Present absences and men of war

SERVING a complicated entity: Hamilton Dlamini in William Kentridge’s The Head and the Load.

DO YOU REMEMBER the cultural imperative in South Africa? The thing that you had to see, at all costs, whether it was an opera or an exhibition, a performance or an event? Kentridge’s The Head and the Load evokes this artistic urgency among South Africans, that is at once hopeful and nostalgic. The work, meant to see light of day three years ago, was already heavily booked when it opened late in April this year. With this South African season scuppered by Covid, the production is at last here. It’s fully booked, but there are the odd cancellations and no-shows, which may manifest small miracles for you if you still need to see it, and haven’t, yet. It’s on at the Joburg Theatre until 6 May.

From the outset, the enormity of this work is aggressive and hard to be present in. It takes you, as an audience member, beyond the polite proscenium of the stage and into the backstage, where the space is ruder and much larger than a conventional theatre space, uninterrupted as it is by devices such as curtains, carpets or orchestra pits. Here you will sit on ordinary chairs, thigh to thigh with your neighbour, subject to something completely extraordinary. And it is to the wind with your physical comfort or your potential feelings of sensory threat. The width of the work is such that if you are seated at one end, your experience of it will be completely different from that of your peer on the other side.

And the rumble and whir of First World War machinations and manifestos, fury and injustice assails you from the get-go. There are flashing lights and sound overlaid on sound that is terrifying. This is the horrible tale of the black men who were mandated to serve as carriers during The Great War. It’s the underlying narrative of Kentridge’s 2018 exhibition, Kaboom! mounted at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg. Now brought to 90 minutes of belligerent and complicated life, it will touch you in places you didn’t know you had. The question must be pondered in a work of this nature regarding how far a performance work can push, in terms of the sensory thresholds the ordinary Joe Soap in the audience can tolerate. Granted, a Kentridge audience will by nature be part of a cognoscenti, and the nature of the work is about how that Great War exploded willy-nilly in the face of the unsuspecting. But still, it is a tough piece to sit through.

Immaculately blending horror with quirkiness and the scorn-worthiness of pompous colonialists with poetry so rich and sad it takes your breath away, this is a tour de force that demonstrates Kentridge’s gift in collaborative recognition. He’s brought together a range of highly skilled, idiosyncratic performers to create something that doesn’t hurt the individual performance of each of them. But in many respects, this is a work that is less than the sum of its multiple parts. Those parts are gems and jewels, but the cacophony of the whole thing leaves your head feeling a little broken, as you leave the theatre.

Who can forget the haunting mischief of Sipho Seroto, all in white atop a moving staircase, dressed in a gas mask and wielding a spade which is but a negative reflection of the tool? It’s a tiny vignette in this massive work which embraces pathos and horror, impeccably, in a way that evokes the madness of the art of 16th century Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch in his representation of hell. And then, there is the presence of Joanna Dudley, which makes you sit up and gasp. She pulls no stops in injecting her role with fierceness both physical and vocal. It was Dudley who took Kentridge’s Refuse the Hour in Avignon by its proverbial throat, with song rendered backwards. It is Dudley whose screams are large enough to fill the Joburg Theatre backstage with horror. It is Dudley who you cannot draw your head away from, even when she is off stage. And it is Dudley who makes you want to flee in the face of her screams. It’s a little like shouting ‘fire’ in the proverbial packed theatre. There is an urgency in her voice which reaches beyond the sense of you watching a theatrical production.

But that doesn’t mean that the engagement of Nhlanhla Mahlangu doesn’t hold you by the heart. There is a moment of mourning, covered in projected text of war records where Mahlangu, a man shorter than many on this stage, dominates the universe and brings your tears to spill. There is another moment which is owned by Guinean kora player N’Faly Kouyate. A moment that will be seared onto your memory when you think of this work. Forever.

The work is replete with everything in the universe that is warlike and dark. It filters into the kind of stream of consciousness and onomatopoeiac Futurist writing which local writer Barbara Adair is playing with in her current work, as it gives life and magic to the wisdom and trickery in shadow work. There are shadows in several processions in this piece that defy logic and play with your expectations.

Held together with a perspicacity, a humility and a boldness, the work would not be complete without the music. And under composer Phillip Miller’s hand and Thuthuka Sibisi’s musical direction, this is an achievement which is about the conventions of musical instruments, but also one in which the sounds of words and bellows, of marching steps and archival footage all pull together to create a gesammtkunstwerk for the 21st century, not unlike that, that composers of the ilk of Richard Wagner considered ideal, blending dance and choreographing furniture, boats and aeroplanes, replete as it is with all the technological bells and whistles but redolent with old school aesthetics that gives the megaphone and the wooden staircase a spotlight.

In short, this astonishing work is as much about presence as it is about absence. Those thousands of black men from all over Africa who were broken by a white man’s war, are overwhelmingly both present and absent here. The most contemporary heartrending absence in the piece, however, is that of performer Mncedisi Shabangu, who suddenly died last July, and in whose honour this season is dedicated.

  • The Head and the Load is conceptualised and directed by William Kentridge. Featuring creative input by Phillip Miller (composer), Thuthuka Sibisi (musical direction), Greogory Maqoma (choreography), Catherine Meyburgh (projection), Greta Goiris (costumes), Sabine Theunissen (set), Urs Schönebaum (lighting), Mark Grey and Michele Grace (sound), Janus Fouché, Žana Marović and Catherine Meyburgh (video editing and composing), Duško Marović (cinematography) and Michael Atkinson and Phillip Miller (orchestration), it is performed by Waldo Alexander (violin), Motho Oa Batho, Sam Budish (percussion), Brydon Bolton (bass), Julia Zenzie Burnham, Mhlaba Buthelezi, Thulani Chauke, DAPHNE (viola), Luc de Wit, Hamilton Dlamini, Xolani Dlamini,  Joanna Dudley, Ayanda Eleki, Samuel Ewens (trumpet), Nicolas Jones (trombone), Andrew Kershaw (tuba), Nathan Koci (accordion), N’Faly Kouyate (kora), Bulelani Madondile, Nokuthula Magubane, Nhlanhla Mahlangu, Tlale Makhene (percussion), Ncokwane Lydia Manyama, Eilidh Martin (cello), Ann Masina, Tshegofatso Moeng, Mapule Moloi, Siphiwe Nkabinde, Dambuza Nqumashe, Bham Ntabeni, Vincenzo Pasquariello (piano), Miles Roberts (flute), Sipho Seroto, Lindokuhle Thabede, Rudolf van Dyk (French horn), Lubabalo Velebayi, Benny Vernon (trombone) and Babette Viljoen (accordion). It celebrates its African premier at the Joburg Theatre, Braamfontein, until 6 May.

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