prop on stage that will truly take your breath away. Myriads of people, a whole army, the reach of an enormous land are evoked with wisdom and clarity.

The curious thing that happens in the interplay of language on this stage is that you develop a thirst to know the nuances of isiZulu, if you don’t already. The surtitles are succinct and pared down, but the isiZulu words that they correspond to are considerably longer. If you don’t understand isiZulu, you lose all the metaphors and flowers, and textures and idioms of the language.

Similar to works like the magnificent Tau, by Thabiso T. Rammala, iLembe brings the taboos and contradictions of traditional African narrative to a stage which could proudly be global, in its polished direction, performance and choreography. It smashes the parochial ideas that African traditional theatre on so-called western stages dragged with it for decades: here is proud African traditionalism and it is fierce, convincing and magnificent.

  • iLembe is written and directed by Phyllis Klotz and Smal Ndaba. It features design by Oscar Buthelezi (choreography), Themba Mkhize (music), Stan Knight (set and lighting) and Sarah Roberts (costumes) and is performed by Andries Babalo Mbali, Charity Hlophe, Tholani Miya, Sabelo Mnisi, Busisiwe Nyundu and Jeremy Richard. It performed at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, and more recently in a short season at the Soweto Theatre in Jabulani, Soweto. sibikwa.co.za