On Aïda and losing the plot


YOUR heart! I want your heart! Radames (Len-Barry Simons) and Aida (Clint Lesch), in Aida, abridged. Photograph courtesy Auto & General Theatre on the Square.


A TALE OF politics and love, betrayal and death, Verdi’s opera Aïda, composed in 1870, is arguably one of the opera genre’s most known works. Indeed, it’s probably the repository for the most famous ensembles, tunes that you can whistle on your way to the theatre in your car, without reference. But cast an eye at the trajectory of the performances of this work and you will remember the great sense of hugeness, in cast, special effects and Egyptian grandeur expended on it. Until, of course, Greg Homann and co tackled it.

As has been his wont, for the last several years, Homann has developed a feel for stripping down great classics with complicated tales to scanty casts with improvised props, to hilarious effect. His Pirates of Penzance, which was sliced down from Gilbert and Sullivan’s original fulsome cast of men and women, to one of five men in 2010, comes to mind. It was an utter gem that lent unforgettable sheen to the original. The same level of unequivocal success is not achieved in his Aïda, however.

And while there are several laugh-out-loud moments with the tiny cast, clad in a miscellany of black bobbed wigs, Egyptian evocative kohl on the eyes and a towel around their waists, as they are, the story is lost between in-jokes and a miasma of references that reach beyond the confines of the work itself. If you don’t know the opera, you will be lost from the get-go. If you do, know Aïda and the idiosyncrasies of its tale or the complexities of its staging, you may still struggle, as the cast who demonstrate a completely astonishing vocal range slip between Italian and English without warning.

Humour is central to the cast’s engagement with the limitations of a naked set of props, which include a scrolled-up brown paper roll, with various interjections, jokes, quotes and images in a sequential format, but much of it gets lost in the detail. Ultimately you come away from this work with a very good sense of Lesch’s physical beauty, the fun that this team has had in making this madcap bit of opera frippery, but not much at all of an Aïda-informedness.

And oh, you may shriek: this kind of abridgement is about the trick of abridging and not so much about the original, but there’s a pinning of the relationship of the original to the thing on stage that is necessary for legibility’s sake, that’s lacking here. A work like this also calls to mind a potted Hamlet, created by Contagious Theatre and performed at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown some years ago. This work was an unadulterated romp through the interstices of the Shakespearean tale, complete with masks. But the team held onto the legibility of the basic plot.

Here, it’s lost the moment the work begins to roll out. It’s a pity. Len-Barry Simons and Lesch have a delightful stage presence and their interactions with Wessel Odendaal on the piano are lovely, reeking of faux formality and a kind of post-modern out of context gesture, but too few, to say nothing of the hatstand which substitutes for many a personage, with a steady hold on whatever hat is cast its way.

  • Verdi’s Aïda, abridged is directed by Greg Homann. It features design by Greg Homann and Nell van der Merwe (production design), Clint Lesch (musical direction) and Benjamin Mills (lighting) and is performed by Clint Lesch and Len-Barry Simons, with Wessel Odendaal on piano, at Auto and General Theatre on the Square in Sandton, until January 31, 2019. Call 011 883-8606.

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