And would you some jam on that, sir?

Sjarrap

WAITRESS and tea things, complete with black eye rings of exasperation. Photograph courtesy www.rsgplus.org

ANYONE WHO HAS suffered the busy indignity of having to be a waiter in a coffee shop will relate to this punchy, spicy little foray into the horror and sarcasm, the do’s and don’ts of this, one of the oldest professions in the book. More a monologue with vignettes, Sjarrap en eet jou kos! (Shut up and eat your food!) is a delightful Afrikaans-language radio theatre gem, which will have you laughing with gusto and weeping just a tad in the frisky nuanced approach taken by Ilné Fourie in its construction.

It’s an hilarious lament about poorly-behaved, indecisive, rude and ill-tipping customers and their children and or lovers – or their gossip pals, and as such, the work presents a portrait of Afrikaans culture, not withholding punches with its description and engagement with the different types of people. The vantage point of the ubiquitous waiter (played by Martelize Kolver) who is there to serve, but also often morphs into a proverbial fly on the wall, is a fascinating one, something which you may have tasted a suggestion of in works as diverse as Lionel Newton’s 2014 play Jasmine’s Jewel and Lauri Wylie’s (1963) film Dinner for One. It’s about taking the mundane, and lifting it, with incisive and witty observations, into art.

Under the gentle scathing of Fourie’s sharp pen, you get introduced to the ‘M & M’s (moedige – courageous – moms) who are relentless in peppering their language with diminutives, particularly in dealing with stroppy littlies. The ‘turtledoves’ are the newly infatuated who will share a cup of coffee while they toss embarrassingly syrupy sweetnesses to each other. And then there are the ‘vluister vroutjies’ (whispering little wives) who gather around their tea treats to indulge in exploring the doings and the screwings of their nearest and dearest. To say nothing of the coffee snobs; the guy who wants different parts of his egg cooked at different frequencies; and the picky madams who vie between the restrictions of banting and their own basic ignorance of what goes into food.

But that’s not all. There are also the people for whom you become an uninvited guest in their delicate private moments, moments which make you remember why life is indeed beautiful.

Sjarrap is a lovely holiday play which celebrates the heart and cuisine of what it takes to exist in this country, in certain pockets, where the harshness of dinner table discipline bears fruit.

And it’s as good a reason to stay at home by the wireless this evening, as anything.

  • Sjarrap en eet jou kos! (Shut up and eat your food) is written by Ilné Fourie. Directed by Eben Cruywagen, and featuring technical input by Cassi Lowers, it is performed by Gina Assanté, Susanne Beyers, Ludwig Binge, Roeline Daneel, Martelize Kolver, Leon Kruger and Chris Majiedt. It debuted on RSG in November 2016 and is presented this evening, December 28 at 8pm. It will be rebroadcast on January 1 at 1am in RSG’s Deurnag programme. It is also available on podcast: www.rsg.co.za.
  • RSG can be found on 100-104FM, on DStv channel 913 or live on http://web.sabc.co.za/digital/player/1.0/rsg/index.html#listenLiveTab

 

Seduced by a tulip with crimson streaks

TulipFever

WOMAN at a casement: Alicia Vikander is the inscrutable, beautiful Sophia Sandvoort. Photograph courtesy imdb.com

IT’S MID 17TH century Amsterdam and the money making pastime of predicting the rarity of a tulip from its bulb is all the rage. Picture the hustle and bustle and noise of a 20th century stock exchange, or a nineteenth century auction, toss in a bit of Victorian bawdry and market banter, and you’ve got the picture. It’s rough and wild and replete with glorious surprises, which enfolds the rich and controlled presence of the church into its complexity. Against this backdrop, a wealthy spice merchant buys a beautiful young orphan from the nunnery to be his wife, and there follows a beautiful tale of sacrifice and disappointment, love and fear, chance and tulips that will make you feel as though you’ve stepped into a painting by Dutch master Jan Vermeer.

The film is beautifully crafted with a great sense of research and intelligence. It offers the texture of Dutch 16th century life that doesn’t seem to miss a beat in its reflections – and there’s everything there, from the propensity of Dutch artists to work on wood, to a visual comment on the Jewish and black communities of the city at the time. There’s an understanding of class hierarchy and costume rules, as well as of the ignorance of men in matters of gynaecology. And there’s a tiny performance by veteran Judi Dench as the authoritative abbess, pipe in hand, that pulls it all together with wit and wisdom.

It’s a rich and heady tale that presents the older gentleman – the king of peppercorns – who knows a thing or six about what makes a good nutmeg, Cornelis Sandvoort (Christoph Waltz) as the ultimate hero: the widower who in spite of great hurt sees an understanding of truth and is able to reflect generously on the value of wealth in a way that seems to contradict his station or stereotypes of his gender.

Sophia (Alicia Vikander) is heartbreakingly young and her astonishing beauty embraces a deep vulnerability. The challenge of being wife to a man at least forty years older, one who wants an heir is tough, and Sophia remains fairly inscrutable even in bed with him. Enter the young artist, Jan van Loos (Dane DeHaan), on a portrait commission and all libidinal abandon is tossed to the wind.

While the love scenes are deeply beautiful, in certain respects, adherence to the time frame is lost and in the midst of rapture and blind passion, the young couple – Sophia and van Loos – loosen the bounds of the period and seem like a modern couple. Similarly, the finished paintings feel far too modern in style for the period in question, which was curtailed by stylistic convention, even though so much of it is drenched in the kind of liquid light you can see in paintings by Vermeer, from the same kind of period.

Having said that, the complexity of the story which sees the underbelly of the tulip prediction business infiltrating through it, involves chance and misunderstanding, a misleading pregnancy and a plan destined to fail. Fail it does, but you’re overwhelmed and surprised by how and why. It’s a rich and beautiful film that might make you think of Alexandre Dumas’s fabulous tale of a black tulip, as you learn about the nature and ethos of betting, acquiring and letting go.

  •  Tulip Fever is directed by Justin Chadwick and is performed by a cast featuring Keith Ackerman, Laura Allen, Sebastian Armesto, Cressida Bonas, Cornelius Booth, Amy Brogan, Greta Brogan, Jody Brogan, Daisy Chadwick, Conner Chapman, Declan Cooke, Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Judi Dench, James Dryden, Ian Drysdale, Jane Edwardes, Patsy Ferran, Zach Galifianakis, Michael Geary, Alexandra Gilbreath, B Glanville, Holliday Grainger, David Harewood, Anastasia Hille, Douglas Hodge, Tom Hollander, James Inkling, Alex Lowe, Daisy Lowe, Brendan McCoy, Kevin McKidd, Simon Meacock, Tom Meredith, Deborah Moggach, Matthew Morrison, Michael Nardone, Jack O’Connell, Megan O’Connell, Rhoda Ofori-Attah, Carl O’Rourke, Harry Rafferty, Ian Ralph, Richard Alan Reid, Joanna Scanlan, Michael Smiley, Johnny Vegas, Alicia Vikander, Christoph Waltz, and Miltos Yerolemou. Its screenplay is written by Deborah Moggach and Tom Stoppard, based on the eponymous novel by Deborah Moggach. Produced by Alison Owen and Harvey Weinstein, it features creative input by Danny Elfman (music), Eigil Bryld (cinematography), Rick Russell (editing), Shaheen Baig (casting), Simon Elliott (production design), Rebecca Alleway (set), Michael O’Connor (costumes). Release date: November 10 2017.

 

My mother’s dignity, my society’s shame

Judasbok

BETRAYED as a repository for sins: the Scapegoat.

A BEAUTIFULLY CRAFTED tale of loyalty and values learned and imbibed, Dalene Matthee’s novel Die Judasbok (The Scapegoat) translates with a true sense of Klein Karoo grit into an Afrikaans-language radio drama you won’t forget in a hurry. It’s an extremely sensitive and intelligent radio-adaptation that will haunt you with all the moral decisions you’ve made that you would change if you could. And while its live broadcast was hosted a few weeks ago, this is the kind of work you will want to listen to again and again.

Karel (Dean Balie) and Lillian (Danielle van der Walt) are engaged to be married. They’re on a 1 300km road trip, to visit Karel’s mother, Ou Bet (June van Merch) in Wolwedans, the farm on which Karel grew up. They’re planning to leave the country; it’s a farewell visit. Sounds idyllic? It is, until you take a step back in terms of context. It’s 1982. It’s South Africa. Apartheid is rumbling like a destructive force through society, breaking hearts, confusing beliefs and smashing values in its wake. Andries Treurnicht, a government minister, is in the process of carving out a place in South African politics for the Conservative party. Bad things are happening everywhere.

And, yes, Karel is not white. Lillian is. Technically, their relationship, under the apartheid jurisdiction, is illegal. Ou Bet, whose the general factotum in the house and has raised the farm’s family as best she can, believing herself to be a part of it. She knows that Karel has a “Lillian” in his life, but the two women have not yet met. This roadtrip is infused with the ghosts and memories of Karel’s past, the beauty of the farm in Lillian’s unsullied eyes, and deep, difficult crossroads to encounter and confront for the mom. And there’s the memory of the farm’s dam which too contains mixed understandings of what skin colour means.

Along similar lines to Mark Behr’s Die Reuk van Appels, it’s a play which contemplates the horrors of being ‘different’ in a society that promulgates very specific race and class and gender values. Containing revelations about the past that will make you tremble, it’s a story that wrenches an old woman from her sense of where she fits in, in her everyday world, and one of bravery and beliefs in the face of disbelief.

The first adult novel penned by Matthee in the 1980s, it’s a book which contains all the energy and verve, the rich and complex understanding of an Afrikaans-speaking community who are not white-skinned and where they fit into the society in which they exist. As you listen to the crisp and solid tones and scene changes in this work, so do you melt, under the tough sway of the story’s impact, but also the way in which the environment is conjured by words and references, music and the twittering of birds. It’s a must-hear and a must-have.

  • Die Judasbok (The Scapegoat) is written by Dalene Matthee and adapted for radio by Anton Treurnich. Directed by Eben Cruywagen, it features technical assistance by Ricardo McCarthy is performed by Dean Balie, Susan Beyers, Danielle van der Walt and June van Merch, and debuted on RSG on November 17. It is available through the rsg website as a podcast.
  • RSG can be found on 100-104FM, on DStv channel 913 or live on http://web.sabc.co.za/digital/player/1.0/rsg/index.html#listenLiveTab

Jo’burg: A portrait with broken dreams

bare-ground-peter-harris

YOU WILL RECOGNISE many characters in this debut novel by Peter Harris, not by their names, but by their amoral attitudes and cavalier actions that enable them to play loose and fast with money, values and other people’s lives. Bare Ground is absolutely unputdownable; it’s ideal holiday reading – not because it’s frothy and easy, but because it is crafted with such a deft understanding of the complexities of madness, human nature and greed with such an intelligent approach that you will race through it, your heart in your throat, in a bid to know what happens next. And you will be surprised by the nifty bends in the story, from its prologue to its very last word.

These characters are the ones who populate our news right now; you’ll find many a ‘flabby fellow’ in the tight fitting suit of a government minister, with mayonnaise from an expensive club sandwich dribbling down his front, and his face, distorted by the reflections in a whisky glass. Hell, you even encounter the president himself, who remains nameless behind dark glasses and much unmirthful laughter. He’s a man to be avoided, or cherished and adulated, depending on how much you – or your loved ones – have benefited from him over the years.

Bare Ground is the complex tale of Max Sinclair, a man born of South African privilege who seems to be piling riches on riches as he goes. With Oxford credentials, he was raised a lonely child, but has grown into someone controversially respected. Perfect though he may seem, from his sharply ironed impeccable clothing to his taste in the most expensive cars and whiskies, he’s a man not without personal horrors.

It’s also the tale of Sifiso Lesibe, an earnest hard-working geologist from the Eastern Cape who studied at Rhodes University. Like anyone in his shoes, he’s ambitious and wants good things for his young family. In every way, this chap is ideal grist for the mill of sordid hypocrisy, writhing snakes and gifts – a multitude of gifts cast in the sickly sweetness of dangerous traps, hidden resources and corporate crime on a massive scale.

And then there’s the straight lawyer, and the guy with struggle credentials who smells a rat and finds a notebook. There’s the wives who have more perspicuity than their men credit them with, and the contexts and childhoods which have left their mark on each individual. Stereotypes abound here, and the narrative is laced with the relentless sound of singing cicadas, a cipher of horror and insanity that subsists just under the surface of the unfolding events.

More than all of this, it’s a story about the mining history of this city, and how even the mine dumps, detritus of an earlier history of mining technology, become useful means to continue squeezing money from it. Think the biggest mining consortium the country has seen being put together, but also think kick backs and cartels, deals and sinister manoeuvres, the kind that keep the backstabbing in corporate jargon alive and seething. It’s a racy tale by any account, but it is written so well and has its characters and their contexts so intently and wittily described with such strong and convincing narrative line work and colour that you feel you are a part of it all.

Everything from opportunistic crime at Johannesburg’s traffic lights to the dirty little street urchins, some more horribly deformed than others, comes under the loupe of this exceptionally fine novel, playing its role in the richly textured portrayal of contemporary Johannesburg with all its rough and tumble, underhandedness and disparities. If you’re not from Johannesburg – or South Africa – you may find some of the references to real monsters in contemporary society a bit obscure, but that will not hurt the rollercoaster you will find yourself on in every one of Bare Ground’s 291 pages.

  • Bare Ground by Peter Harris is published by Picador Africa, Johannesburg (2017).

Sectional title woes at the seaside

Sea Point

MY suburb my home: Sea Point Mansions is an Afrikaans play which glances at the changing face of the eponymous Cape Town suburb. Photograph courtesy www.capetownguy.co.za

SEA POINT. ARGUABLY, still one of Cape Town’s most densely populated suburbs, on the one hand, is a place of paradise with its Atlantic Ocean view. Tucked between the sea and Lion’s Head, a landmark in the mountain range leading to Table Mountain, it’s idyllic to live in. Or is it? It has also, in the last several decades, become the province’s landmark suburb for high rise development, which opens myriads of social doors to property dispute and the kind of grubby values that constitute the complexity of sectional title woes. It is this that comes under the loupe of playwright Annemarie Roodbol in the Afrikaans-language play that debuts on Radio Sonder Grense this Thursday evening: Sea Point Mansions.

It is here that we meet Francois Fick (Johann Nel). He’s an owner in the building, which contains 13 residential flats and six shops. By all accounts, and with passing detail you glean as the work unfolds, the building is one of those magnificent Art Deco examples of architecture, which sits like a succinct poem in the built up landscape of the suburb. It has parquet flooring and a foyer small enough to be repapered with the detritus of wallpaper from someone’s bathroom. The texture of the scenario is captured beautifully.

The characters in the work are constructed so as to reflect on territorial issues as much as they grapple with the melting pot of culture in Sea Point’s flat lands – they’re clichés, but necessary ones. We meet the old Jewish residents – including a pharmacist in one of the shops downstairs – a hip and cool Capetonian, with his characteristic drawl, a gungh-ho and coloured shop-owner, not to forget the Dlaminis in one of the flats, and the Swedish couple, in another.

And then, there’s Dean Roger-Smith (Waldi Schultz), the owner of the building. Given the way in which his shenanigans are described, and the clipped tone of his presence, this chap is one of what may well be considered a Randlord of sorts – a big property owner who has made his wealth on buildings such as Sea Point Mansions, but the gossipy fighting and the sticklers for rules is not quite his cup of tea.

The plot lies around the ways in which rules can be bent – or can they? – in the hurly-burl of social redefinition. It’s 2016 and an ombudsman to deal with sectional title disputes has just been put into legal place. As a play, it unfolds rapidly and with frequent scene changes. There’s a curious use of RSG punts to give you an understanding of the passage of time in the work, but as it ends, you might feel a sense of ho-hum: these kinds of disputes happen all the time: do they really warrant the vehicle of a play?

  • Sea Point Mansions is written by Annemarie Roodbol. Directed by Joanie Combrink and featuring technical production by Cassi Lowers, it is performed by Dean Balie, Vicky Davis, Johann Nel, De Klerk Oelofse, Waldi Schultz, Frieda van Heever, June van Merch and Nigel Vermaas, and it debuts on RSG on Thursday December 21 at 8pm. November 30 and is available on podcast: rsg.co.za.
  • It will be rebroadcast on December 23 at 1am in RSG’s Deurnag It is also available on podcast: www.rsg.co.za.
  • RSG can be found on 100-104FM, on DStv channel 913 or live on http://web.sabc.co.za/digital/player/1.0/rsg/index.html#listenLiveTab

A scrumptious bit of Victoriana to make you cry

The Man

ME and my phantoms: Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens), alongside Ebenezer Scrooge (Christopher Plummer) and other fantasy characters from A Christmas Carol. Photograph courtesy www.wlrfm.com

PICTURE THE VISUAL clichés of Victorian England with all its beautiful costumes, complicated pathways and wooden buildings. While you’re doing this, don’t forget to add in its dire poverty, abject filth and propensity toward child labour. It’s a complicated series of images which this filmic team, headed by Bharat Nalluri present you with: the back story to Charles Dickens’s 1843 runaway classic, A Christmas Carol. In The Man Who Invented Christmas you get so much more than just the story. It’s a delicious piece of film that brings to life all the timeless Dickensian characters in this happy/sad/shameful tale of society of the time, through the medium of a curmudgeon and four ghouls.

It also articulates the messy business of writing fiction under deadline with complicated family manoevres and unrelenting family responsibilities in the background. Featuring some totally fabulous cameo performances to look out for – including the always delightful Simon Callow as the illustrator John Leech and wonderful Miriam Margolyes as the Dickens’ chief cook and bottle-washer, Mrs Fisk – the work is entertaining and developed with a perspicuity that will keep you focused.

It takes you through the agony of Dickens’s previous critical and commercial flops – including Martin Chuzzlewit and American Notes – his everpresent financial troubles and his personal history. You get to meet more than just the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future: you get a scary peek into the nature of debtors’ prison and the realities of Victorian work houses — institutions in London of the time — as well as a complex father/son pathology and an adoring grandfather with a sense of magic and a necromancer’s hat (Jonathan Pryce).

Even if you do not know the original tale, you’re taken through the rollercoaster of London in the early 1800s, and exposed to everything from maggots in biscuits to a caged crow named Grip. Christopher Plummer is completely superb in the role of Ebenezer Scrooge and the popping up of fictional characters in the mind’s eye of Dickens as he unravels what turns out to be amongst the greatest stories of all times, is handled with filmic wisdom and wit.

The only palpable flaw in this work which considers Dickens as a full blown individual with flaws and passions, moods and an ability to become angry but also an ability to forgive, is the casting of the Dickens couple – Charles (played by Dan Stevens) and Kate (played by Morfydd Clark). And the problem here is that they’re just too physically perfect, which lends a tone of insufferable blandness to the lynchpin in the tale. Indeed, you keep having to remind yourself that this blue-eyed young man is actually meant to be Charles Dickens, and you come away thinking of him as a performer rather than as textured a character as the rest of the cast.

Remember, that the year is 1843. Dickens would have been 31 at the time. He died at the age of 58. By this time in his life, he’d suffered the indignities of poverty and rejection and was immensely prolific. And when you find yourself looking at this pretty young man and thinking about how blue his eyes are rather than the grit and substance of the character, something seems wrong.

Similarly, Kate. She had a total of 10 children with Dickens, and divorced him after 20 years of marriage. We meet her when she’s pregnant with number five. She looks much too young and flawless for a woman living the fairly unhappy and complicated life she had.

But the rambunctiousness of the tale allows you to forget this flaw as you recognise caveats from the original text and get taken through the ups and downs of Christmas in a time of want and need, miserliness and financial disparity. More than anything, the work under scrutiny is a slice of Victorian life and the film offers insights into all of the social and political, economic and historical interstices. It’s delicious.

  • The Man Who Invented Christmas is directed by Bharat Nalluri and is performed by Patrick Ball, Valeria Bandino, Annette Badland, Desmond Bird,  Patrick Joseph Byrnes, Simon Callow, Morfydd Clark, Jasper Hughes Cotter, Sean Duggan, Justin Edwards, Cosimo Fusco, Degnan Geraghty, Séamus Hanly, Derek Hannay, John Henshaw, Eddie Jackson, Miles Jupp, Miriam Margolyes, Kevin McCormack, Ian McNeice, David McSavage, Anna Murphy, Bill Paterson, Christopher Plummer, Jonathan Pryce, Mark Quigley, Ger Ryan, Mark Schrier, Cameron Simpson, Donna Marie Sludds, Ely Solan, Dan Stevens, Donald Sumpter, Ava May Taylor, Rosin Whelan and Aidan Wylde. It is written by Susan Coyne based on the book by Les Standiford. Produced by Niv Fichman, Vadim Jean, Robert Mickelson, Susan Mullen and Ian Sharples, it features creative input by Mychael Danna (music), Ben Smithard (cinematography), Stephen O’Connell and Jamie Pearson (editing), Amy Hubbard (casting), Paki Smith (production design), Julie Ochipinti (set), and Leonie Prendergast (costumes). Release date: December 15 2017.
  • There are currently three productions dealing with the Dickens classic: this film, A Seussified Christmas Carol, directed by Francois Theron, which is reviewed here, and A Christmas Carol directed by Elizma Badenhorst, which is reviewed here.

Why there are stories in this world

Reimagined

VERY OCCASIONALLY, THROUGH the course of living, reading and looking, you may come across something so overwhelmingly perfect that will reaches you so directly simply you have to have it, at whatever cost. And then, having acquired this thing of great beauty, it doesn’t matter, whether you sit and ponder its treasures every day, or whether you never look at it again, but just rejoice in the fact of your ownership, because that ownership attests to the fact that something as wise and beautiful as this actually exists in the world. This is what Reimagined: 45 Years of Jewish Art by Mark Podwal will  trigger for you.

Impeccably designed, this over 300-page foray into the life’s work of easily contemporary Jewish art’s most unexpected giant, will touch you deeply, whether you are Jewish or not, religious or not. It’s about the magic of metaphor and the cross pollination of ideas that infiltrates everything from the kind of angelology that infused the thoughts of German Jewish thinkers Walter Benjamin and Gershom Scholem in the pre-World War Two years, to the political value of ritual objects to the ways in which ritual values can splay into shocking and unexpected directions.

A man who can turn the eight-branched candelabrum, traditionally used by Jews in the celebration of the festival of lights, Chanukah, into a series of sinister railroad tracks; or a child’s noise-maker into a gallows, Podwal (b. 1945) is an unexpected giant because he wasn’t trained to be an artist and nor did the trajectory of his career take the expected twists and curves in this kind of road.

Podwal was educated as a physician. He is not a religious man. His unique handling of line and metaphor, with wit and intellect, mysticism and astounding simplicity begs comparison, to an extent, with the line work of American-Lithuanian artist Ben Shahn (1898-1969), the imagery of Belorus-born artist Marc Chagall (1887-1985), and yet, nothing jades the scalpel like sharpness of Podwal’s reflection on everything, from the Golem of Prague to kabbalistic overtures. He makes Hebrew letters dance with a robustness that enables you to hear the jollity of hassids of yore, and an instinctive knowledge of colour and line work that takes hold of you, eyeballs first, and sucks you into the kind of mad, death-defying conflation of superstition and truth, politics and history, that make you believe you can reach the ineffable, just by looking at these drawings.

A colourist as much as a draughtsman of lines both bold and cross-hatched, historical doodles and the jigsaw puzzle of shtetl geographies, Podwal is an entity unexplored by conventional art historical scholarship. This book is a magnificent celebration of the litany of his work. [The review is premised on a pdf of the publication and for this reason does not comment on the quality of the printing or the texture of the paper]. The layout of the book is conventional and elegant. While you may not believe that an occasional use of bold blue background is a good unifying idea for pages in a tome of this nature, when Podwal’s line art is juxtaposed in this context, it glimmers with an effervescence that makes you remember why there are stories in the world.

This is not an academic tractate celebrating the art historical contribution of Podwal to visual culture. Rather, it is an event all of its own – it’s an experience which you will want to visit and revisit, haunted as you will become by a curiously witty metaphor, by that beard that has turned into a fish, by the city that sits on top of the Golem’s head, like a crown; by the cry of a woman that pours from her mouth, palpably, by the sense of surreal possibility that Podwal evokes with his lines and crayons, just as Polish writer Bruno Schulz (1892-1942) or Czech writer Franz Kafka (1883-1924) make magic happen with their words and stories.

Along the lines of the Coen brothers’ film A Serious Man (2009), which features a mentaculus – a kabbalistically-inspired probability map of the universe – the body of Podwal’s work, from his liturgical illustrations to his tapestry designs, plays with the simple complexity that feels both obvious and so deep and rich you can lose yourself in it.  This is the kind of book that overrides ownership of a whole library of texts. It embraces the universe at its core.

  • Reimagined: 45 Years of Jewish Art by Mark Podwal features a foreword by Elie Wiesel, a preface by Cynthia Ozick and an essay by Columbia University Professor of Jewish Studies, Elisheva Carlebach. It is published by Glitterati, London (2016).

Humbug, opaque Victorian language and a ghostly trio

Please Note: This production contains halogen lights shone directly into the audience’s eyes.

ChristmasCarol

BAH! Scrooge (Jason Ralph) on a bid to discover the ghost of Christmas Present. Photograph courtesy www.artslink.co.za

IT SEEMS THAT Charles Dickens’s Christmas Carol is the flavour of the season this year. There are no less than three manifestations in Johannesburg of this Victorian cautionary tale about a miser and how his ways have been changed by ghosts of his past and ghosts that point the way to a dire future, if he keeps up his parsimonious and downright horrid behaviour. This production, staged under the directorial pen of Elizma Badenhorst, she of the impeccable The Mystery of Irma Vep staged earlier this year at this theatre, lacks the pizzazz and directorial wisdom you might have expected.

While there’s nothing wrong with paring down a great classic and rendering its detail and texture bold and direct – as you may have seen in the National Children’s Theatre’s production of A Seussified Christmas Carol – it needs to be slick and carefully handled. And cognisance needs to be taken for people in the audience who are not completely familiar with the original story.

This production pulls out all the audio-visual tricks in the book. Some of them are astonishingly achieved, with animation, puppetry and masks, and a great sense of spooky whimsy is at times evoked. And there’s a fantastic quotation from the work of Giuseppe Arcimboldo – the Renaissance artist who made portraits using painted foods – in the form of a giant and rambunctious mask but you need to be seated appropriately to get to see it.

Alas, the magic and whimsy evoked by some of the animation and the presence of the ghosts is not the general flavour of the work, however. At times the animation and the conflation of overhead voices and miming feels glaringly amateurish. At others, the Victorian nature of the text overwhelms the action and even the scariest of spooks with clanking chains and appropriately placed howling, doesn’t succeed in driving the work.

And then there’s the lights. It’s difficult to understand how and why a team headed by someone capable of creating as fine and focused a piece as The Mystery of Irma Vep would resort to the lumpen trick of blinding the audience with bright lights. As you sit there with your eyes closed or heavily shaded from the harsh halogen glare, you vaguely wonder what is being covered up here – because this is exactly what it feels like.

Having said all of that, Jason Ralph in the key role handles the miserly old Ebenezer with aplomb. He’s wily and rude, shrewd and quite hilarious. His volte face after the ghostly trio have seen to him, is believable. Supported by Naret Loots who mans the puppets and slips between a multitude of characters, the duo evoke an energy which is not, however, developed. Further to this, Loots has a tendency to smile very broadly on stage, particularly when she is the spirit of a puppet rather than a character itself. What happens is your eye is drawn to her smile and the puppet-generated illusion gets shattered.

As a result, what feels like a vanity project with a lot of exciting possibility trips up on its own sense of enthusiasm. Also a word of warning – something which many productions of Dickens fall into: this is not a children’s show – it’s more for children, admittedly, than Dickens’s Oliver Twist is, for instance – but the complexity of the language and nuance and curvaceousness of the tale will lose the focus of the sproglets rather quickly.

  • A Christmas Carol is written by Charles Dickens, adapted for stage and directed by Elizma Badenhorst. It features design by Naret Loots (animation), and Wessel Odendaal (music) and is performed by Christopher Dudgeon (voice-over), Naret Loots and Jason Ralph at The Studio Theatre, Montecasino complex in Fourways until January 7, 2018. Call 011 511 1818 or visit pietertoerien.co.za
  • The three versions of this Dickensian classic include this production, A Seussified Christmas Carol directed by Francois Theron, which is reviewed here, and The Man Who Invented Christmas, a British film directed by Bharat Nalluri, which is reviewed here.

Broken dreams and sibling lies

spieelbeeld

HAPPILY ever after: Andrea (Donnalee Roberts) and Wynand (Ivan Botha). Photograph courtesy rsg.

GIRL HAS HER heart broken. She goes away to recover and meets someone new. And they all end happily ever after. You think you can hear the chimes of mainstream wedding bells in the near distance. But you’d be wrong – not entirely, but mostly: Ronel Mostert’s Spieëlbeeld (Mirror Image) is an engaging and well defined romantic piece of storytelling in Afrikaans, and it’s a very good reason to stay at home and listen to the wireless tonight.

Featuring performances by Donnalee Roberts as Andrea opposite Cindy Swanepoel, her sister Minka, the work is a love story, but bears and underlying complex message about sibling rivalry, sibling loss and sibling honour. The title of the work reveals a little more of the plot than you might have considered and it becomes a tad predictable as it unfolds, but it will keep you on the edge of your seat: Will Andrea find true love? Will the inimitable Vlooi (Eloise Cupido), the help at a hotel in Camps Bay, and her loose gossipy tongue find its come-uppance?

Ultimately the message of this nuanced and tightly written work is one articulated centuries ago by the Greek philosopher Plato: Be kind, everyone you know is carrying a great burden. But when you lead the life of a busy family doctor, juggling romantic commitments with an ailing mother, and trying to keep a straight and professional face to the world, it’s not that simple.

There are hairpin bends in the story, which bring it to a satisfying and strong sense of closure, one which makes you remember why soppy clichés are very powerful in our society.

  • Spieëlbeeld (Mirror Image) is written by Ronel Mostert and directed by Christelle Webb-Joubert, with technical assistance by Bongi Thomas and Evert Snyman. It is performed by Ivan Botha, Eloise Cupido, Mandie du Plooy-Baard, Donnagh Lee Roberts, Amanda Strydom, Cindy Swanepoel, Bronwyn van Graan and Karen Wessels, on RSG, tonight December 14 at 8pm. It will be rebroadcast on December 18 at 1am in RSG’s Deurnag programme. It is also available on podcast: rsg.co.za.
  • RSG can be found on 100-104FM, on DStv channel 913 or live on http://web.sabc.co.za/digital/player/1.0/rsg/index.html#listenLiveTab
  • See this interview with director, Christelle Webb Joubert, which offers insight into the project’s back story.

He ain’t boring: he’s my sloth

Sparky

ALL in the family: Mommy (Genevieve Oliver), Libby (Boitumelo Phaho), and Sparky the pet sloth (Sandi Dlangalala). Photograph courtesy www.artslink.co.za

WHAT DO YOU DO do if your mommy’s a work-from-home tax consultant who simply will not bend in the urgent and earnest quest to enhance the household with a pet? You can sing and you can dance. You can become furious and stamp your foot. You can cajole, pleadingly. And then, you can play by her rules and get the utterly unexpected. Sparky takes all of these values in a bunch, blends them with the most charming of laid back sloths (Sandi Dlangalala) and presents a perfect opportunity for young performers to shine with beautiful abandon.

It’s a very simple gentle story, with the cutes ramped up all the way, and the values clearly exposed. Sparky – not to be confused with the 1947 story Sparky’s Magic Piano – is an American yarn about accepting one’s own limitations, and working creatively within the parameters of authority. It’s about a little girl called Libby (Boitumelo Phaho) and her know-it-all friend Mary (Christina Moschides) and a quest to make sense of the world between hugs of a very cuddly and extremely lazy sloth.

Riffing and raffing it up in the wake of what young children might think animals should be trained to do as tricks, ultimately, it’s a crisply told story about the value and complexity of being a mum with commitments, of falling in love with an animal, and of learning how things work and how things are spelled. It’s a story of disappointment and delight and while it is a bit dated in the lyrics department – does anyone still know who Tony Danza is? – it’s tight, focused and together.

Both Phaho and Moschides, young performers though they may be, exude a confidence, an understanding of characterisation and a sense of rhythm that far surpasses their age limits. Offset against the comforting performances of Genevieve Olivier as the mommy and Gareth Meijsen as the school teacher, the work exactly hits the mark for the three-to-six year olds for whom it is designed.

It does remain curious, however, as to why young parents still insist on bringing their under-three-year-olds to the theatre; this play is created for little ones, but not utter babies, and the toddling presence of someone who is still in nappies and cannot yet engage with the experience is not only cruel to the littly in question, but idiotically selfish to the whole audience. It’s clear you think your baby’s brilliant – he’s yours after all. But trust the theatre professionals on this, and bring him next year, or the year after.

  • Sparky is written by Jenny Offill and directed by Francois Theron. It features design by Dale Scheepers (musical direction), Jodie Davimes (choreography) and Stan Knight (set) and is performed by Sandi Dlangalala, Gareth Meijsen and Genevieve Olivier with three child casts: Group 1: Elektra de Melo and Tannah Proctor; Group 2: Christina Moschides and Boitumelo Phaho; and Group 3: Erica Harris and Neo Thokoane, co-ordinated by Liz-Mari Botha, at the Wynnstay theatre, National Children’s Theatre complex in Parktown, until December 23. [This review is premised on a performance which featured the children in Group 2]. Call 011 484 1584 or visit nationalchildrenstheatre.org.za