Fine tuned laughter of memory and forgetting

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BACK to back, they face each other: Sigmund Freud (Graham Hopkins) and CS Lewis (Antony Coleman). Photo courtesy Auto & General Theatre on the Square.

IT TAKES A special balance of intellect and skill, depth of focus and an understanding of subtlety, texture, the shame and dignity of suffering, to say nothing of historical context to take the reins of a play as nuanced and rich as this work, Freud’s Last Session and enable it to seethe with merit and relevance. Alan Swerdlow directing Graham Hopkins opposite Antony Coleman together yield an unutterably fine rendition of a fantasy meeting between an old and dying Sigmund Freud, the Austrian father of psychoanalysis, and a young CS Lewis, then an Oxford professor of literary scholarship, still reeling from the Great War. And their subject at hand? God.

It’s a fictional but imminently feasible dialogue of the ilk of a play such as Hinterland that looked at a meeting between Cecil John Rhodes and Sol Plaatjies, staged at this theatre two years ago, that takes the overlapping time frame of two intellectual giants and asks some pertinent ‘what ifs’. But unlike Hinterland, this work reflects an enormous and detailed affinity with the period as well as the personas. It’s London on the cusp of World War Two. There’s a properness in the behaviour of both men and the way in which the space is decorated as well as in its wireless broadcasts and the palpability of the fear in the ether at the time.

With everything from the beautiful Art Deco radiogram to the Bakelite phone, the reference to Freud’s red chow Jofi and the conviviality of tea in the room containing the notorious psychiatrist’s divan, the work reeks of thoughtful authenticity and direct realism. The only anachronism is three screens bearing projected – and blurred – images of shelved books. It’s not clear why this very two-dimensional understanding of a patently multi-dimensional aspect to the room of a great reader and intellectual was decided on: the set’s use of the Kali statue, for instance, lend the work a particular energy.

Having said that, Hopkins and Coleman embody Freud and Lewis with resonant familiarity. Here are two giants of thought-making coming together to debate and tease apart one of the greatest mysteries of the human species. And they do it with the kind of understated charm that you imagine they would have, had they had the chance.

The quiet dignity of fierce debate conducted by men of great intelligence means that there’s no crass exchange of insults and yet the perspicacity of each man’s position is held with a grave tightness and a relentless conviction. But it’s not only godly things that come under both men’s scrutiny. Illness and terror pervade the conversation. It’s probably in the late 1930s and Freud’s oral cancer is well-advanced. Lewis is shell-shocked from his time in the Great War. But wit is woven into the material, reaching from Freud’s classic jokes to ‘fartist’ humour.

It’s a beautiful piece – an unforgettable one and easily among the strongest pieces of straight theatre in English that this city has seen in a while. It lends a complex and wise mix of the warmth of familiarity to readers and fans of both men’s writing as it paints a graphic portrait of the courage it takes to come to terms with one’s own mortality. Don’t miss this one: it’s a real achievement.

  • Freud’s Last Session is written by Marc St. Germain and directed by Alan Swerdlow. It is designed by Denis Hutchinson and performed by Antony Coleman and Graham Hopkins at Auto & General Theatre on the Square in Sandton until September 16. Visit theatreonthesquare.co.za or call 011 883 8606.
  • Currently also on the boards in Johannesburg is a production of one of CS Lewis’s most well-loved children’s classics, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe.
  • Read a socio-political commentary which grapples with the focus of this play, by seasoned columnist Geoff Sifrin, here.
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School ties, serge skirts and unmitigated magic in the cupboard

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NOTHING to do on a rainy day: Pevensie siblings Peter (Sandi Dlangalala), Lucy (Nomonde Matiwane), Susan (Nieke Lombard) and Edmund (Daniel Keith Geddes). Photograph courtesy National Children’s Theatre.

WHEN REAL MAGIC prevails in a situation, the mystery can be so great that all ideas of play-acting illusion and scepticism are cast aside spontaneously, mesmerising young and old unashamedly in the sense of ‘what if’ that it conjures. This is exactly what happens in the stage version of C S Lewis’s beautiful classic novel, which has been changing children’s lives since the 1950s. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is the quintessential fantasy that takes a bored and rather lonely eight year old through a cupboard in a strange house and into another world, filled with romance and mythology, conquest and the clash of good and evil.

It’s an immensely complicated tale, which some critics have reflected upon as a parable or an allegory. Involving the emotional detritus of the Second World War, the rubrics of heraldry and the story of the resurrection of a great and powerful leader, it’s the kind of work that you might think a children’s theatre director would shy from: replete with so much nuance and detail, it’s a terrifying prospect to stage in a comprehensive manner, and a tight time frame, particularly for little ones.

Director Francois Theron is clearly up for this task in this completely new and stripped down approach to the work. Armed with a couple of bedsheets, a few branches painted white, some baskets with lids and a whole bunch of ingenuity, not to forget a lion which is completely noble in its presence, this fabulously directed cast of four create the whole narrative through children’s eyes. While the specifics of this tale might not be completely accessible to the very young in the audience, replete as it is with the unapologetically complicated language of the original, the magic most certainly will, and as a very fine and boisterous Lucy Pevensie (Nomonde Matiwane) takes us by the hand (alongside her older siblings) into the core of utter magic, which introduces classical mythological beasties such as the Faun, Mr Tumnus (Daniel Keith Geddes), suddenly you are transformed into the nine-year-old that you once were when you were bewitched by this novel decades ago.

It’s not only sterling performances, and utterly wise casting which sees the oldest boy, Peter (Sandi Dlangalala) as the responsible 14-year-old and Susan, the big sister (Nieke Lombard) as one imbued with her own sense of importance in the pecking order, not to forget the less-focused Edmund (Geddes) who becomes susceptible to the allure of the White Witch (Lombard) and her beguiling Turkish Delights; there’s also magic in the set itself. Using echoed circles of magic, ones in twigs and others cast by light, the space is set alight with an impervious sense of possibility that plays with abstraction and make believe as it flirts with true magic. The kind that rests in the hearts of any undeveloped artist, waiting to unfold.

It’s a dream-come-true production which doesn’t lose itself in the details of the original book. Rather, it boldly takes possession of the nub of the tale, keeps the cast in their classic 1950s English school uniforms, and with the device of a shadow casting the texture of lead-lighting in casement windows of English period architecture, the tone is set for the magic to begin. This work is about the craft of the discipline, the necessary suspension of belief as well as all the bits and pieces of magnificence that keep it glowing.

  • The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is based on the eponymous 1950 novel by C S Lewis, dramatised by Le Clanche du Rand and directed by Francois Theron. It features creative input by Sarah Roberts (set and costumes) and Mathew Lewis (lighting), and it is performed by Sandi Dlangalala, Daniel Keith Geddes, Nieke Lombard and Nomonde Matiwane, at the National Children’s Theatre in Parktown, Johannesburg, until September 3 and then, from September 25 until October 15. Visit nationalchildrenstheatre.org.za or call 011 484 1584.

Dance for me; I will weep

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MY face, my identity: Steptext dancer Changik Oh is stretched. Photograph by Marianne Menke.

IF YOU PRICK me, will I bleed? They’re words which evoke the Jew in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, offering a glance into the hurtful and ghastly illogic of xenophobia. South African choreographer Gregory Maqoma and Austrian born Helge Letonja in a compelling collaboration take these words and push them further as they take three dancers each from Vuyani Dance Theatre and Steptext Dance Project, respectively, and play on the messy horror of the hypocrisy and hate that challenges our world right now.

It’s an astonishing piece of work backed by a spider-web-like set and placed in a soundscape that feels fit to break your head into shards, with all the sound tools of the trade, from that of gunfire and bombs detonating to techno-base sound that makes your teeth ring in your skull. It is in this space that these six performers dance with much more than their skeletal structure and musculature. They dance with their nerves and their intestines, with their souls stripped raw and their personal narratives exposed and splayed against other people’s values.

When you watch these dancers meld and coagulate with one another and the energy they magick into life on this otherwise bare stage, it feels as though some of these gestures and movements should be outlawed. They don’t seem possible – let alone legal or moral. This is the work of two very strong contemporary choreographers taking no prisoners. You will leave the space feeling assaulted in your sense of identity, your understanding of human possibility.

And, all things considered, you still cannot help but wonder what this work might have been like without the extra added element of the sound track, tough as it is. Indeed: the difficult and protest-driven nature of the work’s focus demands a sound that is explosive but the dance is so strong that it should have been given the chance to stand alone – and you, to be able to watch it without feeling you will be blasted out of earshot while you do so.

  • Out of Joint is conceptualised and choreographed by Helge Letonja and Gregory Maqoma. It features creative input by Serge Weber (composition), Anke Euler (dramaturgy), Katja Fritzsche and Keaoleboga Seodigeng (costumes), Timo Reichenberger (lighting) and Helge Letonja and Julia Arroja da Silva (set). It is performed by Kossi Sebastien Aholou-Wokawui, Thulisile Princess Binda, Steven Chauke, Mariko Koh, Phumlani Mndebele and Changik Oh at The Fringe, Joburg Theatre complex until August 20, and then at the Jomba Contemporary Dance Festival in Durban on August 23 and 24. Visit vuyani.co.za or http://cca.ukzn.ac.za/index.php/jomba-home

Of snake shenanigans and trouser vipers

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MY lips are sealed: Funny guys Ben Voss and John van de Ruit.

THE POLITICAL, SEXUAL and otherwise social hooliganism of us South Africans, big and small, black and white make for constantly fertile material with which to play. Particularly if you’re John van de Ruit and Ben Voss. Their Mamba brand, coined in 2002, is still going strong with classic and new sketches and skits that reach as close to the bone – or the boner – as they dare, and come up laughing each time and in this regard and with this premise in mind, Mamba Republic does not disappoint.

From the wiles and faux pas of Parliament (on a soccer field) to an essay on the idiocy of masculinity, Mamba Republic, in evoking the kind of spoofs devised and presented by Spike Jones and the City Slickers in the 1940s, offers sketch upon sketch upon sketch. Not all of them work well, but there are so many, at such nimble and close succession, rapidly firing into the audience, as they tease apart the ludicrous and the downright outrageous that have adorned the South African landscape, of late, that you quickly overlook the ones which didn’t make you laugh out loud.

You won’t forget the hilarious interviews with “Pest means Business” and “President Gupta”, which tosses up the earnestness of tv shows of this nature, throwing finance minister jokes with hilarious abandon into the mix. You won’t forget a spoof of Idols, which is about racist behaviour and silliness. And you most certainly won’t forget the way in which van de Ruit and Voss have taken cuisine to a new level of political humour. Theirs was the white whine which hit the funnies’ headlines some years ago, and this repartee still pushes forth, sending up everything from corruption in the SABC to the draconian frowns of political incorrectness.

This is easy and good entertainment: the puns and jokes are there, as they are in the news broadcasts, and the work offers a flow of dialogue, mockery and giggles which takes apart all the South African stereotypes in all their vulnerabilities to laugh at how they tick. Too nifty to be offensive, too gentle to hurt, the Mamba brand is an excellent one and a real crowd pleaser.

  • Mamba Republic is written by John van de Ruit and Ben Voss. Directed by Dr Mervyn McMurtry, it features lighting design by Michael Taylor-Broderick and is performed by John van de Ruit and Ben Voss at the Auto and General Theatre on the Square in Sandton, until August 20. Visit theatreonthesquare.co.za or call 011 883 8606.

Are we home, yet?

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WHAT happens now? Grace (Lynelle Kenned) en route to a foreign country to escape a war in Africa. Photograph by Oscar O’Ryan

<<Warning: This production contains strobe lights and lights focused directly on the audience>>

THE TRICK OF writing good material for a stage production is not about packing a story full of so much detail that it develops narrative indigestion, and then focusing interrogation-strong lights on your audience from time to time. It’s about the age-old principle of less is more.

The much-anticipated brand new musical Calling Me Home is, as it is billed, a story of hope, a story of love and a story of home. But it’s also a story of drugs and shallow stereotypes, a story of war and Africa, a story of jail and betrayal, a story of class awareness and poverty, a story of prostitutes and the mafia, a story of woman abuse and exile, and the list goes on. In short, it tries very earnestly to do far too many things concurrently and sadly spins way out of its depth very quickly.

To add insult to injury, it’s a very long show, clocking in at close to three hours, including the interval. It’s this long because the story is pedantic and begs for the decisions of a strong editor. The songs are also annoyingly repetitive. Featuring strong voices which have earned their stripes in the local theatre industry, including Lynelle Kenned, Samantha Peo and Anthony Downing, the work doesn’t respect the individual personae of the performers, and its thunderball of a story which is bombastic as it is clichéd, featuring bland choreography – particularly for the women, and lyrics which utterly lack poetry, become something of an ordeal for the audience to sit through.

It’s a story of sibling love in a time of war, jimmied into other realities in a diversity of directions which make you think there was an angry committee at the helm of this writing project.

Indeed, in the opening scenes, Zolani Mahola presents a strong Lindiwe, who meets Grace (Lynelle Kenned) on the train and the two become friends. Lindiwe is a woman with a terrible tale to tell: she’s a runaway from an abusive husband. As the story unfolds and rolls in a whole range of concurrent directions, Lindiwe turns into a cameo, a casualty of the work.

This is not an isolated instance of thwarted opportunity. Samantha Peo plays Isabella, a tragic figure who is the sister of Rafael (Anthony Downing), Grace’s romantic interest. She sings in a night club, snorts her way through unhappiness and is subject to the whims of Russian druglords, Vladimir (Pierre van Heerden) and Ivan (Christiaan Snyman). Isabella’s tale headlines the second half of the production, and it’s a squalid tale told with great dollops of schmaltz, so earnest in their application that the potential subtlety of Peo’s character is battered by the prosaic nature of the work.

All things considered, with due respect to the professionals involved in creating this work and giving the project life, you cannot help but ask yourself: we live currently in such a violent society; do we really need to spend money to see more war and strobe lights on our stages, in the garb of tricksy techology? Do we really need to be exposed to gun-toting performers casting a fantasy war around us, as we sit in a theatre?

Calling Me Home features innovative set design with animation that will hold your interest – conveying a sense of space and atmosphere which is clear and compelling. But some basic premises in the work hurt what might have been good intentions, and as you peer through these sets at the world the production hopes to magic into life, you come away with some very damaging stereotypes about cultures – Africans are defined by war, poverty and cultural naivete, while Americans are tainted by the overweening presence of Russian crime bosses, construction workers and prostitutes. It’s enough to make you want to flee all the way home, without even being called to do so.

  • Calling Me Home is written and composed by Alice Gillham and directed by Magdalene Minnaar, assisted by Grant van Ster. It features creative input by Nadine Minnaar (set), Joshua Cutts (lighting), Louis Minnaar and Werner Burger (animation), Shaun Oelf (choreography), Alice Gillham and Stefan Lombard (musical direction), Mark Malherbe (sound), Matthew James (soundscape) and Juanita Kôtze and Sue Daniels (wardrobe). It is performed by Luigia Casaleggio, Anthony Downing, Richard Gau, Carly Graeme, Isabella Jane, Lynelle Kenned, Saxola Ketshengane, Vasti Knoesen, Clint Lesch, Tannah Levick, Thiart Li, Zolani Mahola, Kgomotso Makwela, Tankiso Mamabolo, Michael McMeeking, Manda Ndimande, Given Nkosi, Yollandi Nortjie, Samantha Peo, Laura-Lee Pitout, Musanete Sakupwanya, Dihan Schoeman, Conroy Scott, Len-Barry Simons, Christiaan Snyman, Annemarie Steenkamp, Shaun Thomas, Anja van den Berg, Sarah-Ann van der Merwe, Pierre van Heerden, Sebastian Zokoza and Zion Zuke, as well as a live orchestra featuring Cameron Andrews (clarinet), Olga Korvink (violin), Maureen Marler (‘cello), Anna-Maria Muller (flute) and Marga Sander (piano), in the Mandela Theatre, Joburg Theatre complex, Braamfontein, Johannesburg, until September 3. Visit joburgtheatre.com or call 0861 670 670.

Two women, and tea with Greek biscuits

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KINDRED spirits: Grace (Lesedi Job) chats to Luli (Fiona Ramsay) of books and life, persecution and victory. Photograph by Suzy Bernstein.

LAST NOVEMBER, AN extraordinary gem of a play saw light of day at the Market Theatre. It was an unusual work, paying tribute to the complex life of South African Greek political activist, teacher, writer and social historian, Luli Callinicos. And unusual in that, because academics are seldom perceived to be sexy enough to honour, during their lifetimes, in this way. It was also a one-hander, stretching Fiona Ramsay’s characterisation skills beautifully. Now, almost a year later, the same creative team, with the addition of Lesedi Job, in the role of Grace, a young woman who was born in exile in the United Kingdom, presents a new manifestation of the work.

Examining the two If We Digs is an incisive exercise in storytelling priorities: the second version is not remarkably better than the first – rather, it features both gains and losses. In introducing the Grace character, the work resonates like a conversation rather than a self-conscious monodrama. And Grace’s life and identity are opened up to both Luli (played by Ramsay) and the audience.

Her presence as a conduit for Luli’s memories is not sufficiently explained, however. Is she interviewing Luli? Why, then, has she brought her own memories to the table? Is Luli interviewing her? Why then, does Luli offer so much of her own anecdotes? Are they old friends? Not really – they’re of different generations, albeit from within a similar political texture, and their conversations reveal unknowns about one another.

This red herring may be cast aside and be forgiven however, because what a dialogue does for the material as opposed to a monologue, is enrich the give and take in the texture of the material. Job’s presence is refined and impassioned and the character she represents is well honed and a good corollary to Ramsay’s Luli, who encapsulates all the idiosyncrasies of South African Greek culture with wisdom and perspective, as well as with deep fondness.

Also placed on a circular stage, as its earlier manifestation was, the work is homely in its sense of domestic space, but not overworked in detail. It is allowed to breathe – and similarly, the South African (and Greek) music which seeps between the interstices of the play are placed with elegance and subtlety, supporting the textual focus well.

But, you in the audience, who might not have seen the first version of this play, lose access to some of Luli’s stories which were re-enacted and brought to memorable life the first time round. Instead, here, the voices of the people who dot Callinicos’s research over a lifetime of archives and documents become lost and turn into footnotes in the folds of the conversation between Luli and Grace.

Further to that, the work ends too neatly. It’s all wrapped with a hug and a proverbial bow tied in rainbow nation hues which leaves you wanting more, though it’s a long, wordy work. Ultimately, the contribution which Callinicos has made to the world in which we live through her research and teaching, her engagement with her own heritage and her beautiful use of language, is precious and both the first and the second manifestations of this work offer her significant presence in audience awareness and memory. But is the latest version of this play better? No. But that’s not a bad thing – This If We Dig is as much a theatrical gem as the last, but for different reasons.

  • If We Dig is written by Fiona Ramsay and Megan Willson and directed by Megan Willson. It features creative input by Nomvula Molepo (lighting) and Nadya Cohen (set and costumes). It is performed by Lesedi Job and Fiona Ramsay in the Barney Simon Theatre, Market Theatre complex, in Newtown, Johannesburg, until August 27. Phone 011 832 1641 or visit markettheatre.co.za

Drive my car

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BACKSEAT driver: Hoke Colburn (John Kani) and Miss Daisy (Sandra Prinsloo). Photograph courtesy Brooklyn Theatre.

THE ACHIEVEMENT OF theatrical perfection is very rare. And when it happens, you have to grab it with both hands, and make a point of seeing it, whatever it takes. The Afrikaans rendition of the 1989 American story of an elderly white woman and her black driver seems so seamlessly South African, it’s difficult to force your mind around remembering the Jessica Tandy, Morgan Freeman Academy Award-winning version of this work, as you sit and watch South Africa’s unequivocal best doing greatness.

This is simply what you get in the brief season of the work under Christiaan Olwagen’s directorial hand, and with no less than Sandra Prinsloo and John Kani in the respective leads. It is a supremely beautifully crafted work, from top to toe – from the manner in which the costumes fit the context, to the manner in which the performers fill the skins of their characters, to the ingenious understanding of a car as a stage within a theatre, and an audio-visual component that is spot on.

In short, this is as good as it gets. A gentle and empathetic paean to the horror and indignity of ageing, against the changing forces at play in contemporary history and politics, the story is about an elderly Afrikaans woman (Prinsloo) and her son Boolie (Jacques Bessenger). It is his difficult job to gently prise his ageing mum’s hands from the steering wheel of her car and face the implications that this will have on her life and her sense of self.

Enter Hoke Colburn (Kani), a black man who can drive and needs the job. He might not have been formally educated, but he’s completely savvy as to the crooked way of the world – the story takes place in the grim crux of apartheid – and armed thus, without anything on his side, he takes the old lady’s backchat with mostly a pinch of salt and a developed understanding. A story unfolds. Not quite a love story, but an essay about love. It’s also a gentle yet gritty foray about Springbok Radio and learning to read in a cemetery. It’s about the silence that comes of dementia and the quiet dignity of being able to call oneself someone’s best friend.

While the cell phone reference early on in the work does feel slightly anachronistic, the work flows with an easy fluidity – but there is so much more. To see Kani performing in a role that is about the tough discriminatory energies of apartheid, and to see him doing it in Afrikaans, of all languages, lends a deep and resonant understanding of what true performance skill and dignity is all about. His Hoke leaps through politics and time. His Hoke is a man ageing too, who looks death in the eye with a touch of laughter and a lot of soul. His Hoke speaks Afrikaans like a local and he will make you weep with his sense of brave vulnerability. Prinsloo’s Miss Daisy is profoundly brittle and immersed in the egotistical bravado that comes of age. She encapsulates that sense of an old woman that makes you recoil from her and love her, simultaneously. In short, she’s the feisty mum who is the repository of innocent racist values that infused an ideology.

And yes, it is uncomfortable: it reveals all the ugliness of bias couched in wisdom and context. It’s predictable in its structure, but resonant in its articulation of values. Without pussyfooting in political rhetoric or attempting to be politically correct, it casts some magic in the world. In short, seeing the Afrikaans rendition of Driving Miss Daisy is the best reason to be in Pretoria, right now.

  • So Ry Miss Daisy is written by Alfred Uhry and translated into Afrikaans by Saartjie Botha. It is directed by Christiaan Olwagen and features creative input by Rocco Pool (set), Wolf Britz (lighting) and Birrie Le Roux (costumes). It is performed by Jacques Bessenger, John Kani and Sandra Prinsloo at the Brooklyn Theatre, Menlo Park, Pretoria, until August 19. Visit brooklyntheatre.co.za or call 012 460 6033.