“I BOUGHT A shirt like this for my son-in-law for seven ront,” she says in a stoutly white South African accent, as she presents a second-hand shirt on a wire hanger, in the shop of Gerald Fitzpatrick House and Nursing Home. The shirt contains a sign that mysteriously says “Listen to me”, and as you put the earphones of the iPod secreted in its pocket to your ears, a story emerges: a story of beaches and sand. Of time gone past and days of wine and happiness. It’s like looking at old black and white holiday snaps. You can almost taste the salt-laden wind with the memories, some in English, others in Afrikaans, French or Portuguese. She is Jean (Toni Morkel), the introductory character in Izithombe 2094, a site-specific play by Alex Halligey which embraces the heart of Johannesburg’s suburb of Bertrams, from the inside.
It’s a theatre experience not for the faint of heart or uncomfortably shod. Wear a hat, carry an umbrella and join in at your own risk and with an open head and heart. Pay what you can. Halligey presents the idea of theatre along the streets of Bertrams with a candidness that will take you by surprise, whether you know the terrain or not. As the work unfolds, dotted as it is with a myriad of characters, anecdotes and pivotal moments – which comprise both staged and impromptu situations, you find yourself pondering and wondering how much of this is actually part of the experience, and how much is about the place itself.
Premised on the idea of the power of the director to take and shift and mould her audience in a particular direction, revealing certain things to them through the vehicle of seasoned performers, there’s a level of trickery in this work which will keep you on your toes. The beautiful graffiti, the magnificent people with stories to tell – tales of poverty and hope, tales of Ethiopian bread and refugees from the Congo, tales of special relationships and the sharing of a last cigarette, tales of people drowning in storm drains, and above all tales of neighbourhood. Not every story in Izithombe is told in words and has logical sequences. Not every bit of ‘treasure’ you might find in the work’s 90 minute duration is something you can see and hold in your hand – some of it you take away with you in your heart.
Opening up the vista of this generally poor and down-at-heel suburb of Johannesburg, close to the city centre, Halligey blurs the boundaries of theatre, audience and context with a frisson of the unexpected and sense of total delight. Here’s a man – Ronnie Maluleke – reciting poems to God on the street corner. There’s a woman – Kibibibisch – a political orator standing outside the refugees’ shelter, called Bienvenu. There’s the most elegant woman in Bertrams, Sylvie (Lindiwe Matshikiza). Here’s a group of school children, dancing and singing to one another in a rotational game which reaches across the street outside their school. Suddenly the world turns in upon itself and you feel that you are a part of this community and this play in a way that is indefinable.
And yes, throughout the 90 minute walk through the suburb, past the informal shops with their wares laid out on the pavements, and the hole-in-the-wall tuck shops and braai shops, the farm made of a bowling green, past the former house of Daisy de Melke, the last woman to have been hanged to death in South Africa, you don’t really lose sight of the fact that you are in a creative work. But unlike works of this nature, such as Brett Bailey’s Blood Diamonds of 2009, which saw a tightly controlled environment, and led audience members by the trembling hand of a black child through the cemetery at night, Izithombe 2094 is more nuanced, more surprising, and in that regard, more in touch with the texture and nub of Bertrams.
We don’t, in South Africa, have a strong tradition of site-specificity in our theatre. It slips into the terrain of the radical, the experimental. You may think of the term and cast your mind in the direction of impromptu performers such as Steven Cohen, who in the past became renowned for “upstaging” or “downstaging” (depending on your own values) events like the Durban July or a bridal show in Killarney with his distinctive costume and presence.
With a nod to all of these traditions, including the choreography of Robyn Orlin, in a particularly memorable “beach” scene in the farm, cast against the background of an astonishingly vivid soundscape, Izithombe shows its mettle and its presence, setting the stage – and the streets – for new possibilities.
- Izithombe 2094 is researched, conceived and directed by Alex Halligey, assisted by Baeletsi Tsatsi. It features performances by Lindiwe Matshikiza and Toni Morkel and support from Tiffani Cornwall, Fiona Gordon, Michael Inglis, Kibibibisch and Ronnie Maluleke. It performs from Twilsharp Studios, 40/42 Gordon Road on September 3-7. Visit http://bertramsstoriespro.wixsite.com/2094