Let’s hear it for the boys

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CLOSE every door to me: Wonderfully refined Earl Gregory plays Joseph. Photograph courtesy pietertoerien.co.za

IF THE RAZZLE-DAZZLE of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Joseph extravaganza is what gets your mojo pumping, look no further. This show is replete with utterly fabulous male performers, a song repertoire that’s mesmerising and upbeat and a hodge-podge of music references that may turn your head, if the booming deep bass and strobe lights don’t. It does, however, not do justice to the women onstage.

This Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is a boys’ show. Featuring imminently satisfying choreography and a beautiful cast of young men, in tune with the biblical saga of Jacob and his dozen sons, the work is non-stop all the way. And with Earl Gregory once again apprising the eponymous role, it flies. Gregory’s refined performance sets up a rich counterplay between the rambunctiousness of the rest of the brothers, lending you guttural insight into the basic lines of the story: He’s the favourite, he gets the coat, they’re jealous and get rid of him, but he manages to find his way to the top again.

And that is one of the downsides of this work: the narrative is chopped into its basics and loses nuance. And this happens because of technical challenges. For one thing, this show’s sound is very big. In fact, it’s bigger than the venue. The casualty, in such a situation is the clarity of the lyrics. If you come to see Joseph because you want a bit of a biblical tale with lovely tunes in your life, you might feel disappointed.  The Joseph story, arguably as sexy as the Jesus Christ saga in a musical interpretation on this scale, gets lost. Instead you will see something hard edged and blingy, with ramped up melodrama rather than sentimentality.

This is because there’s not only a huge mix of cultural references in the original version bringing everything from an Elvis-like Pharoah (Jonathan Roxmouth) to South American tango and French ballads into the mix, but also because director Paul Warwick Griffin mashes this up further with  South African references and lyrics which are rejigged in parts. The result is a party. A happy, flashy party, but still, a party, rather than a bible tale.

While the reference to the Guptas remains culturally dodgy – they are, after all, Indian and not Midianite – and many of the musical digressions get a little carried away with themselves, you need to roll with the flow of this otherwise tightly woven piece.

The greatest downfall, however, is the women. Dressed in seriously unflattering costumes, and crudely choreographed, they feel compromised. Rather than seductive, Potiphar’s wife (Thalia Burt) is pushed into grotesque intercourse-evocative manoeuvres with her male slaves, in a kind of Rocky Horror Show meets ancient Egyptian shlock scene, which leave little to the imagination. Also the “adoring girls” – what they’re named in the programme – are little more than fluff on the scene.

In the performance on which this review is premised, Raquel Munn played the narrator; she tried  hard to embrace this production with a big smile and a projected persona, but simply doesn’t have the sense of authority onstage to be convincing.

And yes, while strobes and booming basses are the order of the day, it isn’t direct sensory assault for the full duration of the show and elements like Joseph’s time incarcerated are handled with a quiet starkness that challenges the noisiness of the rest of the piece and stands out rather exquisitely.

In all, it’s a happy lovely party of a story with overriding themes of brotherly jealousy, the horror of the loss of a son, lots of gyrating hips and flashy costumes, and an ultimate celebration of the victim as hero. If you can overlook its flaws, don’t mind the surprise strobes and want to see some fine young men jiggling their stuff with pizzazz and confidence, this one’s for you.

  • Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, with original lyrics by Tim Rice and music by Andrew Lloyd Webber is directed by Paul Warwick Griffin. It is designed by Duane Alexander (choreographer), Niall Griffin (costumes), Gareth Hewitt Williams (lighting), Mark Malherbe (sound) and Louis Zurnamer (musical direction), and performed by Thalia Burt, Emile Doubell, Louise Duhain, Richard Gau, Calvyn Grandling, Darren Greeff, Earl Gregory, Èmil Haarhoff, Kyle Jardine, Kent Jeycocke, Venolia Manale, Michael McMeeking, Kenneth Meyer, Raquel Munn, Nádine, Jarryd Nurden, Dean Roberts, Jonathan Roxmouth, Sonwabiso Sakuba, Stephan van der Walt and Evan van Soest, with music by Louis Zurnamer (piano), James Lombard (Drums), Ryno Zeelie (additional guitar) and Charl-Johan Lingenfelder (other instruments), at The Pieter Toerien Theatre in Montecasino, Fourways until January 29 and at Theatre on the Bay in Cape Town, February 16 to April 8. Visit www.pietertoerien.co.za
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Fridjhon’s Sherlock simply queens it

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DOING it for Queen and country: Robert Fridjhon, Bronwyn Gottwald and Craig Jackson putting twirls on the Sherlock Holmes tradition. Photograph courtesy pietertoerien.co.za 

SOMETHING HAS TO be said for the intricate melding of the minutiae of Victorian language with contemporary ideas, the blossoming into life of a multitude of characters supported by the hand-held technology resonant of radio theatre, and the shenanigans and skulduggery penned by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in the 19th century. All in one evening’s theatre experience. Playwright and performer Robert Fridjhon brings all of this together with utter finesse.

But it is the directorial hand of Alan Swerdlow that adds the cherry on top of this very fine and beautifully crafted piece of work which will have you laughing out loud even if you have come to the theatre on your own. Blending sophisticated if oft very rude repartee and a rash of puns with sheer slapstick comedy and engagement with the audience might not be everyone’s cup of tea – and it certainly isn’t within every cast’s capabilities – but here you get it all, tweaked by an exceptionally ably cast into an intelligent and nuanced laugh-a-second fest. It’s Sherlock Holmes with a dollop of farce, a peppering of British self-deprecation and some of the most hilarious costume decisions you can imagine.

And while there are some digressions in a Goonish or a Monty Pythonesque direction, and you may expect to see a dead parrot at any moment, you don’t: the references are contained and teased out as references and the work holds its own with complete excellence, foraying into issues of sexuality that the Sherlock Holmes tales have always hidden under carpets and in cupboards.

As with many performed murder mysteries reaching from the repertoire of film stars such as Margaret Rutherford and Myrna Loy, often it is the hilarity of the tale rather than the nitty gritty or bloodiness of the crime that are the central focus. Similarly, Fridjhon’s Sherlock Holmes teases apart an alleged stealing of the famed Koh-i-Noor diamond, the biggest in the world, which is owned by Queen Victoria, into a madcap journey between England and France, with a bit of Indian colonialism in between, replete with a couple of murder victims who are actually not dead: it’s stuff to make your head spin.

The work’s small versatile cast simply sparkles: and the helpless laughter you experience in the context of sheer beautiful farce pervades, as the work casts the whole improvised business of a play within a play on a theatre stage. Craig Jackson as Dr Watson (amongst others) and Bronwyn Gottwald as the inimitable Mrs Hudson (amongst others), are utterly perfect for the complexity of the roles, and everything from a self-standing big dress for Queen Victoria to a cat’s tail which becomes the British Prime Minister’s moustache will have you screeching with mirth. But a warning to the unsuspecting: Don’t see this play on a full bladder. It’s as good as it gets.

  • Sherlock Holmes and the Curse of the Queen’s Diamond: An Unrecorded Case, by Royal Request is written by Robert Fridjhon and Bronwyn Gottwald and directed by Alan Swerdlow. It is performed by Robert Fridjhon, Bronwyn Gottwald and Craig Jackson at the Studio Theatre, Montecasino theatre complex in Fourways, until January 15, and at Theatre on the Bay in Cape Town, January 18-28. Visit pietertoerien.co.za

Needles, wool lend self-love universal threads

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CELEBRATING difference: Craig Pomranz’s Made by Raffi. Photograph courtesy amazon.com

WERE YOU ONE of the “normal” set in primary school? Did you go around proclaiming things like “Look how short she is! She must be two years old, not seven. Do you think she’s a midget, maybe!” or “Let’s tease the fat boy with the red hair and tell him how ugly he is!” In so many respects, this is so-called normal behaviour. Children construct their own identity among their peers by the yardsticks of sameness and difference.

And often it is the child who is different from everyone else who gets ostracised, and turned into a scapegoat to be jeered at – be it the child who has red hair, the child who is shorter, bigger, fatter, darker than everyone else; the child who is more intelligent, more talented, more taciturn, more foreign. And always, it is these very children who have to construct their own identity using different margins of self-hood. Craig Pomranz’s Made by Raffi engages these issues head on, with a boy who can knit.

Illustrated with simplicity and freshness by Margaret Chamberlain, the book is succinct and lucid and even touches on gender issues briefly, but poignantly enough to matter and not be inappropriate, to a child who is just on the point of learning to read by themselves.

Raffi is not like the other children. He likes to wear bright colours. He likes to keep his hair longer than most. He’s quietly spoken and is afraid of the loud and rambunctious children who push and shout. He gravitates to the teachers at break because he perceives a sense of stability to exude from them – and he knows they won’t tease him. Knitting – and sewing – become sanctuaries for him and turn his status amongst his peers around.

Structured and functioning with the same type of focus as Hans Christian Andersen’s Ugly Duckling, or Julianne Moore’s Strawberry Freckleface, Made by Raffi contains all the important elements that impress child readers. There is a fabulous sense of detail in the drawings of the children in Raffi’s class which keep you focused on each page, and above all there is a sense of levity conjoined with earnestness that keeps the story real – whether your child is the one who’s different or the one who notices differences in others.

How to spice Christmas with shlock, shock and socks

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GETTING on like a house on fire: Son and mother, Cyril Dene (Robert Colman) and Shirley (Toni Morkel). Photograph by Dean Hutton.

THE YEAR’S BEEN grim, callous and ugly to most of us. We’ve lost people we’ve loved. And jobs we’ve relied on. War’s been apparent all over the place. As has disappointment in those who lead us. What better way to herald its closure than to indulge in easily the best nativity play you can imagine. Taking the earnestness from the tale and sprinkling it liberally with cabaret, intimate drunken mother/gay son dialogue and other fine spices, this nativity was a sock puppet drama, with schlock and shock ramped up all the way.

Arguably a character who is set to become iconic in South Africa is Sheila Shler. Last month, wig askew, lipstick smeared, but her posh Saxonwold accent still intact, she reported to facebook audiences from the SQs (servants’ quarters) of her grand estate, announcing that her (former) maid, Tryfeena had captured her house and moved her to the servants’ quarters while she slept. It was a tale constructed by veteran performer Robert Colman, contingent on the ‘Saxonwold shebeen’ saga spouted by Brian Molefe formerly of Eskom in his urge to prove himself clean of a Gupta stain, but that’s another whole story.

Sheila has since begun to enjoy a series, which is developing as we speak. And a family. Of sorts. While she did do a guest appearance in the nativity saga, involving baking and boogying, it was Sheila’s very very good friend, Shirley (Toni Morkel) and her son Cyril Dene (Robert Colman) who hosted the delicious revue. Confused yet? Well, you shouldn’t be.

This collaboration by unquestionably the country’s greatest veteran performers, in their sparkly slingbacks, double-decker wigs and bathing suits, to say nothing of long plastic eyelashes, as they lip synced perfectly to opera and delved with grubby issues of old age, sex and death most deliciously, was simply fantastic. It was a slice of Doo Bee Boobies and a soupçon of what might happen next in Sheila Shler’s life. And it was replete with many hilarious cherries on top, including a performance by the inimitable Irene Stephanou as Jesus’ granny with a strong Greek accent, who resents being omitted from the bible; the unforgettable Christine by Mark Hawkins who has terrifyingly dead eyes and other surprises; and a reflection on Welkom as being a little piece of hell for the aged, by Fiona Ramsay and Tony Bentel (who played Death).

With repartee as filthy and direct as is necessary and puppetry by Margaret Auerbach and Eduardo Cachucho that had the audience bordering on hysteria, there were nubs of poignancy and reality that pierced the show and lent it heart. You didn’t just go away with a grin hurting from too frequent use. Cyril and Shirley’s Sock Puppet Nativity and Xmas Variety Show has the potential of being a trailblazer in a whole range of directions, from Stephanou’s Jesus granny tearing into biblical narrative a la Kazantzakis  and his Last Temptation of Christ, to Sheila Shler’s ongoing tale of woe as a beacon showing the other side of what is happening in this country. This was a one-night-only event, but if there’s a chance it will regenerate itself come the end of 2017, there’s certainly something to look forward to in the year ahead!

  • Cyril and Shirley’s Sock Puppet Nativity and Xmas variety show was written, directed and performed by Robert Colman and Toni Morkel. It featured puppetry Margaret Auerbach and Spellbound Puppets, as well as performances by Tony Bentel, Mark Hawkins, Roberto Pombo, Fiona Ramsay, Irene Stephanou. It performed for a one-night-only season at Pop Arts theatre, Maboneng precinct, downtown Johannesburg on December 15. Visit popartcentre.co.za

Sucked into abstraction’s vortex, head first

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ONLY connect: A detail of Ricky Burnett’s painting in oil on canvas, titled Ivory VI. Photograph by Liz Whitter.

THIS REMARKABLE BOOK of photographs of black paintings made and exhibited by South African artist Ricky Burnett is intentionally out to mess with your mental equilibrium, but not your self-esteem. Premised with a short text written by Tracey Hawthorne, the book situates itself in art history. In confrontation with ideals of representation. But this is no ordinary art history book – or treatise. There’s no substantial guidance into how to get through each work with its individual nuances and characteristic density. You might feel lost and a little frightened.

It’s a fear sparked by the generally bad rap that visual art has gained in the contemporary press: often visual arts writing is done in such a way that if you are not armed with several degrees in a deep and obscure specialisation in the discipline, you will fear you’re not sufficiently intelligent or well-educated to engage with the core of the work. Blame it on conceptual artists such as Marcel Duchamp. On writers who over the years developed such an impenetrable tendency to obfuscate their writing with specialist terminology deriding plain language that they effectively chased away popular engagement.

You could even blame it on editors and sub-editors who over the years fell victim to bullying by specialist writers with complicated and seldom-used terminology and theories. But the more you look, the less you should fear these paintings in this book, for this reason.

Yes, they’re about the work of notoriously uncategorisable artist Francisco de Goya (1746-1828). Yes, Burnett comments that the structure of the paintings is not apparent and that they hinge on Goya’s work in a way that cannot be easily traced. But he’s not really playing games with you. No, really.

In 1936, German philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote an essay called The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. A critical paean to the idea of photography as a medium and photography as a means of reproducing art, it was to become arguably one of the more important tracts on the moral and ethical issues surrounding reproduced photographs of paintings in books.

Ricky Burnett: Troubled With Goya sits strategically on the thorns of Benjamin’s argument. The photographs – taken by Liz Whitter – are of such a quality that they actually challenge the experience of seeing the art works in the flesh, in a gallery, lit in particular ways. Here, your nose is pushed against the nuances of the paint as it is lit in a certain way. You can almost smell the paint as you gaze into its peaks and valleys that the artist as created on the canvas.

But further to that, this is not only about photography and painting. It is also about printing. Published by Palimpsest International and printed in Malaysia, this book offers a richness which you can taste. It doesn’t suffer from a tendency to be muddied and sullied with fingerprints tainting the surface of the glossy paper.

The book does, however, have a downside. But it’s a downside that you could take and stretch across a whole swath of artmaking, should you be so inclined. And that rests upon its abstraction. If Liz Whitter and the Palimpsest International team had focused their considerable skills and acumen in photographing a patch of soil after a rainstorm, or the underside of a piece of rock, they would yield something as varied and as rich, and abstract and as magical as Burnett’s paintings of Goya’s work. Does that mean that we who feel sucked in by these images in this book, down to our very toes, are beguiled and foxed by tricks and nuances that have nothing to do with the real world? Not really. This book isn’t about the underside of a rock or a piece of soil. They’re about Ricky Burnett reflecting on Goya. And there’s their rub of brilliance.

Ricky Burnett: Troubled with Goya (Palimpsest International, Malaysia 2016) Visit www.rickyburnett.com

 

The ineffable, uncomfortable beauty of Robyn

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COCKING a snook: Elisabeth Bakambamba Tambwe (on screen) and Eric Languet (in the tutu) in Robyn Orlin’s “in a world full of butterflies, it takes balls to be a caterpillar … some thoughts on falling …” Photograph by Thomas Lachambre.

ONE THING YOU have to disabuse yourself of when you enter the audience of a Robyn Orlin work is that you’re safe, there in the dark, as you take your seat. That no one will interfere with you or embarrass you. And it’s such a powerful dynamic that it sets the world on fire and fills the Market Theatre to the rafters. Whether it fits into the safety precautions of a theatre filled with members of the public, is another whole question.

In truth, this shaky perception of your own safety, be it emotional or physical safety, is something you should hold onto in entering the space of any live performance. What they’re doing for you is about challenging many things, including your right to be there – and to be comfortable there, while a performer is baring their soul, their guts and their body to you. Sometimes in that order. Traditionally however, this is not the case. For the price of a ticket, you get to sit anonymously in a darkened room and see someone do something that might be extraordinary and revealing and painful. Whichever side of the audience spectrum you sit on, Orlin’s work casts shivers in your direction.

And what a privilege it is to see performers of the calibre of Elisabeth Bakambamba Tambwe and Eric Languet in this construction of two propositions, in a world full of butterflies it takes balls to be a caterpillar and … some thoughts on falling … , a work which is as much about caterpillars and falling as it is about the narrative of dance, and the way in which Orlin has the bravery to tear strips off traditional practice. And get away with it.

The work opens in a stage full of audience members and an auditorium covered in small brightly coloured pop-up tents. And as it unfolds to important songs such as Strange Fruit, sung by Nina Simone, you realise the poetry between a chrysalis and a pop up tent. Tambwe stretches, she sings, she prates, she embraces the stages with complete authority, engaging with her unbelievable costume in a way that dazzles. You don’t, however, know what to expect, and you laugh and you shiver at the things she does, with her dress, the webcam, the audience on stage, the tents, the reality of being a caterpillar, or ultimately a butterfly, and what it all means in the bigger picture.

She’s shooed away unceremoniously by Languet, in a trench coat. In a work that confronts balletic tradition as it comes face to face with the expectations of gender in dance and the constant fear of falling. Is he Icarus, the son of Daedalus, who flew to the sun with wings of wax and was melted and cast into the sea? Is he everyman who boasts hubris and suffers the indignity of a fall? There’s a conflation of values which entraps your thinking. He moves his ageing body like a sylph, a naiad, and you forget that he is human. You sit there in a spiral of thoughts, of realities, feeling afraid that he might fall on top of you as he has done to other audience members. You’re mesmerised by the magnetic focus of the webcam as you stare into the enlarged face of Tambwe.

There’s an ineffable, unspeakable and above all uncomfortable beauty that is breached in the concatenation in both their performance and with their different details that force you out of conventional thinking. The work feels too long and yet too short. Your head spins with the issues being tossed in your direction and you feel you can’t take any more, you can’t breathe… but alas, when it is over, there is a part of your heart that remains aflutter, there’s a part of your subconscious which murmurs, ‘did I really see that?’

But big kudos are due to the theatre itself and the organisations who made it possible for this work to travel: we don’t often get to see contemporary dance of this calibre in South Africa.

  • In a world full of butterflies, it takes balls to be a caterpillar … some thoughts on falling … is created by Robyn Orlin. Featuring design by Laïs Foulc (lighting), Birgit Neppl (costumes) sound (Cobi von Tonder) and Thabo Pule (technical direction), it was performed by Elisabeth Bakambamba Tambwe and Eric Languet on December 6 and 7 at the John Kani Theatre, Market Theatre complex in Newtown.