On losing the plot and laughing all the way home

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THINGS fall apart: from left, Robert Fridjhon, Sive Gubungxa, Nicole Franco and Russel Savadier. Photograph by Christiaan Kotze.

YOU HAVE AN inkling as to what you can expect by the very name of this production, and you won’t be disappointed: very few things actually go right in this insane little bit of farcical frippery. The sheer skill that goes into clowning at its classically best, is remarkable, and this madcap cast of eight projects the loosely held together tale of a murder performed by an amateur dramatics association. And loosely is truly the operative adjective, when it comes to how the ingenious set itself plays a seminal and pants-wettingly funny role in the shenanigans.

From a dog that is mimed to a clock that doubles as the female lead, the work gets wilder and more insane as it unfolds. Corpses cry out in pain and floors fall. The sequence of lines becomes tumultuous at best, and the chap operating the special effects locates a missing Duran Duran CD amidst dramatic moments on stage. A bunch of keys doubles as a pen, some white spirits insinuates itself into the props in lieu of whisky and a portrait of a spaniel seconds as someone’s dad. In short, everything that can go wrong, does.

Featuring a splendid cast which hone this material and milk it for every laugh in the house, the work is headed by a delightful performance by Russel Savadier as the inspector. And while some of the errors in the splay of values of this work are so wrong that they’re too much – from the mispronunciation of terms by Roberto Pombo’s character to the woodenness of Sive Gubungxa’s character – the laughs will burst from your lips with abandon, and will develop their own momentum.

The danger of a play of its nature, however, is there is a limit to the kind of surprises that you can stomach, and at some moments, your eyes glaze over from too much raucous explosions and it becomes tedious. The crispness of the madness, the bizarreness of the mishaps becomes so great that they actually hurt the play.  If you think back to the inimitable Noises Off, performed a number of years ago in this theatre, there is a level of resonance with this work, but given that amateur is a part of how the work is premised, there’s a tad too much obvious over-acting, which makes the clowning veer a little on the side of crass. Something of Jemma Kahn’s Amateur Hour raises its head in this work.

Having said that, it’s a delicious bit of fun which will leave you still laughing as you drive home: the kind of tonic we all need right now.

  • The Play that Goes Wrong is written by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields and directed by Alan Committie. It features design by Malcolm Terrey (costumes) and Bronwyn Leigh Gottwald (props co-ordinator) and is performed by Nicole Franco, Robert Fridjhon, Sive Gubangxa, Craig Jackson, Theo Landey, Roberto Pombo, Russel Savadier and Louis Viljoen at the Pieter Toerien Theatre, Montecasino Fourways, until April 30 and at Theatre on the Bay in Cape Town from May 3 until June 17. Call 011 511-1988 or visit pietertoerien.co.za
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Berksie deserves better

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TALK RADIO HOST John Berks needs no introduction for most radio listeners. Instrumental in bringing Radio 702 to life, and in sowing the seeds for talk radio in South Africa, he had humble beginnings in Klerksdorp in the 1940s, and his is a life story that takes him to LM radio in the 1960s, to the mushrooming of South African radio in the 1980s, to the halls of radio fame, as he follows his dreams. By any accounts, it’s a story which should shimmer. But in this book, it doesn’t.

The writing is lucid enough, but unforgivably amateur inconsistencies in the spelling of names, the repetition of story threads which skew facts, and the material’s structure make you think this book was rushed through with nary a consideration for its integrity as a piece of writing, or a document of radio history.

Binckes fleshes out the irrelevant minutiae of Berks’s anecdotes in the third person. What the book gains in simplistic narrative that teeters on superficially entertaining reading, it loses in ignoring not only Berks’s voice but also the context of radio in South Africa. The few verbatim accounts of telephone gags Berks did on radio, are fabulous but alas too few, and the resulting work is a laboured, poorly written, appallingly edited read, which presents Berks as a socially inept fluke who was in the right place at the right time.

If you remember how Berks seduced the radio waves with his dulcet tones and reinvented its tradition with utter chutzpah, and complete hilarity, this amateurish book makes no sense. Binckes’s attempts to offer the back-story of this icon of South African entertainment reveals Berks as a man of monumental inadequacy with an itch and a stutter and a tendency to resign from jobs serially. Reminiscent of the Danny Kaye biography by Martin Gottfried, there’s such a focus on the man’s petty faux pas that descriptions of his talents feel hyperbolic.

The book improves as it goes; ironically, the most coherent chapter is the last which deals with Berks’s thwarted presence on RAM FM, a Palestinian/Israeli radio station under the aegis of entrepreneur Issie Kirsh.

As a biography, it’s a missed opportunity. Berks’s colourful character, his talent for mimicry and his iconic presence on air, exuding drama, sex appeal and charisma, just don’t sparkle from these pages.

  • What A Boykie: The John Berks Story is written by Robin Binckes, by published by 30° South Publishers, Pinetown (2015)

At Sibikwa, there is always more

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THE sky’s the limit when you’re jiving in pink takkies. Children from Luyolo Primary School in Emdeni, Soweto. Photograph by Geoff Sifrin.

SOMETHING HAS TO be said for the frenetic, sweaty joy of being in a theatre full of children, who are cheering their peers on, in the name of dance and drama, music and art-making. It lends an unequivocal sense of possibility to the ether. And this is not just Pollyanna values or shallow advocacy in theatre: Sibikwa’s annual Artists in Schools Programme ended today; being in the midst of the celebrants is not only humbling, it’s a real privilege.

The programme, in place for the last six years, and in association with the National Department of Arts and Culture, involves the deployment of 38 artists – who have been trained in the arts and in facilitation – in 38 schools across the Gauteng province. None of these schools have a permanent creative arts teacher, and the role of the Arts in Schools is to rustle up the innovation muscles in the children. It’s about intervention. It’s about skills transfer and it’s about positive impacts. So say the PR documents.

But when you watch the children sing and dance, when they explain what a musical canon is, when you watch the best of each artist’s school experience, strut its stuff in Sibikwa’s theatre premises in Benoni, you also realise it’s about a supreme sense of self. It’s about bodily confidence and it’s about fun. But there’s so much more.

Children from Vezukhono Secondary School, in Benoni, for instance, all dressed in black T-shirts and tights, articulate a work that is about loss and anguish, about sadness and disappointment, and when you look at these beautiful children, expressing the nub and texture of a community in disarray, you cannot but consider the pragmatics that they face in townships where their daily lives are fraught with enormous challenges.

Conversely, children from Kgalema Secondary School have taken apart and reworked the image of a painting by Irma Stern. The effect is disparate but fresh, the engagement with the material, real.

Will any of these children who’ve had a seed of art planted in their heads and hearts over the past six and a half weeks, develop into artists? It’s difficult – and unfair – to make predictions. But what Sibikwa, under the steerage of its co-founders Phyllis Klotz and Smal Ndaba, is forging in this kind of context is something else. It’s that nebulous gift you give to a child when you tell them there’s more. More to life. More to their possible futures. More to who they are. More than what their impoverished circumstances tell them. Sibikwa, since 1988, has been one of those stalwart initiatives which has gone head to head with dire realities of abuse and poverty, illness and abandonment, and has created theatre that rides over the basic notion of advocacy theatre and into the true heart of what the arts are about.

 

Crying in public; bathed in invincible colour

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TEARFUL yet present: Crying in Public by Banele Khoza. Photograph courtesy Lizamore & Associates.

When first you access these boldly rendered works by Banele Khoza, you might think you know what the artist is saying. And you might be tempted to wave a dismissive hand at the perceived social problems of a young man. Problems of loneliness and rejection, sex and confidence. But the more you look, the less you see and the more the mysterious and haunting Crying in Public pieces seem to predominate this exhibition offering an autobiographical reflection that might reach you in a place much deeper that you would allow at the best of times.

Part of the gallery’s mentorship programme, Khoza, who is fast becoming a name in the professional art world, was mentored by Colbert Mashile in this exhibition. He showed work last year at the Pretoria Art Museum, and something extraordinary is clearly cooking in this artist’s sense of possibility, his confidence and the muscularity of his approach. Much more than crass comments on emotional or physical states of being, the works in Lonely Nights burst with painterly audacity.

There’s scant reference to the filigree that featured in Khoza’s earlier show. But once you begin to embrace the paintings in this exhibition, you hardly miss that incisive complex linearity. Khoza demonstrates a beautiful understanding of the interface of colour and chance in a way that will touch you to the core.

The exhibition is peppered with small scale canvases all titled Crying in Public and numbered individually. By and large they’re abstract, or somewhere between abstraction and gestural self-portraiture. And in their blasts of colour or mark, be it Venetian yellow or a mild pink, be it black or blue and white, something is articulated here about how we cover up in the face of society, about how we hide our emotions or sob where we think we’re invisible. It’s not explicit, but it is sophisticated and discreet.

The works are not completely or consistently solemn, however: there’s a touch of Robert Hodgins in the numinous shapes conjured by Khoza’s paintbrush, and conjoined with the comments that shriek out loud and in bold type of the artist’s lonely nights from “I have a girlfriend” to “Fuck me”, to a commentary on how in an age of social media, you might be focused on counting likes and pretending to be working, but that it’s all a haze of pretense. The works are massaged into life with a self-deprecating humour, and an exuberant use of text all over some of them.

But it is their overall freshness that grabs you by the eye and infiltrates your whole being. Khoza works largely with a palette tinted into conventional pastel shades. His brush marks are generous and luscious and he skirts with boldness around the notion of abstraction, yielding pieces that are delightful and visually enticing.

  • Lonely Nights by Banele Khoza is at Lizamore and Associates gallery in Parkwood until March 30. Call 011 880 8802 or visit lizamore.co.za

Me and my jazz guitar on the brink of hell

 

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Beginning like a mashup of Oskar’s shenanigans in Günter Grass’s Tin Drum and the gently crass lyrics of 1940s band Spike Jones and the City Slickers, the autobiography of Berlin-born jazz guitarist Coco Schumann reflects prosaic insight into the European Holocaust. It gives life to the adage that when the world is on fire, all you must do is carry on carrying on.

The book is a translation – it was originally published in 1997 in German and is translated into English here by John Howard – and it is written not by a writer, but by the man who lived through this historical kaleidoscope, and for this reason, it is fairly ordinary read. The dramatic context in which Schumann grew and played music is allowed to bubble on its own historical momentum rather than through the craft of description.

With each chapter named in honour of a jazz standard: How High the Moon, Summertime, Razzle Dazzle and Autumn Leaves, Schumann’s realisation of the stigma of his Jewish identity, his assignation to Auschwitz and his arrival at Theresienstadt where he was successful in starting his band, the Ghetto Swingers, are tucked away between the interstices of the music.

While Schumann’s writing style is understated and peppered with details of domesticity, living as we are, two generations from the reality of the Holocaust, something is lost in the placing of Michael H Kater’s informative afterword as an afterword.

The son of a Jewish woman and an Aryan man, Schumann was according to Jewish tradition, Jewish. According to Nazi tradition, he was not a full Jew, but Jewish enough to be killed. Having found his “grandmother” of a guitar, Schumann played music through arguably one of modern Europe’s most hateful periods, and not only did he live to tell the tale, but he played music through the war, and still does.

From an explanation of his hated Jewish identity to the horror of Kristallnacht, his entry into Theresienstadt, a ghetto moulded by the Nazis for PR, to his meeting the notorious Josef Mengele at the doors of Auschwitz, Schumann’s life story describes many circles of dreams awakening, being crushed and brought to life again. Ultimately, it is a satisfying read offering strong insight into the horrors of war, but more significantly, the fierce determination to keep one’s dreams flourishing.

  • The Ghetto Swinger: A Berlin Jazz-Legend Remembers by Coco Schumann is published by Doppelhaus Press Los Angeles (2016).

Haunted by Prettina

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SEVENTY per cent pretty: Klara van Wyk is Prettina. Photograph by Lauren Buckle.

BLENDING TENDERNESS WITH bravado, prickliness with utter vulnerability, Klara van Wyk has crafted a character which warrants status as the poster girl of contemporary high school bullying. Her work, You Suck and Other Inescapable Truths is a piece of advocacy theatre which stands its own ground in a regular theatre, but which will haunt you and make you remember bruises that you inflicted as a child – and/or the bruises and scars that were inflicted on you during those very same years. Beautifully constructed and performed with the clownish acumen you might have seen in van Wyk’s representation of Chalk Girl in collaboration with Jemma Kahn some years ago, this is one of those pieces that irrevocably is the voice of an era.

Prettina considers herself almost material for the ‘A’ group. She believes she’s 70% pretty and nearly there in terms of the popular set of the high school which she attends. Granted, she’s awkward in some ways. And she has a strict mom and she’s not really sure of the value of her Afrikaans heritage, other than as a stumbling block. But she knows the ropes of hip-hop, is an expert in the odd cultural skill of Eisteddfod, and can sing. And furthermore, she can see through the flaws of the class queens with ease, and there’s no reason why she shouldn’t be one of them.

Until she finds out why, that is. Rendered with the kind of dead-pan irony that evokes Nathaniël’s storytelling, the work is at once utterly breath-takingly hilarious and totally tragic. You want to embrace Prettina and tell her that there is so much more out there in the world, and yet, you cannot help roaring with (albeit utterly empathetic) laughter at her social faux pas. And the reason for this is as simple as it is complicated: You, too, are Prettina. Or you have been shades of her in your own way. And that’s true, whether or not you like to admit it, an inescapable fact which ramps up your laughter even more – even if it serves to camouflage old tears of rage and injustice.

There’s a deeper thread underlying the work, however, and structurally, this is supported with a level of brilliance that runs through it like a thread of quicksilver. It has to do with a mouse. And that mouse is present from the very first line in the script, as the lights come up, infused with prescience, like in a Greek tragedy. Constructed with a denouement that will give you goose bumps and make your hair stand on end, You Suck doesn’t pander to an audience. It is an unrelenting piece of potency which holds up the phenomenon of social media bullying to a very frightening mirror: this is the flailing voice of youth in our contemporary times. And it’s weeping, silently. Whatever else You Suck does, it will make you sit up and take notice – particularly if there are young children in your life.

  • You Suck and Other Inescapable Truths is written by Klara van Wyk and directed by Francesco Nassimbeni. Featuring design by Francesco Nassimbeni (set) and Richard de Jager (costumes), it is performed by Klara van Wyk, on demand at Western Cape schools. It will also enjoy a commercial run at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, June 29-July 9. Contact klara@gmail.com

Same differences, different sameness and the glory of being seven

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SAGE advice of a wise mommy: Megan van Wyk and Kirsty Marillier see the other side of freckles. Photograph courtesy National Children’s Theatre

There’s an almost audible click, that the audience can hear, when performers in a show collaborate with a generous and real spirit of enthusiasm. And there’s almost an audible click when a cast sings with a production, not only in the literal sense, but also because they really get it. The rarity of both these things happening in a production takes your breath away because it is flawless: Freckleface Strawberry The Musical is a simple tale about bullying and friendship which is told with a deft directness, a sparkly sense of self and a true spirit of collaboration, enabling everyone on the creative team to give of their very best.

Led by Kirsty Marillier, who is cast so perfectly, she has the whole stage in her hand from the get go, this delicious little tale of the horrors and pleasures of being different takes you immediately into the rough and tumble of a seven-year-old context. It’s a story of bicycle riding and the tooth fairy, of gentle malice born of observation that is enabled to grow into something wretched, and of dreams that little boys and girls are allowed to have. While it is a little heavy handed on how the idea of marriage and babies represents unequivocal success, everything else about this autobiographical tale rings real, and the work never teeters into utter saccharine.

We’re all a little bit of a Freckleface, with our personal idiosyncrasies and our silent envy of other people’s perfections. This play very beautifully embraces those insecurities which are part of the human condition, with the interlocked narratives of eight children and a baby brother who wears a colander (Brandon Loelly), sparked into life with dreams and nightmares, the advice of a wise mommy and the part time sanctuary of an itchy woollen mask. It’s about vocalised ambitions to be the best and unspoken ones about fearing that you’re never good enough, and conjoined with its lyrics and its choreography, this production fits with as satisfying a ‘click’ as the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.

And everyone, literally everyone – Teekay Baloyi, Megan van Wyk, Dihan Schoeman, Caitlyn Thomson, Senzo Radedbe, Brandon Loelly and Megan Rigby – simply glows in this work. The crowning skill remains in the hand of director, Francois Theron because no one shines brighter than anyone else, and the flow of the story is delicate and robust enough to bring its message across. While the eponymous little redhead remains at the front and centre of the tale, she remains one of the kids in the best possible way. This rendition of the play – it was performed at this theatre in 2014 – will leave you with a different understanding of your own differences, but also with an awareness that you’ve just witnessed something deliciously perfect.

  • Freckleface Strawberry The Musical is written by Julianne Moore and directed by Francois Theron. Featuring design by Stan Knight (set), Rowan Bakker (musical supervision), Shelley Adriaanzen (original choreography), Phillida Le Roux (staging), Sarah Roberts (costumes) and Jane Gosnell (lighting), it is performed by Teekay Baloyi, Brandon Loelly, Kirsty Marillier, Dihan Schoeman, Caitlyn Thomson, Senzo Radebe, Megan Rigby and Megan van Wyk, it is at the National Children’s Theatre in Parktown, until April 13. Call 011 484 1584 or visit nationalchildrenstheatre.org.za/