Bathroom of a million thoughts

Helen

ALL alone in the lavatory. Helen (Gina Shmukler) confronts her future and her past. Photograph by Suzy Bernstein.

PICTURE THE SCENARIO. Suddenly, everything that you may have known in your life has been curtailed down to extreme basics. You’ve a toilet and running water. Electricity. Some magazines, maybe. You can hear what is going on, but cannot reach it. Does anyone know that you are there? You are holed in the guest loo of your house, while burglars ransack your possessions. What is going through your head? This is the premise on which Mike van Graan’s Helen of Troyeville rests. Performed by seasoned actress Gina Shmukler, it is the kind of play that will engage and haunt you, not only because of the magnificent performance, but also because of its political crux.

The work is similar in many respects to the premise in Megan Voysey-Braig’s 2008 novel, Till We Can Keep an Animal. Helen is a white woman who has enjoyed the wide range of privileges that living in South Africa for a white person has presented to her. She’s educated, she’s got all the material possessions she could wish for, including the facility of a guest bathroom, in her home, which has become the repository for everything. She’s widowed. Her daughter has children of her own and lives elsewhere. Hers is a comfortable complacency that comes of age in a context of privilege. All her life she’s had a sense of her own agency. She’s felt that she has a role to play in her own decisions. Suddenly all of this is broken.

There are strange men in her house and she has become victim to a hostage situation and what happens next hangs is in the balance. Helen is savvy of her position as a statistic that won’t leave a blip on news feeds, either way. She’s also cognisant of the awkward role of privileged whites in a society beleaguered by poverty, corruption and oppression that traditionally still befalls people who are not white. She was once a “do-gooder” in society, that enthusiastic buyer of informal knick-knacks from beggars at traffic lights, she argues to herself.

But now she isn’t. Disempowered, disenfranchised, cast out of the picture, subject to the will of others. It is this scenario that forces her to rethink everything – life, her place in it, and what it all means. All she has to bounce ideas off is the bathroom mirror and her memories. And there follows a beautiful concatenation of ideas articulated with a texture and a rhythm that is infectious, almost Shakespearean in its flow, volume and width.

By and large, Helen is not a character given to self-pity, but her mood and her perspectives wax and wane with the flow of time, which does seem to stop, as she strains her ears to get an inkling of what may be happening upstairs in her home. To her possessions. And with a gulp of horror, to her dogs.

Focusing on everything from what she has to what she doesn’t have any longer – she gets you to remourn your own losses – as she ponders the sister she lost, the husband, the adult child who never fitted in, the child of a domestic worker, killed in a crime.

It’s a beautiful play, honed with tiny but provocative musical interludes, exceptional skill and Mike van Graan’s characteristic and intense depth of focus, all enclosed in a tight whorl of values – even to the point where Shmukler’s articulation is not always completely audible – on a level, she is, after all, alone and in her bathroom, allowing her thoughts to bounce off the tiled surfaces.

But it’s also a very frightening play, almost obvious in its framework and in the country’s state of mind with regard to this kind of crime. Handled by professionals highly skilled at their craft, from playwright van Graan to Shmukler to relative newcomer Lesedi Job at the directorial helm of the work, it’s a jewel. But Helen won’t leave your heart or your mind as you leave the theatre.

  • Helen of Troyeville is written by Mike van Green and directed by Lesedi Job. It features creative input by Mandla Mtshali (lighting) and is performed by Gina Shmukler in the Wits Downstairs theatre, on July 29 at 18:00 and July 30 at 18:00, as part of the Wits 969 Festival. Visit webtickets or see Wits 969’s facebook page.
  • For an interpretative commentary on this show, by seasoned columnist Geoff Sifrin, read this.
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Make-believe and tiger shenanigans

Tiger

OH, mummy, he’s hungry! The Tiger (Jonathan Raath), relishes the remains of dinner, delighting and shocking Sophie (Pascalle Durand) and mummy (Louise Duhain). Photograph courtesy National Children’s Theatre.

WHAT WOULD YOU do if a great big orange, stripy tiger was an unexpected guest at your mummy’s tea table? Like the other tots in the audience, you would undoubtedly be blown away with an excess of cuteness, fluffiness and delight, and forget about the practicalities of feeding a very hungry beast, even if he has mostly dashing manners. The National Children’s Theatre is rapidly honing yet another feather in its proverbial cap, by developing work that caters to the 2-5 age group, and they’re doing it with utterly professional aplomb.

The stage adaptation of Judith Kerr’s The Tiger Who Came To Tea, directed by the inimitable Francois Theron is spot on in terms of the collaborative energies of the piece. Eight-year-old Pascalle Durand as Sophie, the child for whom this orange-striped extravaganza happens, shimmies like a real professional. She carries her role with directness and dignity and her singing voice is like a little bell, loud and clear enough to inspire joy into the hearts of the oldest and most craggy of curmudgeons, let alone the babies in the audience. Above all, she collaborates with the grown ups on the cast as a real team member. This is a child to watch.

The story is gentle and direct, espousing a 1960s normalcy that is about daddy (Kefilwe Mohlabane) going to work in a suit and tie, mummy (Louise Duhain) doing mummy things such as shopping and cooking, and Sophie enjoying the variety of delights that comprise her life, from receiving a kitty in the post to joking with the milkman (Jonathan Raath), and watching the tick-tock of the clock as the day passes.

The Tiger (Raath) in his head-to-toe costume interrupts things, but he’s a very welcome routine-quasher. This brightly coloured work with brilliant black and white props that do not pretend to be the ‘real’ thing, represent a perfect introduction for your littly to the make-believe magic that theatre offers. Clocking in at 45 minutes, and featuring some dance-along activities and some “He’s behind you!” intrigues, it’s a work that is just right for the little tiger in your life. The question must be posed, however, as to whether, like this theatre’s recent production of the Library Lion, audience members can anticipate an isiZulu or perhaps an isiXhosa tiger at their tea table, in the near future?

  • The Tiger Who Came To Tea is adapted for stage by David Wood, based on the eponymous book by Judith Kerr. It is directed by Francois Theron and features creative input by Dale Scheepers (musical direction), Sarah Roberts (costumes), Stan Knight (set) and Jodie Davimes (choreography). It is performed by Louise Duhain, Kefilwe Mohlabane and Jonathan Raath and an alternating child cast of Zoe Buitendag, Pascalle Durand and Luca Teague. This review is premised on the performance featuring Pascalle Durand. It performs at Wynnstay, on the National Children’s Theatre campus in Parktown, until August 20. Visit nationalchildrenstheatre.org.za or call 011 484 1584.

Blessed (and cursed) by the need to draw

AsherLev

YOU made this? The father (Alan Swerdlow), the mother (Louise Saint-Claire), and Asher Lev, the son (Robert Fridjhon). Photograph by Suzy Bernstein.

IN THE AGONISING moment when Asher Lev’s parents are revealed as utterly out of place in Asher’s world, the tectonic plates of this classic Jewish art story which first saw light of day in 1972, shift. It is a pivot crafted with sheer brilliance that holds this whole play together. But sadly, this interpretation of arguably the go-to novel for any young person who is born into a religious context and blessed or cursed with a talent to create art, is not completely flawless.

The stigma of iconoclasm in a strictly religious Jewish context is a very real one, and adapting this work for stage is complicated. It’s about the challenges a young boy with a talent for art in Hassidic America in the 1940s faced, a tale which spoke directly to the heart of every reader who has ever felt the passion of creativity. The adaptation is by and large solid, but it does feature the narrator speaking directly to the audience quite a lot, which does affect the tone of the material, making it unwittingly seem comedic in its sense of timing. Similarly, there are anomalies in the choice of costume for Asher Lev (Robert Fridjhon), which greatly affects the credibility of the role.

For one thing, he wears a yarmulke embroidered in silver thread and made of glossy satin that speaks of a stream of superficial Jewish fashion that would most certainly not have been de rigueur with a Brooklyn Jew who digresses from the rich phalanx of monolithic values and traditions with which he was raised. For another, he wears a natty little waistcoat which places him uncomfortably between the world of his parents and that of his teacher, not allowing him to belong credibly to either.

But the clothes are the least of it. Indeed, this is not Fridjhon’s best role. We’ve seen him shine and eclipse the stage with his craft, his wit and his wisdom, but his performance here lacks the kind of fierce agony that would contain the horror of banishment so central to the novel. You don’t see the child of six, ten or 13 who is depicted in the text. You don’t see Lev growing before your eyes. You don’t see the kind of raw energy and fierce determination that you may have seen in John Logan’s Red, performed a couple of years ago in this city, with a similar theme revolving around a young artist and his older teacher.

Rather, you’re brother to tears by the pain and authenticity articulated by Alan Swerdlow in his various rabbinical roles, and Louis Saint-Claire as the mother, the model and the gallerist, in turn. To her credit, director Moira Blumenthal doesn’t stint on the use of Yiddish and Hebrew words or religious references, which retain something of the work’s authentic texture, though it could alienate an audience not familiar with some of the terms.

Supported by a mediocre set, which teeters with the aid of numerous thin vertical panels between abstraction and realism, the work contains allusions to the crucifixion painting that draws the threads of the story together to its difficult end, but these allusions are at times hammered home with an obviousness that hurts the story. Also, that moment of banishment that Asher, as a young man, faces, once he has overstepped the line separating art from the rest of his values, seems too low key in the face of the enormity it would represent to a real Asher Lev.

Whether or not you have read the original text, you might well leave this play wanting to seek out your inner Asher Lev and enable him or her to grow the kind of courage to make art that defies all logic and astonishes and frightens the world. And for this, the basic nub and richness of the story which remains intact, much of the flaws in the work become by and large forgivable.

  • My Name is Asher Lev is adapted for stage by Aaron Posner, based on the eponymous book by Chaim Potok. It is directed by Moira Blumenthal and performed by Robert Fridjhon, Louise Saint-Claire and Alan Swerdlow in the Studio Theatre, Montecasino complex, Fourways, until September 3. Call 011 511 1988 or visit pietertoerien.co.za

Thwarted gems; stones in my shoes

black

MY history, my disappoinments: Ameera Patel in Black. Photograph by Jan Potgieter (NAF).

SHE LIES UPSIDE down to gather herself amid a beautiful slew of keyboard jazz, before she begins to perform, and half way through this one-hander, you wish you could too. The nastiness of the venue, in the Wits Amphitheatre plays such a prominent role in stultifying this play, it’s painful to watch.

Based on Carolann Davids’ 2013 novel, The Blacks of South Africa, Black weaves a tale around political betrayal in a South African context. In doing so, it presents a rich array of characters, but spends a long time in getting to the nub of the piece, such a long time, in fact, that your own body begins to complain very aggressively.

When you’re trying to watch a play but cannot help focusing on the comfort of your body, knowing that if you move an inch this way, you will kick the poor hapless sod in front of you in the head, and if you move an inch that way, the feet of the person behind you will be on your shoulder, then you know it’s virtually tickets for the dignity of the creative team you’ve actually paid to watch.

Part of the problem lies possibly in the fact that too many characters are fleshed out in this work. It stretches Ameera Patel’s skills beautifully, but makes the story unnecessarily complex. As the denouement unfolds in all its shocking travesty of a friendship forged between a black man, a Coloured man named Black and a white woman, over a history of a town where diamonds smuggled in the shoes of the grandfather represented the complicated solution out of poverty, as told by the daughter of said Coloured man, you reach the peak of your physical discomfort and the shock effect of the volte face in the scenario is tempered and dulled.

It’s a dreadful pity: with Daniel Geddes on the keyboard and Patel performing literally a whole community, the play has enormous promise on paper. Once you are embroiled in the characterisations and the petty history, offering a family tree sodden with the complexities of being Coloured under apartheid, you realise it is the beauty of the writing and the music which gives it hope. This could have been a gem of a play, given a space with an iota of dignity for the audience. But it isn’t, because of that. Instead, it becomes a difficult chore.

  • Black is adapted by Penny Youngleson from the book Blacks of Cape Town by Carolann Davids; it is directed and designed by Jade Bowers. Featuring creative input by Daniel Geddes (composer), it is performed by Ameera Patel and Daniel Geddes (on keyboard), as part of the Wits 969 Festival, in the Amphitheatre at Wits University. It performs again on July 29 at 19:30. Visit webtickets.co.za or visit Wits 969 on facebook.

 

Ode to the hole in your heart

vari

SEARCHING for someone. A still from Minnette Vari’s Eleventh Hour. Photograph courtesy Facebook.

THE IRREVOCABLE EMPTINESS of loss is the subject of the video piece and related artists’ books that comprise this intimate and raw, broken yet focused work of Minnette Vári. It’s a lot less abstract than her previous bodies of work and while it is unashamedly personal for Vári, it retains a delicate obscurity with which it is able to simultaneously reach deep and relentless into the heart of who we all are as vulnerable mortals who don’t know where the next body blow is coming from. Or the next big loss that will redefine us.

The video work is but seven minutes in length. It features an anonymous search party exploring an unspecific landscape. As you watch it, however, you become immersed in its urgency and lose all sense of time. And as you stand there, transfixed and weeping, you feel that you wouldn’t be doing justice to the loss by leaving the gallery after just one viewing. Each time you watch the sequence of these seekers in their overalls with their torches and their circles of light, with its zigzags of static and its panning across a landscape, you nurture a secret hope that they’ll find who they’ve lost; that the world will be able to turn again, and that the roaring bloody agony of loss will be sutured.

Each time, of course, you know that this cannot be. And because the work is structured around the trope of loss rather than more specifically, the loss is mine as it is yours, and that voice you long to hear in the soundscape of wind and breath is one you’ve been missing ever since that someone, that almost anonymous ‘you’ to who Vári refers in her text, left you.

Accompanying the exhibition are three unique artists’ books, constructed in a landscape format. These works contain digital prints that draw from the film and are worked up with an energy specific to the medium of monotype. Here, ink is dragged across a surface, drag marks peppering and pocking the underlying photographic vagueness, there there’s a sense of humanity moored in the landscape, but too ghostly to hold onto.

As the film unfolds, and the more you watch it, you find yourself casting your gaze beyond the reach of the search party, in the hope that maybe you can spot the one who is missing. Of course, you can’t, but as your eye reaches through the nameless space of the landscape, so you realise its unfriendliness, its barrenness, the call of the nightjar that resonates with eerie loneliness and you acknowledge that the world is a quieter, more alone place because your someone is no longer there. More than that gesture of searching for someone, however, is the one in which Vári argues, by dint of the work’s title and the written material in the monoprints, obscured by drops of what could be tears, that loss happens at the proverbial eleventh hour: when it must.

This magnificently subtle, carefully crafted body of work never ponders into specifics; instead it gnaws at the kernel of what makes us tick. And Vári takes the simple and complex beauty of her aesthetic into a space previously untrammeled and more profound than ever.

  • The Eleventh Hour by Minnette Vári is in The Viewing Room, Goodman Gallery Johannesburg, until August 19. Call 011 788 1113 or visit goodman-gallery.com

Wrap your farm in your haversack

Mmupic

KISS of choice. Adam (Joel Leonard) shocks his peers when he puckers up to Gontse (Khumo Baduza). Photograph courtesy Wits 969.

MAKING SENSE OF life, the universe and everything, when you have kicked your sister out of the home for behaviour you’ve deemed debauched, buried your brother due to no fault of yours or his, are so deep in your cups that you cannot tell real life from sinister dreams, and have your ancestral soil in a bag which you carry around you is faced head on by Simon played by Abongile Matyutyu in Mmu, the one production which went to the National Arts Festival, representing Wits’s student body.

A fresh and complex tale that ably sways through different chronologies and circumstances, Mmu is about the soil we drop onto the graves of our loved ones. It’s about our understanding of the muscular connection between identity and land. Featuring several stories which run concurrently, in a soapie gossip-worthiness rubric, it’s told with clear directorial skills, and you’re not left out in the cold as to who belongs to whom or how the narrative fans out.

Pinned to farm novel traditions and their discontents in a contemporary South African world, replete with a history of accidental crime and the alternatives offered by the shebeen, it features Adam (Joel Leonard) as the white pivot around which the drama rotates. Born on the farm, he inherits it when he grows up. The other thing he doesn’t lose in growing up is his love for the children of the farm’s staff with whom he spent his childhood scrabbling in the sand and spinning bottles. Only it’s love of a less platonic nature, now.

Sometimes not completely believably a man with many love interests in mismatched contexts peppered with power dynamics – because he seems too young – or one with the maturity to negotiate a farm selling operation, Leonard forms an able counterpoint to the rest of the cast, but it is Matyutyu in the central role of Samson that populates the work with the energy and the madness that keeps it tight and well-focused.

A stand out performance by Kashifa Sithole in the role of Maria offers an angle which blends poignancy with humour in a deeply empathetic capacity resonant with the ubiquity of church values in a world spotted by obscenity. And besides, you fall in love with the bigness of Maria’s heart.

Further to that, along the lines of Chilahaebolae, performed under the auspices of this university earlier this year, there is a fantastic collaborative energy and give and take between the cast. It lends the work the kind of busy messy soundscape that being in the traffic of the city entails.

While a low point in the plot is the final moment, which falls a little like a lead balloon in its predictability, and begs for more workshopping, it is the developed and powerful texture and narrative that keeps this story potent, vibrant and eminently watchable.

  • Mmu is written by Quinton Manning and directed by Sinenhlanhla Zwane and Luke Reid. It is performed by Khumo Baduza, Joel Leonard, Abongile Matyutyu, Nambitha Tyelbooi, and Kashifa Sithole, in the Nunnery at Wits University, as part of the Wits 969 Festival. It performs again on July 26 at 17:00, July 28 at 13:15 and 18:00, July 29 at 14:00 and July 30 at 14:30. Visit webtickets.co.za or visit Wits 969 on facebook.

 

Quarried wisdom in a vestibule of bling

Mathison

COMING out in all directions: Michele Mathison’s Extrusion. Photograph courtesy Whatiftheworld.

IT BEGINS WITH the stairs. Brutally bling-filled, impenetrably shiny and black, the introductory aspect of the Keyes Art Mile in Rosebank, the project of several wealthy consortia, which contains the Whatiftheworld gallery is not what you could describe as friendly. It’s pristine and shiny, slippery and steep and the hostile staircase leads to a vestibule which is dark and sterile, unpopulated and so designy you feel unable to breathe, in case you exude too unblingy an approach and get summarily tossed down those stairs by one of the strict-looking security guards for breaking fashion rules.

But as you let your eyes temper a little in the gloaming, you find them resting on Michele Mathison’s Parallax. This astonishing knot of real street lights feels at once like a mixture of an allusion to a traffic accident and a playful manipulation of the world itself. It evokes the extraordinary things that Mathison has done in the past with picks, creating rhythm and flow, song and fluidity with recalcitrant objects.

And as you cajole yourself into walking through that black marble space, your lonely footsteps creating sad little ‘plinks’ on the shined up surface, the sterile and expensive designs in the shops nearby looking forlorn, you reach the gallery proper. It’s a brightly lit space, and Mathison’s works on show give you pause. Yes, on one level, they fit the racy and shiny ethos of Keyes Art Mile, but they do so with a gentle dignity, not working on its crassness, but rather exploring the simplicity of its approach.

There are tricks in the works that belie the substantial nature of the medium. But these gestures never slip into the notion of the one-liner. When you realise that what you’re looking at in a work such as Distension – a series of wall-mounted pieces – is not a loosely stretched piece of fabric billowing from a canvas-stretcher, but rather a substantial body of carefully cast fullness, something dramatic leaps through your sensibilities. You get the joke, but you don’t move on, gripped as you are by the seductive presence of the works.

They wax and they wane, singing ancient songs of Zimbabwean stone and odes to what can be done with untempered steel. There are works which are rusted and others twisted against the grain. The abstraction of the pieces is beguiling and mesmerising, as the title of Mathison’s exhibition dodges and veers against political references and descriptions of the abstract relationships between stone and metal that he has constructed here.

It’s a beautiful exhibition, and one imminently worth experiencing even in this rich and newish space, because it offers a generous and intimate levity to works that could otherwise have been ponderous or self-indulgent.

  • States of Emergence by Michele Mathison is at Whatiftheworld, Rosebank, Johannesburg, until August 19. 012 358 6750.