Only Gertrude. Only Alice.


ONLY you: Alice B Toklas (Lynita Crofford) and Gertrude Stein (Shirley Johnston). Photograph by Philip Kuhn.

OCCASIONALLY, IN THIS country and this industry, one is privy to a work that absolutely shines with all the values that good theatre promises to deliver. Amid all the political correctness, the paralysing self-censorship and other contemporary humourless ghoulies that beset our already beleaguered arts, there is this: Win Wells’s Gertrude Stein and a Companion with Shirley Johnston and Lynita Crofford, and the wit and repartee, the timing and craftedness of this work makes it feel like you’ve died and gone to heaven.

It’s a combination of talent, with Chris Weare directing, and the narrative of the lives of Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas themselves overseeing this tale of life and art and love and hate and letting go, that will leave you tingling with theatrical repletion. Both women were very clear products of the rushing of art values that happened from the turn of the 20th century in Europe, and Stein first distinguished herself in popular knowledge by her association with the likes of Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque and Henri Matisse. The iconic and completely magnificent portrait that he made of her in 1906, on the cusp of his transition to Cubism proper, which still hangs in the Metropolitan Museum today attests to the complicated sincerity of their association.

And then, there is the novellist Ernest Hemingway, who played an important role in both Stein and Toklas’s lives. As the trajectory unfolds, we get to understand that the work is a retrospective essay which has the power to embrace both their lives and their deaths, and both women’s performances as profoundly flamboyant and deeply unique personalities as they age and become sharper-tongued and wilder in their articulations, are superb.

The production, alas, makes use of a slide presentation in the background, and while in some instances it absolutely sings with the references, in others it feels like a slide presentation which shows illustrative pictures woodenly on cue. Many stage productions fall into this flaw. In Gertrude Stein and a Companion, you have a wish that the whole backdrop of the stage be filled to the rafters with the works that Stein owned through the years, or simply that the stage lights be turned off when the slide of a painting is on screen. The Picasso works from this period are so bold and atavistic, you want to eat them, but the light bleeds onto the projections, and dilutes their impact.

Having said that, this paean to Gertrude Stein and her lover over a period of 39 years, Alice B Toklas, is one of Joburg theatre’s must sees. It’s as much about the celebration of fabulous lesbians as it is about understanding the values of a true relationship. And as soon as the lights come up, you will want to see it again.

  • Gertrude Stein and a Companion is written by Win Wells, directed by Chris Weare and performed by Shirley Johnston and Lynita Crofford, at the Auto and General Theatre on the Square in Sandton until November 16.

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