Mud and the meaning of perfection

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LOOK into my eyes: Muziwandile Gigaba’s Ntwananhle I.  Photograph by Muzi Gigaba.

SOMETHING COMPLETELY ASTONISHING is currently on show at the University of Johannesburg’s FADA Gallery. Named Ntwananhle and the R2 Boys, this exhibition is only up for another day or two, but it’s a gallery visit you won’t regret. This is Muziwandile Gigaba’s masters exhibition and it serves to present this young ceramicist, draughtsman and printmaker within the context of storytelling that takes oral tradition to new, and intensely relevant heights.

Born in 1984 in the KwaZulu-Natal township of KwaMashu, Gigaba draws from an upbringing that was immersed in the simple narrative values defining rural life. In developing his oeuvre, he ciphons out the purity and magic of stories handed down from grandparent to grandchild. You see this shimmering with directness and sophistication in his work, whichever way you look.

Ntwananhle and the R2 Boys crafts a rich and nuanced tale about ritual and presence, fantasy and poverty. It’s at once resonant with ancient storytelling traditions as it is grippingly contemporary. But you do not need to know the intricacies of the tale in order to sit at the feet of these pieces in awe.

Gigaba’s large scale linocuts, while skilled in the sweeping linework and strong reflection on proportion, anatomy and character they embrace, play second fiddle to his ceramic work. They’re biblical in their reach, but almost too painterly in texture to be unequivocally legible as linocuts.

Also, their presence is compromised. As you walk into the gallery, your eye is caught by the impeccable attention to sculptural detail in the ceramic pieces, and it just does not let go. Ntwananhle I and II are hollow works in the aspect of a sculptural bust. They contain electric lights. By and large, this doesn’t feel necessary – the works are so contained and provocative, so detailed and mysterious, they light up on their own. Gigaba’s use of texture and text he intertwined into the surfaces of the pieces are simply breath-taking.

There’s much more than you can grasp in a first visit to this show – some of these ceramic heads have a slot in them, like a money box. It’s a gesture which offers a sardonic look at the concept of saving money but also comments on the preciousness of work of this nature: use these to insert your coins and when they are full, you have to smash the piece to get at your stash.

There’s a hanging construction of ceramic moths in the second part of the gallery space. This is less engaging because of its several nature: it’s busy and is designed to act like a vignette hanging in front of an installation shot from Nirox sculpture garden in Krugersdorp. It’s a not completely successful, whimsical aside to Gigaba’s Ntwananhle tale that feels a little more literal than the heads.

So, when you look at Gigaba’s ceramic heads, you might think of the ceremonial Epa masks of the Nigerian community of Yoruba. The large, almost pendulous orbs peer back at you with a kind of imperial sense of importance, and the detail and texture on the pieces make you want to never stop caressing them with your eyes.

Also on display are selections of Gigaba’s drawing books, which offer a pointed reflection on the artist’s beautiful line work and wise focuses. Gigaba’s is a name to remember, taking the humble medium of mud to new and extraordinarily dignified levels.

  • Ntwananhle and the R2 Boys by Muziwandile Gigaba is at the FADA Gallery, Bunting Road Campus, University of Johannesburg, in Auckland Park, until March 1. 011 559 4555.

A film to make Vincent turn in his grave

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VAN Gogh’s portrait of Pere Tanguy (played by John Sessions) corrupted into life. Photograph courtesy maturetimes.co.uk

VINCENT VAN GOGH spent 37 tortured years on this planet. He was easily one of the most prolific artists the modern world has seen, but he’s also a key figure in visual culture because he has become emblematic of the popular cliché which reflects on a poor man with oodles of talent holed up in a freezing garret with just his absinthe and his unsellable paintings to keep him company. The story follows the chap to his early sad grave, and then sees his work exploding in value on the commercial sphere. It’s an old story, but it’s also van Gogh’s.

And in being so, has become grist for the commercial mill, which has ground out yet another cliché-ridden, disrespectful extrapolation on van Gogh’s life in the form of Loving Vincent. It clearly did have good intentions, which feel from the outset like a vanity project: but what you see on the big screen is precious and cute; it’s hard on the eye and overall wooden in its narrative.

The story focuses on the possible causes of Van Gogh’s suicide in 1890 and, armed with letter written to his brother Theo, the piece casts a faux historical narrative around a quest for the truth. On a level, it’s like a thriller. Or at least, on paper, it might have read as such. But for a full length movie to feature jagged stop-frame-animation, is a hell of a thing. It’s a migraine-inducing thing which causes you to have to rest your eyes much of the time.

And it’s a total mystery why the makers of Loving Vincent didn’t knock on the door of more seasoned animators. Animation isn’t, after all, a new medium in this world. So what you get is a bumpy, self-consciously artsy ride which makes the actors’ voices feel like voice-overs and which separates character from performance, from spoken words in a way which blatantly bruises the fluidity of the story.

But there’s more. The act of taking a painting and reducing it to a milli-second of filmed time in the name of the telling of an animated story is outrageously disrespectful. For several tiny seconds in this much-too-long film, you get a glimpse of images of the paintings themselves before they were corrupted by this animation project. And the biggest casualty in this is that the work is not about the art. It’s about hypotheses as to why one disturbed man kills himself. The art just becomes an incidental novelty. A crass little cherry on top of a big budget project.

And while we’re talking crass, let’s not forget that the title of the thing is a derivation from how Vincent signed his letters to his brother Theo: Your loving Vincent. The makers of this film could not even respect the intimacy of this complex brotherly love and felt the need to interject their commercial presence in even this.

Vincent van Gogh was the father of a certain type of visual expression. He was not an Englishman. None of the people with whom he fraternised or fought, were English. His is not an English story. And yes, perhaps this film is made for an English speaking audience, but seriously? The range of distinct English accents in this film further blurs over historical veracity or any pretense of it. Had this been in Dutch with English sub-titles, it might have held a modicum of value. Had it even been in English with Dutch and French accents, similarly so. But here, you get nothing.

And as you sit there, feeling irritated by the cloying van Gogh clichés which wash over you with a slick and supercilious resonance, you quietly think, at least they’re not touting that 1971 Don McLean song, Starry Starry Night. But stop right there: it’s there, too, in all its syrupy sentimentality, interpreted by Lianne La Havas in this iteration.

This morass of sickly and superficial Van Gogh adulation does little for an understanding of the artist, his work and his desperate illness which led to his death. And above all, it’s a chore to watch – with an entertainment factor standing way under par.

  • Loving Vincent is directed by Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman and features a cast headed by Bozena Berlinska-Bryzek, Douglas Booth, Josh Burdett, Borys Dominiuk, Kamila Dyoubari, Holly Earl, Jerome Flynn, Przemyslaw Furdak, James Greene, Robert Gulaczyk, Keith Heppenstall, Martin Herdman, Robin Hodges, Cezary Lukaszewicz, Helen McCrory, Chris O’Dowd, Adam Pabudzinski, Piotr Pamula, Graham Pavey, Saoirse Ronan, John Sessions, Anastazja Seweryn, Marcin Sosinski, Bertlomiej Sroka, Joe Stuckey, Nina Supranionek, Bill Thomas, Eleanor Tomlinson and Aidan Turner. It is written by Dorota Kobiela, Hugh Welchman and Jacek Dehnel. Produced by Ivan Mactaggart, it features creative input by Clint Mansell (music), Tristan Oliver and Lukasz Zal (cinematography), Dorota Kobiela and Justyna Wierszynska (editing), Jennifer Duffy (casting) and Dorota Roqueplo (costumes). Release date: February 23 2018.

 

Look at me! Portraiture under the loupe

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MYSTERY that haunts. Genna and Felix, the winning work by Kate Arthur. Photograph courtesy Sanlam and Rust-En-Vrede Gallery

THEY MOSTLY GAZE back at you, with intent, each from his or her – or their – own vantage point, through the texture of lines drawn or painted in charcoal, pen or oils. Most embody a sense of mystique and a layering of narrative which makes you ponder and which haunts you as you walk the length of the gallery. These are the top 40 works on the Sanlam Portrait Award 2017, judged this iteration by Nkule Mabaso, Peter Monkman and Carl Jeppe, and won by Kate Arthur.

A biennial competition, started in 2013, it’s a celebration of the formality of the genre of portraiture and the finalists represent some brand new names on the art spectrum and some fresh and delightful, intense and focused approaches to the craft of rendering a likeness. By and large, it’s an extremely traditional project, harking back to the values of pre-Realism Europe where the portrait was king and it was assessed along the lines of very clearly determined rules of representation.

And by and large, what you find here are hard-boiled and clear approaches to the genre, with colour, tone and texture that resonates with naturalistic values, and images you can read very easily. It’s a project which overlooks the values that modernism sprinkled liberally onto representational art in all its tropes, corrupting them and pushing them into a state of torsion.

It’s also a project that flies in the face of self-consciously post-modern or post-post-modern self-reflexivity. Further to that, there’s an alarming absence of printmaking techniques or water colour. Were etchings and linocuts banned in the rules? Was there a point prohibiting water-based approaches? While some of the works are drawings, the vast majority are dinkum traditional oil paintings on canvas. And while there’s nothing wrong with that, there seems to be a very thin margin of approaches selected.

There are many stand out pieces, including Marié Stander’s Gifts from Joseph and Maureen, a drawing of a couple in charcoal and ink; Jennifer Ord’s An Instance of Substance, an image which skirts with light and dark with dexterity and cohesion; and Janine Anderson’s First Day at School, in which you can feel the crisp whiteness of the child’s brand new school uniform with your heart.

Ultimately, after perusing the whole collection, you understand why Kate Arthur’s Genna and Felix was deemed the best of them all. The two characters in underwear on a turquoise background, stand their ground provocatively in a way that makes you look. Their presence is unequivocal and their story, clearly involving forays into gender ambiguity and incapacity, is mysterious, but not too much that you lose focus and not too little that you lose interest. In short, it’s a précis, a haiku of narrative mystique. The painting in ‘real life’ is a lot smaller than what you might think, when you see a photograph of it, but the intensity of Arthur’s focus on the two characters sucks you into their souls.

There are also execrable examples of pieces that seem to contradict the overweening aesthetics and focus on skill of the body of work in entirety, and which seem to mischievously challenge the solemn premises of judging an art competition. A mixed couple with crudely crafted limbs in a cartoonish pose by Jacques André du Toit vies so markedly with the aesthetics of the rest of the works, it creates a mystery of its own. And while some portraits feel more like pictures than renditions which reach from the soul of the sitter to the soul of the viewer, in all, the collection is strong and bold, and very worth seeing.

  • Top 40: Sanlam Portrait Award 2017 is at the UJ Art Gallery in Auckland Park, until March 7. 011 559 2090.

He who turns battered pianos into Formula Ones

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TEA with Gershwin: Pianist Charl du Plessis in conversation. Photograph by Robyn Sassen.

HE’S DEVASTATINGLY SUAVE but quietly spoken; he’s funny and earnest at the same time and when he sits at the piano, the world becomes a friendlier place. Meet Charl du Plessis who performs a week-long season at Auto and General Theatre on the Square in Sandton, this week. This Steinway artist who performs with Nataniël and has his own trio is the magic ingredient in any music line up. He recently chatted to My View about the magic of Gershwin, the vagaries of self-promotion and the wonder of straddling jazz and classics, to say nothing of the treasures you can find in a piano’s belly.

Trained classically both locally and abroad, du Plessis’s knack at improvisation is arguably the wizardry that makes his work fly. Nearly 10 years ago, he formed a jazz trio – which today comprises Werner Spies on bass and Peter Auret on drums.

“We started playing the kind of jazz you would find anywhere else in the world. And then something strange began to happen. Over the years in my repertoire, classics and jazz started to merge. More and more. Eventually, I realised I quite like taking classical music and turning it into a kind of jazzy sound, but still keeping the inherent quality of the original classical music. It sort of stimulates both markets.

“Jazz people like it, because they can understand and it opens the doors to classical music for them. And the classical music lovers recognise Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, or Air on a G string by Bach, and all of a sudden it’s new and fresh and they have a smile on their face. I’m not the first person to do something like this, but I have had success with it, and it’s certainly artistically gratifying for me.

“I can play Chopin or Bach, but so can hundreds of other pianists. I like to give the music my own flavour in a sophisticated way so that it is never easy. It is never rommel trommel in the corner of a restaurant kind of thing. It is something distinct, which people like.”

Born and raised in Bloemfontein, du Plessis went to Grey College. After school, he studied piano under Joseph Stanford at Pretoria University and then honed his craft in Texas and Zurich. He returned to South Africa close to 20 years ago.

“The first person who gave me a full time job, back then, was Nataniël, the singer and stage personality; I still work with him. I have learnt so much from him in terms of his unrelenting work ethic. His standards are very high in terms of what he offers his public, always.

“He once said: If you live in a country where you weren’t born, sometimes it’s difficult to really make a contribution because people see you as a foreigner. And this is so true: Even though playing piano essentially has no language, the problem is that there is a matter of being able to contribute a little more. And that’s why I am still here.”

Piano was du Plessis’s first professional instrument. But “when I was little – before my voice broke, I used to sing. So the voice was my first instrument of making music. And then I played piano as well, but not so seriously, and then my voice broke and I was like: ‘Oh hell! What am I going to do now?!’

“I tried to play a bit of organ at university, but the piano was the only thing that really tickled me.”

Being a pianist who also does his own promotion is, he says, extremely difficult, but also quite liberating. “I am not the sort of artist who sits and practises and waits for the New York Philharmonic to phone me. They’ll never phone me because they don’t know I’m alive! But if I phone them, or if I do my own thing and make work for myself, then people are likely to say: ‘Yes, I think I’ve heard of you. Or I think I’ve heard your CD.’ The truth is, these days, it’s every man for himself.”

In 2010, du Plessis was named as Africa’s youngest ever Steinway artist, a status which comes with a responsibility to shine. But du Plessis has done more than shine. He’s given pianos new life, in the most astonishing of ways.

There’s a scene in the 2000 film Billy Elliott directed by Stephen Daldry in which a piano is chopped up into firewood. It’s like watching a murder. Du Plessis concurs. “A damaged piano is like a battered or neglected wife. And the value of a bit of a makeover or a visit to the hairdresser is huge.”

His playing tours all come with a bit of a side-show in which the piano is taken apart. “This developed out of my travels to different concert halls, where sometimes the pianos are in terrible shape,” he says. “I asked Ian Burgess-Simpson, a Steinway-trained technician, to come on board as a doctor who would resuscitate pianos all across the country.”

This healing process was conducted free of charge. “It comprises a tuning – which is like putting petrol into a car – with a full service, which is about going into the machine and replacing stuff, and fixing stuff … and you know what? We’ve had such incredible response from the instruments which were okay – they were satisfactory, and then all of a sudden, they’ve become Formula One racing cars.

“The venues are very happy to have this tour because it benefits them. But how does it benefit the audience? And that is how I thought of the idea of taking the piano apart in front of the audience. When we played in Cape Town for example, one old lady came to me with tears in her eyes. She said ‘I have been a member of this concert club for maybe 15 years. I have never been allowed to see the piano close up. I’ve never even touched it. I’ve never been allowed to go on stage, let alone see the inside.’

“We live in a society in which we can google everything. People don’t like not knowing. They want to open things up and find out how they work. With the piano, I invite people in. I talk, I explain the piece I play, so that it’s not all formal.”

The composer headlining the season at Auto and General Theatre on the Square this week is George Gershwin. “I love him,” Du Plessis is unequivocal. “He’s the universal standard for everyone from jazz saxophonists to opera singers to classical pianists. Gershwin’s one of those guys with one foot in the world of classics, one foot in the world of jazz, and people respect him for that.”

It’s a mixture of musical respect, intimate knowledge of the work and humour, not to mention improvisational fire that will make you fall in love with du Plessis.

How to realise you are beautiful

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MY sister, my best friend forever: Celie (Didintle Khunou) writes a letter to her sister Nettie (Sebe Leotlela), who lives in Africa. Photograph by enroCpics

THERE ARE SO many “wow” moments in the South African stage version of The Color Purple: The Musical, you’ve got to hold onto your seat with both hands. Supported by a set that features diagrammatic representation of space and texture, a cast that sparkles with magnificent voices and fine acting skills, and a classic narrative that just doesn’t get tired, this is the cultural imperative of the year so far, in this city.

The translation of Alice Walker’s 1982 classic black women’s liberation novel into a stage musical is simply gorgeous, offering a gloss on the horror of black women’s lives in America between 1909 and 1949, punctuated as it was by rape, battery and an implicit understanding as chattel. The songs are wrenching and potent but jazzy and full of poetry. And the choreography in this work represents an understanding of the rhythm of the spoken language, the lyrics and the context that will completely satisfy your head and heart. Ultimately, The Color Purple a tale of victory and it is a six-tissue show – you’ll shed tears of outrage and of joy, in an unmoderated way, from beginning to end.

With magnificent Didintle Khunou in the role of Celie – a role performed by Whoopi Goldberg in the original 1985 Steven Spielberg film – the brilliance is cast. And while the production is not flawless, there is a moment in the second half of the piece, where Khunou, slight of size, stands alone on the stage and embraces the whole huge space and all its audience, with her rendition of “I’m Here”. It’s a moment which will stay in your heart forever.

But Khunou is not alone in giving this production incredible vocal muscle. Stand out performances by Lerato Mvelase in the role of Shug Avery, the catalyst to Celie’s abusive marriage, who teaches her that sex can be fantastic, Neo Motaung as Sofia, Celie’s daughter-in-law, who gives as good as she gets and who has a voice that reaches across generations in its heart and soul, and Dolly Louw, as Doris – an ensemble member – who has physical presence onstage that makes you simply fall in love with her.

Mister, played by Aubrey Poo and Harpo, his son, played by Yamikani Mahaka-Phiri, collectively offer an understanding of flawed black American maleness, which is violent and crude, aggressive yet still capable of love – and indeed capable of turning around. The work is replete with sarcasm and the power of defiance in the name of unfairness and it is funny and rich and nuanced with gossip and jazz.

It is supported by a set that simply takes your breath away. Slats of wood are hammered in place to set up a sketched illusion of context. It’s free of gimmick, strong and direct, and does exactly what a set should do. There are moments when you stop noticing it, simply because it cleaves so perfectly with the work. Similarly, the costume designs are understated yet appropriate, they’re comfortable on the eye, on the cast members and on the context being represented.

And while the individual voices in harmony and alone are beautiful enough to make you weep, by themselves, there is a glitch in the work — or rather, two — which stand like two book ends for the show. The ensemble songs, at the beginning and the end of the work, which feature the whole company belting it out, fight mercilessly internally and with the orchestra and as a result, they’re very shouty. And the casualty: the lyrics and the clarity. You get a bit of a fruit salad instead. Occasionally also, in the sphere of sound design, some of the voices, including notably Funeka Peppeta’s, goes rogue and turns into a shriek.

One other glitch in the overall show’s identity is weak design on the part of the production poster which is emblazoned on the highway as a massive billboard. The work is so much more than those bleached out sad faces which take the colour purple to dreary and corpse-like lengths: it really doesn’t do justice to the colourful, rollicking monster of wisdom and intimate poetry that you see on stage.

That said, the work, a tale of unmitigated sisterly love and extreme hardship, of church values and the magic of discovering one’s own sexuality, is one that celebrates women’s pants in the most delightful of ways and continues to be a benchmark work in the name of black women’s identity, liberation and voice. But be warned: Just one viewing just might not suffice.

  • The Color Purple: The Musical is written by Marsha Norman based on the eponymous novel by Alice Walker. Featuring music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray, it is directed by Janice Honeyman. Performed by Zane Gillion, Didintle Khunou, Sebe Leotlela, Dolly Louw, Andile Magxaki, Yamikani Mahaka-Phiri, Venolia Manale, Namisa Mdlalose, Phumi Mncayi, Neo Motaung, Lerato Mvelase, Tshepo Ncokoane, Thokozani Nzima, Funeka Peppeta, Aubrey Poo, Senzesihle Radebe, Lelo Ramasimong, Zolani Shangase, Ayanda Sibisi and Lebo Toko, it features design by Sarah Roberts (production), Mannie Manim (lighting), Richard Smith (sound), Rowan Bakker (musical direction) and Oscar Buthelezi (choreography). The orchestra, under the direction of Rowan Bakker, comprises Dale-Ray Scheepers (keyboards), Leagh Rankin and Brian Smith (reeds), Kuba Silkiewicz (guitar), Viwe Mkizwana (bass), Donny Bouwer (trumpet) and Mike Ramasimong (drums). It performs at the Nelson Mandela Theatre, Joburg theatre complex in Braamfontein, until March 4. Call 011-877-6800 or visit joburgtheatre.com

All for the love of a gentle monster

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I see you: Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) opposite the creature (Doug Jones). Photograph courtesy www.indiewire.com

YOU MIGHT SIT there in the auditorium watching Guillermo del Toro’s film The Shape of Water, and quietly begin to think you’ve stepped into a time-zone. This beautifully crafted fantasy love story is like a rendition of 1950s schlock horror tradition ramped up all the way. It’s a delight to watch from beginning to end and contains all the fabulously one-dimensional stereotypes that leave you in no doubt as to who the good guys and the baddies are.

Set in the early 1960s in the mad little heart of the Cold War, the piece presents the American guys opposite the Russians in a quest for scientific advancement. At the heart of all of it, is a kind of amphibious beast with an utterly beautiful texture and a guileless face. Played by Doug Jones, he’s the quintessential colonialist’s dream: exotic and unknown, he’s kept as a government secret and both sides want to do a spot of vivisection to see what he’s made of.

That is, until Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) discovers him.

Endowed with a peculiarly self-deprecating physicality, fitting a mute, damaged and introverted young woman who is almost completely alone, and works a strange routine, where her job, alongside her pal Zelda (Octavia Spencer) is to clean the latrines of the facility, Elisa is the “Fay Wray” in this quirky love story. And it will wring your heart in the finest of ways.

There follows a delicious tale of discovery and boiled eggs, of explicit white male malevolence, homophobia and racism, and a rip-roaring adventure which sees rotten fingers tossed on the lounge carpet, a smashed up teal Cadillac which will make you roar with schadenfreude and some monster sex, not to mention the seductive use of Glenn Miller’s wonderful swing standard I know why. Oh, and water, there’s lots of water.

It’s as poetic an extrapolation of the genre as you can imagine and the sentiments sing with the kind of monster narrative that saw Wray in the arms of King Kong more than 80 years ago, and left audience members weeping. Replete with the dark green Art Deco tiles on the walls everywhere, and the insane nuances of Hawkins with her other friend in all the world, Giles (Richard Jenkins) a gay graphic designer who mourns his lost hair, the work is completely delicious, offering as it does, insight into the complexities of Cold War society with all its crude and petty races for new technology, and its deep biases and tendency toward social violence.

Featuring a lovely little cameo with Michael Stuhlbarg (of A Serious Man fame), as the Russian Dr Robert Hoffstetler, aka “Dimitri”, who recognises the ability of the monster to communicate and indeed to love, it’s the kind of film that will leave your heart dancing with a mix of nostalgia for comics and how stories were told, and a love of the underdog monster who is neglected or ousted by social etiquette.

  • The Shape of Water is directed by Guillermo del Toro and features a cast headed by Evgeny Akimov, Stewart Arnott, Nigel Bennett, Shaila D’Onofrio, Madison Ferguson, Deney Forrest, Diego Fuentes, Allegra Fulton, Karen Glave, Jayden Greig, Jonelle Gunderson, Sally Hawkins, David Hewlett, Richard Jenkins, Doug Jones, John Kapelos, Marvin Kaye, Morgan Kelly, Cameron Laurie, Dan Lett, Wendy Lyon, Brandon McKnight, Sergey Nikonov, Vanessa Oude-Reimerink, Alexey Pankratov, Martin Roach, Nick Searcy, Michael Shannon, Lauren Lee Smith, Octavia Spencer, Michael Stuhlbarg, Cody Ray Thompson, Edward Tracz, Dru Viergever, Danny Waugh and Clyde Whitham. Featuring a screenplay by Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor, it is produced by J Miles Dale and Guillermo del Toro and features creative input by Alexandre Desplat (music), Dan Laustsen (cinematography), Sidney Wolinsky (editing), Robin D Cook (casting), Paul D Austerberry (production design) and Luis Sequiera (costumes). Release date: January 19 2018.

Never say quit

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YOU and me between the sheets: Thina (Neo Sibiya) and Arnold (Joe Young). Photograph courtesy Binnie Christie.

IT’S A GENUINE joy to see players and writers, young and frisky, engaging with the challenges that confront their lives in a manner which is loose and fast, hilarious and tight, creative and intelligent all at once. Binnie Christie, Neo Sibiya and Joe Young sparkle in this delightful little two-hander that takes a peek into the vagaries of love, life and smoking.

You Take My Breath Away is a tight little work, clocking in at just under an hour. It plays on all the double entendres the team could milk from idioms relating to smoking and loving and it’s done with a crisp air of unprecious competence that makes the performers imminently easy to watch on stage. Sibiya and Young manifest an energy individually and collaboratively that fizzes and the give and take between them as a couple is strong and sophisticated, yet not self-indulgent. It’s light enough to hold the laughs and still dig into issues of bias and hypocrisy, complexities of being in a relationship.

The characters are well written and beautifully developed: Arnold (Young) meets Thina (Sibiya) in a smoke-filled pod for smokers, adjoined to a franchised restaurant. They breathe in one another’s secondary smoke and imbibe a sense of possibility in being together. Involving everything from Nina Simone to caravans, ducks on the Zoo Lake and happy and angry coffee in bed to being polite to the neighbours, to say nothing of skirting the biases and faux pas of their respective parents – he is white, she is black – the plot unfolds with ease, but ends a little flatly.

The work itself is, however, animated into a state of frenetic and deliciously dizzy life by the physical theatre skills of both performers. They’re quick and witty on their feet and under the sheet that forms the central aspect of the set and this adds to the jazz and the fire of the piece. There are some small anomalies in this aspect of the work – where a mimed cigarette gets puffed on before it is lit, or a cigarette seems to change hands for the smoker invisibly – but these can be forgiven because there’s  a rhythm and a fire to this work which is infectious and delightful and will leave you reluctant to wait to see these young thespians on stage again. This season is short: don’t let it slip through your fingers.

  • You Take My Breath Away is written by Binnie Christie, Neo Sibiya and Joe Young and directed by Binnie Christie. Performed by Neo Sibiya and Joe Young, it features design by the cast and director, and performs at Space.com at the Joburg Theatre complex in Braamfontein until February 18. Call 011-877-6800.

Silent poems, confrontational prayer mats and girl talk

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THE power of the silent story: Stills from an untitled work by Reshma Chhiba. Photograph courtesy Fried Contemporary Gallery.

AS YOU ENTER the gallery space at Fried Contemporary Gallery in Pretoria, there’s a work on the exhibition A Flood in My Hands that you may overlook in error. But when you do see it, you experience a great quickening of your nerves and soul, that embraces the heart of this exhibition.

Suspended from the gallery’s ceiling it’s a devastatingly subtle essay by Alka Dass in the form of a disused baking tray and pigment. It tells of female biological and cultural identity and a play on words that will make you quiver. It’s entitled Battery not included. Is this about menstrual blood? Is it about battery as in abuse? Is it an ironic comment on the things society dictates women must do to retain a sense of equilibrium, to fit in?

Either way, it’s a cornerstone to this exhibition, which by dint of its title seems to promise an engagement with female identity in a very direct and visceral sense. Don’t, however,  expect the kind of sensationalist blood paintings that women of 1970s in America made as feminist statements. This exhibition is about women, but it’s a lot more subtle than a splashing of menstrual blood and a tossing about of tampons. It’s also a lot more sophisticated.

As you enter the space proper, the work of Laylaa Jacobs grabs you in an unexpected way, and does not relent. Evoking a work exhibited more than ten years ago by Dutch-born artist Daphne Prevoo which featured a knitted red jersey with sleeves that bled into the gallery space, the work, entitled Armoured Fulla spills onto and fills the floor. It is redolent of the atavistic quality that is abstract yet alive, present in Nandipha Mntambo’s latest works. Comprising a prayer mat as support, the work contains a vomiting out of texture created with steel wool. It’s impeccable and unmanageable in the emotional impact it presents, and you find yourself glancing back at it as you peruse the rest of the exhibition, with slanty eyes, just to make sure it has not moved from when last you looked at it.

The works are not accompanied by interpretations, to the credit of curator Aysha Waja. While many of them are obviously dealing with the complexities of being a young Muslim or Hindu woman in a contemporary setting, the visual potency of many of the pieces shouts beyond religious dogma or ritual, and without explanatory texts to hold onto, you’re forced to really look, to allow your spirit to engage with the work on a level that has little to do with religion or prejudice.

It is in this way that you’re led to read Dass’s work on this exhibition as a contemplation of beauty rituals. You get to see Jacobs’s use of prayer mats as comment on prayer practice and at Anastasia Pather’s jewel-like little compositions which blend collage with image, reference with texture meticulously.

Simphiwe Buthelezi plays with a meshed support in her work, challenging the conventions of the paintbrush as she assaults the idea of texture. Her work A moon whispered let me love you, is strong and provocative because of the use of silence – the open grids of her canvas which give the composition a breath of life.

While unframed works pinned onto the wall with a bulldog clip and Chumisa Ndasika’s flow chart with a mirror at its core grapple with professionalism in this context, it is unequivocally, Reshma Chhiba’s Untitled two-channel video, originally made in 2003 which steals the heart of the show.

You’re not given to understand what the Hindu woman on the left of the work is gesticulating about. Neither do you know what the black woman on the right is saying. But you’re compelled to watch them again, and again in their passionate expressions.

There’s a synergy between this work by Chhiba and her kum-kum powder-imbued two dimensional works on this show, dealing with the Hindu goddess Kali in a pared-down and abstract way, referencing the potency of her 2003 exhibition.

All in all, while there are fine accents and beautiful choices made in A Flood in My Hands, there’s an area of disparity. The exhibition is premised on words and phrases by Turkish poet Seher Çakır (b. 1971) and Nayyirah Waheed, a young contemporary poet who is renowned for the magnificence of her words and her Instagram presence: Achingly beautiful lines and phrases which will resonate with your soul. They are, however, written on the gallery walls in a slapdash and crooked charcoal hand which blurs the magic in this exhibition: you want the words to sing to you with impeccable clarity. They should be written with a lyrical hand and an outstretched sense of calligraphy. This presentation brings what could be a profound statement about women, ritual, identity and gender, from a promising sophistication to something young and relatively unformed.

But given the core of Chhiba’s work, the writing on the wall is forgivable. “Sometimes the night wakes in the middle of me,” writes Waheed, “and I can do nothing but become the moon.” You will feel the same relentless choice.

  • A Flood in my Hands curated by Aysha Waja comprises work by Simphiwe Buthelezi, Reshma Chhiba, Alka Dass, Laylaa Jacobs, Chumisa Ndasika and Anastasia Pather and is at Fried Contemporary in Brooklyn, Pretoria until March 3. 012 346 0158 or visit www.friedcontemporary.com

The newspaper that would not kowtow

thepost
WAITING to hear what’s what: Newsroom dynamics with the cast of The Post. Photograph courtesy foxmovies.com

THE MESSY BEAST of the print media, in all its procedural glory and inky mechanisms comes under scrutiny in this completely magnificent Steven Spielberg film that deals with the notorious Pentagon papers. Featuring Meryl Streep opposite Tom Hanks in the leads, it tells the story of the Washington Post, a family-run paper, which finds itself fighting beyond its size for national credibility in the face of secret government documents that contradict the need for the longevity of the Vietnam War.

And of course, you know how the film will end, but getting from point A to point B is not the primary point of the work. It’s a story about the early 1970s with all its sexism and women’s big hairdos, about the values that are projected by the media and about the need in the world for a free press. More than all of this, it’s a work that grants you gritty and wonderful insight into the pre-computer era energy of a newspaper newsroom, where the need for accuracy is tantamount and the smoke and stress of the pooled environment of committed professionals attests to the collaborative passion that made a print newspaper the beautiful thing it was.

Streep utterly shines in this complex role – Katharine Graham inherited her role as publisher of The Post when her husband, Phillip committed suicide in 1963. Armed with a fierce belief in the value of the paper and great loyalty to its heritage, she steered it through the muddy and oft bloody waters of the Pentagon papers to a victory that changed the nature of the media and government secrets, going forward. Streep embodies this woman who teeters between the cultural imperatives of men and women in a world run by men in suits and ties, with characteristic grace and elegance.

You will see interesting cameos by the likes of Michael Stuhlbarg – who you might recognise from the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man – in the role of Abe Rosenthal, the editor of the New York Times, as you will see beautiful reflections of the nub and texture of 1970s American social protocol. It’s a true tale of the meaning of integrity in a world on the cusp of madness, and is the kind of film you need to buy and keep in your repertoire of great classics.

Similar, in a sense, to the 1976 film The Network, written by Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Sidney Lumet, The Post offers astute insights into the value of the media in society. There are caveats enfolded into its nuances that point to the way in which society is broken or kept whole by the pen and opinion of the team of journalist, sub-editor and editor, who bring their readers what matters.

  • The Post is directed by Steven Spielberg and features a cast headed by Saul Alvarez, Celeste Arias, Kelly AuCoin, Tom Bair, Estelle Bajou, David Aaron Baker, Jordan Baker, Seth Barrish, David Beach, Will Blomker, Walter Brandes, Alison Brie, Dan Bittner, Susan Blackwell, Annika Boras, Dan Bucatinsky, Brendan Burke, Brian Burton, Philip Casnoff, Carrie Coon, Lilli Cooper, David Costable, John Henry Cox, Michael Cyril Creighton, Rick Crom, David Cross, Thaddeus Daniels, Juliana Davies, Johanna Day, Will Denton, Michael Devine, Brett Diggs, Curzon Dobell, Jon Donahue, Francis Dumaurier, Jennifer Dundas, Caleb Eberhardt, Gary Galone, Odiseas Georgiadis, Deborah Green, Bruce Greenwood, Tom Hanks, Pat Healy, Angus Hepburn, Rick Holmes, Christopher Innvar, Lauren Lim Jackson, Mark Jacoby, Austyn Johnson, Brittney Johnson, Cullen Oliver Johnson, Steven Kearney, JaQwan J Kelly, Leslie Kujo, Tracy Letts, Brent Langdon, Fenton Lawless, Ben Livingston, Jerry Lobrow, Kevin Loreque, Deirdre Lovejoy, Stephen Mailer, Ginger Mason, Hazel Mason, Don McCloskey, Carolyn McCormick, Gannon McHale, Robert McKay, Shawn Allen McLaughlin, Sean Meehan, Kelly Miller, Jessie Mueller, Joel Nagle, Patrick Noonan, Ned Noyes, Shaun O’Hagan, Bob Odenkirk, Alexander Sage Oyen, Sarah Paulson, Coral Peña, Matthew Piazzi, Mark Pinelli, Jesse Plemons, Frank Ridley, James Riordan, Matthew Rhys, Stephen Rowe, John Rue, Amy Russ, Stark Sands, Kaylyn Scardefield, Armand Schultz, Luke Slattery, Brett G Smith, Cotter Smith, Sasha Spielberg, Sawyer Spielberg, Meryl Streep, Michael Stuhlbarg, Justin Swain, Clarke Thorell, Kenneth Tigar, Joseph Tudisco, Sonny Valicenti, Anthony M Walker, Peter Van Wagner, Theis Weckesser, Aaron Roman Weiner, Jeremiah Wiggins, Steve Witting, Bradley Whitford, Gary Wilmes, Catherine Wolf and Zach Woods. It is written by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer, and produced by Kristie Macosko Krieger, it features creative input by John Williams (music), Janusz Kaminski (cinematography), Sarah Broshar and Michael Kahn (editing), Ellen Lewis (casting) Rick Carter (production design), and Ann Roth (costumes). Release date: January 26 2018.

 

Pearls from a mandolin

Alon Sariel
Who could ask for anymore more than a mandolin in the palm of your hand: Israeli-born mandolinist Alon Sariel visits South Africa this month. Photograph courtesy www.letsgo.co.za

HISTORY WILL TELL you the mandolin’s popularity has wavered. It played second fiddle to the fiddle. And when the guitar came into fashion, the mandolin was subject to design modifications, forcing it to take a path less travelled. But good stuff always rises to the surface: When the powers that be put a mandolin into the hands of Alon Sariel, it grabbed him by the heart and the fingers and hasn’t let go. He chatted to My View from Germany last weekend, prior to his brief South African tour.

He tells the story of his roots with the mandolin on his website.  To paraphrase, when he was eight, his world changed. Picture the scenario. It was the 1990s. He was the youngest of five children. His siblings were all teenagers. And the beat of rock and pop permeated his home. His parents decided he should learn music. “They tried all sorts of gym-oriented classes first (which were totally not for me!),” he quips. “But then they gave me the choice of music.” But what instrument would it be?

“An electric guitar!” was his unequivocal unmoderated eight-year-old choice. But the music conservatory he was to learn at wasn’t convinced, quailing at the idea of a child making electric guitar riffs with abandon, and “They offered me the mandolin instead. ‘It’s just like a guitar,’ they said.” They weren’t wrong. “It’s been my voice ever since,” says Sariel, who now in his early 30s, has wooed and wowed the music fraternity internationally, with many concerts recordings and international awards under his belt.

“Early on, I knew if I wanted to have an international career,” Sariel, who was born in the Israeli city of Beersheba, adds. He currently lives in Germany but doesn’t refer to himself as a German immigrant. “I don’t feel that connected to any piece of land – probably like many of my generation. I don’t feel more at home in Berlin than in New York and I think that I do have a mission in this world and it is to spread this music around.”

And the mandolin is small enough to be carried on one’s back, but he says “my instrument is the thing that goes before me, leading me to fascinating places.”

So, you may have been fortunate enough to have seen him perform with Camerata Tinta Barocca, under the baton of Erik Dippenaar, at St Andrews Church in Cape Town on February 7. If you did and you’re now in Gauteng, you’re in the right place. Sariel performs again for Brooklyn Theatre on February 10 and 11 and for Glenshiel on the evening of February 11.

Included in his repertoire in South Africa is a concerto by Emanuelle Barbella who would have celebrated his 300th birthday this year. “It’s a wonderful piece and I really enjoy playing it,” he says. “Barbella?” you might say. “Bar—who?” You might need to google ‘mandolin’, and come away with the belief that’s it’s all terribly old. You wouldn’t be wrong, but you shouldn’t assume it’s irrelevant. Or boring. Sariel says there is a fair amount of mandolin music being written today.

“It’s part of my goal. I try to commission work from living composers whose work I appreciate. Many of the great composers in the classical traditions, like Brahms or Schumann, ignored it. It wasn’t popular during their lifetimes. I wouldn’t like to see the mandolin fade into obscurity this century. So it’s my mission to get audiences to know and hear about this instrument.

“A few years ago,” he says, “I performed Gilad Hochman’s Nedudim (Wanderings). It’s a wonderful piece. It premiered in London, performed in Jerusalem and was recorded in Berlin. It’s garnered lots of attention. I love it because of the part of the mandolin: Some of it is improvised, some is written … when you listen to it, you may think you’re listening to an oud. The work really is a journey.”

Sariel says his biggest challenges are budgetary. “Not everyone is convinced yet of the value of the mandolin. Especially in today’s market when budgets are being cut, everyone wants to go for the secure thing. And the secure thing might well be Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto. Everyone knows it. People love it. It fills halls. If you start with new music with an instrument that is not very known, that doesn’t have a big core repertoire then it is always a risk.

“Some people are curious for something new; others are conservative,” he praises Brooklyn Theatre for being the impetus of his current SA tour and he admits, in spite of the challenges, it is about love: “I love to play the historical instruments. The mandolin of the 18th century is not the mandolin of the 19th century. And they both differ from the modern mandolin.”

In his recordings, he tries to remain true to the original by playing composition, but describes the challenge of accessing an historical instrument as considerable. “Because the mandolin was never as respected as the violin, it wasn’t preserved with as much status as a Stradivarius, for instance. And it was corrupted, from a design and conservation perspective.”

Sariel delights in playing ‘the real thing’ and in finding “original pearls to add to my repertoire. It is a privilege to play these works to an audience who has not heard them before. I don’t shy from arrangements, however: that would be silly, as the mandolin’s repertoire is limited.”

His most recently published album, Telemandolin comprises music arranged to feature the voice of the mandolin. “Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767) didn’t write for mandolin. He just is one of my favourites.”

Sariel brings three programmes to South Africa. Why? “If you have to tour with Tchaikovsky and Beethoven and Alban Berg, it’s a lot to keep in your head or suitcase. I know people often tour with the same programme. But in my case, the concerti are ten minutes and I know them well.

“Bach has it all,” he concedes, when pushed for the composer he would choose to play if he could only choose one. “It’s impossible to describe why in words. I need to just play his work. It’s like he knew all the music he made before and after him.”

  • Sariel performs at the Brooklyn Theatre, Menlo Park, February 10-11. Visit brooklyntheatre.co.za or call 012 460 6033.
  • He also performs at Glenshiel, 19 Woolston Road, Westcliff on the evening of February 11. Call Saul Bamberger: 083 414 0041 or visit Olde ‘n New Recitals on Facebook.
  • In addition, he performs the Valentine’s Concert at Brooklyn Theatre, Menlo Park in Pretoria on February 14 @ 19:00. It’s called Mandolino Napolitano — Neapolitan Love Songs and features Sariel in collaboration with Salon Ensemble, featuring accordion, piano and cello and musical arrangements by Willem Vogel. Visit www.brooklyntheatre.co.za or call 012-460-6033.
  • On February 18, he performs in Stellenbosch at the Oude Libertas Summer Season Festival.
  • His published recordings will be on sale at the performance venues.