Frocks, freaks and the power of dark


IN style: Nataniel in Mannequin. Photograph courtesy

WHICHEVER WAY YOU approach his work, Nataniël is a phenomenon: a very specifically South African phenomenon who approaches the idea of self-love out of the proverbial left field. His shows are unashamedly formulaic in their construction but there’s a magic ingredient to each of them that keeps you focused and inordinately excited. And Mannequin is no exception.

With a repertoire of extraordinary Floris Louw costumes that glimmer and sparkle and play tricks with your mind and eyes, given the rapid costume changes on stage, the work is replete with Nataniël’s characteristic stories and songs cast around a distinctive theme. But what, exactly is the magical ingredient?

Humour is a funny thing. In most cases of musical theatre that fits under the comic rubric, the genuine funniness of jokes is arguably less important than the cues to laugh. Given the infectious nature of laughter and the rhythm of the words, often an audience will laugh when it is meant to, regardless of how lame or foolish the material is.

Nataniël’s humour is very distinctive. It can be cruel or unspeakably rude. It’s often deeply nuanced and sophisticated with sharp flourishes of bitterness. It is always premised on a mix of pathos and embarrassment, and a reflection on a society that habitually bullies and isolates those who it deems improper or ill-fitted to its parameters. In so many respects, it is a humour bruised and tinctured by deep sadness, as it is stitched together in the interstices between English and Afrikaans.

But it is the dead-pan and gruff nature of his delivery, and the throw-away lines that he offers as a kind of afterthought, a barb with an obscene or self-deprecating or simply bizarre sting in its tail, that will have you genuinely laughing your head off. There are no timed punch-lines here, or silly drum rolls to make you realise this is a cue. Rather, there are very elaborate stories with truly pathetic heroes that are haunting in their folly and unforgettable in their miens and codes of behaviour.

There’s a magic sense of possibility in Mannequin, which is about dressing up as it is about stuff and substance, frissons of femininity and the solemnity and sexiness of fancy dress that all play a role in making frocks, but also the zips and pins, the folds, double takes and double entendres. Mannequin features some beautiful original and cover songs – which Nataniël sings with a rich and mellow voice that balances out his gruff raconteur voice – some astounding cleaving of song with set change and above all, arguably the most sophisticated use of light that you can see onstage in this country right now.

Working with Kevin Stannett, Nataniël himself has designed much of the lighting in this work: he paints with darkness, luminescence and possibility, as he speaks of walls of ivy, a house of misfits, two-faced bastards, three-faced freaks and four-headed monsters, as well as panic attacks and lonely school teachers with quirky private lives.

Mannequin, a work in silver, sparkly stuff and bold, with gimmicks that are cast with such solemnity they turn into legends, and some of the best live music performers this country has, is an experience you cannot afford to miss.

  • Mannequin is conceived, written and performed by Nataniël, is supported by Charl du Plessis (keyboards) Juan Oosthuizen (guitars), Dihan Slabbert (vocals), Hugo Radyn (drums), Werner Spies (bass) and Nicolaas Swart (vocals), with design by Floris Louw (costumes), Kevin Stannett (lighting), Larry Pullen (sound) and Lyn Kennedy (make up). It performs at the Theatre of Marcellus, Emperor’s Palace, Kempton Park until September 25. Call 011 928 1044 or visit com

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