A place to be as loud as the hell you want!

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GREAT expectations: Princeton the man of the Avenue Q moment.

Remember Sesame Street and the values it espoused on generations of children? Well, 15 years ago, the makers of Avenue Q worked with its basic puppetting premises and ramped it up to a whole new set of narrative values. Now, in its 15th year, it explodes in a melange of bad-idea bears, grown up puppet antics and lyrics that take the bull by the proverbials. It’s hilarious, touching, beautiful and rude: an utter tonic.

Avenue Q is about the angst of a just-graduated 23-year-old guy with blue skin and a quaff of black hair meddled with electricity, called Princeton. To make matters worse, his degree is in English and he’s rapidly realised the pointlessness of it all, in a grabby world where he has no skills. But then he finds a place to rent, and some friends and something of a purpose. Of course, it’s not all that simple; there are a lot of tears and some orgasms along the way. There’s also disappointment and rejected advice, broken hearts and masturbation by the light of the internet.

With loud and flamboyant sex and chance encounters along the way, some fierce assertions from a monster that the internet is for porn and a very moving emergence from a closet, it’s a whirligig tale of love and marriage, hate and schadenfreude and above all one about the moment in which we live, because that’s all we have.

Not only is this a beautifully made show, with a complex and well-handled set, strong and intelligent lyrics and puppets that skirt hilarity and cuteness in a way that allows them to be utterly risqué, it’s also extremely well performed. The puppets, in the design parameters of the Muppets are like glorified glove puppets with chasmic mouths and big googly eyes. The ‘monsters’ among them are furry, which gives rise to a whole diatribe about race and racism. The puppeteers, dressed in black play visual tricks with you. Quickly you learn to respond to the puppets as though the voices came from their poly foam mouths.

No, these are not ventriloquists, but similar to the puppet ethos in works such as William Kentridge’s Ubu and the Truth Commission, they’re actors who give the puppets voice. And oh, what fine voice they bring. The directors of this piece clearly chose the best young voices in the field, and what Ashleigh Harvey (who magicks Kate Monster and Lucy the loose woman to magnificent life) and Ryan Flynn (who gives voice and persona to Princeton and Rod, the closeted queen), bring to the stage vocally, is sheer gold.

While the modulation of Rebecca Hartle as Christmas Eve, a Japanese therapist with lots of racism up her sleeves and no clients, is a little too shrill, which often makes her repartee unintelligible, and the Gary Coleman references to the child star from the American 1980s TV series Diff’rent Strokes, might be lost on some, it is the poly foam characters, all the way from Mrs Thistletwat to the New Kid that utterly sweep you away. And at last, this theatre has achieved a strong balance between the sound of music and that of vocals. It’s a true delight.

Nieke Lombard and Graeme Wicks are the “Bad Idea Bears” who bring about havoc and mayhem, as they tee-hee to their electric pink and green paws, and they’re totally wonderful in body and soul and the Trekkie Monster (manipulated with levity and gruffness by Daniel Geddes) is a riot,  complementing every scene he graces.

This is one of those shows that will make you want to bound out of the theatre and change the world, not for ideological reasons, but because of all the possibility there is out there, to grab the moment. It’s a coup for South Africa, and arguably the stage musical that will define this year’s theatre pickings and achievements.

  • Avenue Q is based on the book by Jeff Whitty and the original concept of Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, and is directed by Timothy Le Roux. It features creative input by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx (music and lyrics), Dawid Boverhoff (musical director), Kosie Smit (puppets and scenic design), Stephen Oremus (orchestration and arrangements), Oliver Hauser (lighting), Timothy le Roux (musical staging) and Fried Wilsenach (sound design) and is performed by Ryann Flynn, Daniel Geddes, Rebecca Hartle, Ashleigh Harvey, Songezo Khumalo, Nieke Lombard, Yamikani Mahaka-Phiri, Grant Towers and Graeme Wicks, at the Pieter Toerien Theatre, Montecasino, Fourways until July 15. Call 011-511-1818.

Of beauty and raw pumpkin

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NTHIKENG MOHLELE WRITES like an angel. His material flows so smoothly that you just cannot stop reading it, drinking in all the rhythm and song of the concatenation of the words he’s chosen and how they juxtapose and interface. But there, also, lies the rub. This work, premised on a character devised by JM Coetzee in 1983 sails away on its own sense of possibility and as a result, the read, while abstractly beautiful, doesn’t offer much in the denouement department.

Coetzee’s The Life and Times of Michael K gave voice to a socially-disabled character, born with a harelip who travels alone and with no resources through the harshness of South African landscape to visit his mother’s birth place in the off-the-beaten-track Western Cape village of Prince Albert. It’s a kind of a take on some of the premises informing William Faulkner’s 1930 novel As I Lay Dying, as it offers an important foray in what it means to be poor, disabled and alone in a country riven by racism. It was also the novel that won Coetzee the coveted Booker Prize that year.

Mohlele’s character Miles, who is written in the first person, meets “Michael K” at the other end of his life, eating raw pumpkin and subsisting with birds, but the focus of his prose slips in and out of sharpness in this text, as “Miles” contemplates the dementia of his father, his desire to have sex with his young maid and his relationship with a man who was once his university professor. On a level, the give and take between mentor and mentee might remind you of the dialogues in Leonhard Praeg’s Imitation, but that is where the similarity ends.

You emerge from this text feeling like you’ve just returned from an immersion in beautiful poetry, but you’re less haunted by the idea of narrative than you might like to be. Mohlele’s Michael K teeters toward the self-indulgent, the self-consciously meditative for meditation’s sake and the overly reflexive. Names are dropped all over the place and if you don’t recognise them, or appreciate their value, no mercy is offered by way of context. His references to Coetzee as “the laureate in the Land Rover” smack of sense of writerly self-deprecation that is both bitter and jealous, and while there are astonishingly powerful ideas informing this literary novel, they’re not drawn out and given the kind of attention or voice they warrant.

Thus, Michael K becomes a bit of a hollow read filled with gem-like experiences in which you reach at and discover snippets of South African values in small interregnums along the way.

  • Michael K by Nthikeng Mohlele is published by the Picador Africa, Johannesburg (2018).

Curiouser and curiouser

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EVERY which way: Geometric forms, a drawing in charcoal and chalk on brown paper, by Gordon Froud. Photograph courtesy Total Exposure.

AS YOU ENTER the upstairs space, courtesy of the architects of the Standard Bank Gallery, there’s an implicit sense of event. This is obviously always the case. But it’s enhanced several-fold in Gordon Froud’s first major retrospective. How? Curatorial decisions have dramatically place a massive polyhedron in your face. This exhibition is about time – but it’s also all about space and geometry and God.

But ah! you might cry, as you summit the staircase, this polyhedron is stumped. It’s got blunt points. It’s dramatic, sure, but there’s something artisanal about it. And then you step a little closer and look at the tessellation wall works, which surround said polyhedron. They may you feel as though you have stepped into a child’s kaleidoscope on crack. And then you realise they’re made of black plastic coathangers and cable ties, and the blunt edges of the polyhedron are appropriate because the whole object is made of giant traffic cones. It is then that the world begins to turn on its axis for you as you engage with this extraordinary exhibition.

Mooted as a mid-career project, this exhibition sees Froud in his mid 50s, offering sophisticated and carefully articulated summation on all that he’s been working on and interested in through his career. And while the geometry is central to it all, there’s an ethos as to where this geometry is found and how it is extrapolated that keeps you curious to the very end.

But more than that, Froud takes the whole of the upstairs gallery space and uses it with clarity and empathy. It’s a humble exhibition that is about the real skills of looking and drawing on supports such as brown paper, but a proud one too, that examines a great diversity of artmaking approaches. Ultimately, it is satisfyingly balanced in the layout of work, which takes you through four ‘chapters’ of possibility.

You do, however, emerge from this exhibition remembering Froud’s fondness for all things Alice in Wonderland.  Not because there’s a Cheshire Cat secreted in the interstices of the lines and circles here, but rather because the mathematical ethos of Lewis Carroll’s madcap ideas are spun under the surface of these works.

And while as a body of work it touches on everything from Jewish to Christian to Hindu to Buddhist splays of spiritual values, it also doffs a cap to Leonardo’s thinking and sees a spot of geometry in the world as it stands. In doing so, it evokes the thinkings of György Doczi on proportional harmonies in nature and everything else.

That said, a couple of series in this exhibition, including the photographs of the figure in geometry, feel almost too diagrammatic and if you’re not in the know in terms of mystical values, they may leave you cold. Similarly, a series of embossed images toward the chronological closure of the show feel so busy that you cannot look at them. But Froud is an interesting character and this exhibition really does go the extra mile in offering something for everyone. It’s astonishing to acknowledge that all of this is the work of one artist.

And further to everything, this society has a troubling relationship of not being able to celebrate its own. For whatever reason. Often an artist needs to go overseas and earn ticks from the so-called “International community” before he or she gets a nod from local establishments. Froud’s show here and now kind of bucks this trend, but for a mid-career show to be mounted in the latter years of as prolific a practitioner as he, feels uncomfortable. However, as you walk through the four chapters of this exhibition, so do you realise that this is most likely where serious fine art in contemporary society is pointing right now: the invested thought. The carefully drawn line. The gesture that is unashamedly analogue. This is an important show for all the right reasons.

  • Harmonia: Sacred geometry, the pattern of existence by Gordon Froud is at the Standard Bank Gallery, central Johannesburg, until June 15. 0860 123 000.

Nearly 2 500 ways to seize the day

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ALMOST in heaven: John Spencer (Donald Sutherland) and his wife Ella (Helen Mirren) on the trip of a lifetime. Photograph courtesy www.miamifilmfestival.com

LET’S FACE IT: our inimitable icons of stage and screen are aging. They’re still beautiful, they’re still sexy and they still have what it takes. Thank goodness the film industry is capable of recognising this and of granting performers such as Judi DenchMeryl Streep, Annette Bening, Julie Walters and Vanessa Redgrave plum roles in which they can celebrate the inevitability of aging. The Leisure Seeker is another gem of this sort, giving voice to delicious performances by Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland as an elderly couple who go rogue on their children, for one last fling.

Ellen (Mirren) and John Spencer (Sutherland) have had a rich, full life. He was a teacher of English literature with a particular penchant for Ernest Hemingway. They’ve two adult children. And they have a 1975 RV which has seen many a holiday with them. But here they are. Neither are in the first flush of health, but life’s for the grabbing and they decide to do a drive from Boston to Florida Keys to see Hemingway’s house.

That’s a drive of nearly 2 500km for the pragmatic. If you’re elderly, with fading memories and bits and pieces that no longer work as they used to, that’s almost the recipe for catastrophe. And catastrophic this is, particularly from the other end of a cell phone like to their children, Jane (Janel Moloney) and William (Christian McKay).

But amid the realities of incontinence and fervour, knee-jerk responses and utter hilarity, this is by all accounts, the journey of a lifetime. Mirren and Sutherland sparkle unforgettably in this beautiful yet thoughtful celebration of what it takes to grow old. The dialogue is crisp and bristly and the context real in terms of how the power is inverted when the parents are old and the children, grown, putting the giggles on the side of grandparents, and the punitive frowns on the side of the kids.

Narratively, the plot wanes a bit in terms of it feeling like adventure upon adventure and reading like a bit of a shopping list, characterised by an “and then … and then … and then” rhythm, but by and large, it’s a laugh and a cry at every stop in the road.

Irresponsible? Absolutely! But life is short and it’s completely for the living. It’s a Thelma and Louise kind of a tale which ends as it must, leaving you with a wet face, but a smiling one.

  • The Leisure Seeker is directed by Paolo Virzi and is performed by a cast headed by Helen Abell, Nicholas Barrera, Lilia Pino Blouin, Carl Bradfield, Robert Walker Branchaud, Roger Bright, Andrea C. Brotherton, Gabriella Cila, Danielle Deadwyler, Adam Drescher, Marc Fajardo, Dick Gregory, Carlos Guerrero, Ryan Clay Gwaltney, Wayne Hall, Joe Hardy Jr, Lucy Catharine Haskill, Rusty Hodgdon, Joshua Hoover, Denitra Isler, Dana Ivey, Ariel R. Kaplan, Jessie Sasser Kloos, Ahmed Lucan, Burk Madison, Dov Mamann, Elijah Marcano, Christian McKay, Matt Mercurio, Joshua Mikel, Helen Mirren, Kirsty Mitchell, Janel Moloney, Lindsey Moser, Robert Pralgo, Chelle Ramos, Jerald Jay Savage, David Silverman, Mylie Stone, Leander Suleiman, Donald Sutherland, Karen Valero, Sean Michael Weber, Ben White and Geoffrey D. Williams. It is written by Stephen Amidon, Francesca Archbugi, Francesco Piccolo and Paolo Virzi, based on the eponymous novel by Michael Zadoorian. Produced by Marco Cohen, Fabrizio Donvito, Benedetto Habib and Bryan Thomas, it features creative input by Carlo Virzi (music), Luca Bigazzi (cinematography), Jacopo Quadri (editing), Ellen Jacoby (casting),Massimo Cantini Parrini (costumes) and Richard A. Wright (production). Release date: March 30 2018.

The unutterable hubris of the copycat

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ARGENTINE WRITER JORGE Luis Borges (1899-1986) did it. Italian philosopher Umberto Eco (1932-2016) did it. And now, there’s South African philosopher Leonhard Praeg with his debut novel weaving together a tale of self-reflection and intrigue; philosophy, politics and coincidence, to say nothing of love and tragedy in a way that will grab you by the mind and spirit and not let go, even after you’ve finished reading it. Imitation is an extremely lucid narrative which doffs a hat to Czech writer Milan Kundera (b. 1929) as it plays intelligently and curiously with all the possibilities of what storytelling can be.

Granted, it doesn’t have the gravitas of Eco’s Name of the Rose, which engages the meaning of laughter in the world through a medieval cipher, but it sits comfortably on the same shelf. Cast between a farm in the Karoo, an apartment in Paris and a building site on the Ivory Coast, among other places; it’s contemporary and sexy without being overworked or irrelevant and once you start reading it, you will not be able to remove yourself from its confines until the very last page.

The novel weaves together first person narrative with the back story of fictional characters developed through the pen of Kundera and truths that play with the notion of hubris in our world. What Praeg is doing here is penetrating deeply into Kundera’s 1990 novel Immortality, and exploring the what ifs of that tale. In doing so, he finds other characters of his own, including a young man who is safe in the confines of his own silence and has survived 17 suicide attempts. And while each of the book’s seven parts seems self-standing, they’re tacked together with delicate yet robust threads that jolt you in the solar plexus when you see them.

In the 1980s, a basilica called Our Lady of Peace was controversially commissioned and built in Yamoussoukro, the administrative capital of Côte d’Ivoire. Controversial because it was paid for by the country’s then dictator, one Félix Houphouët-Boigny, from his private monies. Controversial because it was extremely costly and the community, extremely poor. And controversial because it challenged the architectural integrity of St Peter’s Cathedral in Rome. Praeg’s character is insinuated into this heady tale of imitation and hubris as the project’s publicity guy.

And no, it’s less of a tale about the architecture and more of one about the underpinning thinking that enabled it to happen, and to exist in the world. Imitation, they say, is the most earnest kind of admiration. And from this premise a yarn of such noble and internal proportions evolves that you’re left sleepless. How does Buffon’s needle which posits an 18th century theory of coincidence relate to psychiatric patients on the steps of a mental institution in Switzerland? How does a friendly gesture by an elderly swimming student to her gym instructor erupt into a narrative of engagement, which crosses lines of gender habits? This very finely constructed novel makes you sit up and focus as the most extraordinary associations are brought to bear and contextualised with wit and wisdom.

Marred ever so slightly by a couple of subbing oversights and a little too much moralising when it comes to the taxonomy of ruling structures, the work is a very powerful read which is elegantly structured and beautifully told. It’s a feather in the cap of Praeg as a fictional debut, but also one in that of the University of Pretoria, where Praeg heads up the philosophy department.

  • Imitation by Leonhard Praeg is published by the University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, Pietermaritzburg (2018).

Pixie dust and make believe

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TRANSFIXED by our big sister, Wendy. Michael (Danny Meaker) and John (Daniel Keith Geddes), little boys who love stories. Photograph courtesy National Children’s Theatre.

ARE THERE STILL children in this world who make forts out of blankets and cushions, from which they conduct complex battles and adventures? Do children in this day and age still go on wild adventures in their own back yards, where they lie on their backs and peer at the moon and pretend they can fly? This is a play that with an incredibly sophisticated understanding of the potency of childhood, articulately explores make believe, and in doing so, it takes the JM Barrie tale of Peter Pan by its horns and doesn’t let go, not for a minute.

It’s a fascinating scenario. Barrie lived in the latter part of the 19th century, dying 37 years into the 20th. The yarns he wrote are wild and manic, but the English he used reflects his times, and is often prohibitively detailed for young readers to access. Mike Kenny – like others before him, including Walt Disney in 1953 – has taken the thread of Peter Pan and with a solemn nod to Barrie and a wink to the children in the audiences, set it free, in contemporary language with beautiful songs.

And Francois Theron and his creative team in turn, have taken this lead even further, dotting it with a deliciously idiosyncratic set, magnificent choreography and music on the part of the cast that lend an element of sheer perfection to the work. The cast, headed by Nirvana Nokwe-Mseleku as Wendy Darling, the authoritative big sister, and Daniel Keith Geddes in the role of John, the middle child – as well as Captain Hook, give it an edge that will set your child’s heart on fire. Supported by Danny Meaker as Peter Pan – and Michael, the youngest Darling child – and Phiphi-Gu’mmy Moletsane in the role of Tinkerbell, the oft sulky fairy, the work sings with synchronicity and wisdom.  It has to do with a mix of the sense of possibility and that of ordinariness that can bring a crocodile with a ticking clock in his tummy into the context of lost boys who fell out of their prams and mermaids who are beautiful but not nice.

Touching on everything that is central to what being a child means, the work is rough and tumble all the way, punctuated by the ‘aarghs’ of pirates, a beloved absent daddy’s beloved dressing gown, and some delicious cameos with a ukulele and a mouth organ. It engages with gender issues and power struggles, with the fear of growing up and becoming something or someone else – and in the process forgetting the fairies in the garden. It’s a tale of madcap adventure in the confines of your big sister’s love and care and creativity and one which opens your heart to the what ifs that dot the horizon. Along the same kind of lines as The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe staged some months ago by this theatre, the work lacks forced contrivance. It is premised on the children themselves and the magic in their hearts. And this becomes a gift to your child, something he or she will never forget.

  • Underneath a Magical Moon is adapted for stage by Mike Kenny, based on Peter Pan by James Barrie. It is directed by Francois Theron and features creative input by Cathrine Hopkins (musical direction), Tandi Gavin (choreography), Sarah Roberts (set and costumes) and Jane Gosnell (lighting). It is performed by Daniel Keith Geddes, Danny Meaker, Phiphi-Gu’mmy Moletsane and Nirvana Nokwe-Mseleku until April 15 at the National Children’s Theatre in Parktown, Johannesburg. Call 011 484 1584.

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

Molly’s story: not just any card game

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TAKING the world on with integrity: Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain) and Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba), her lawyer. Photograph courtesy www.theverge.com

THE CHALLENGE OF telling a complicated story in bold brush strokes in such a way that detail and nuance are not part of the casualties is a stiff one. The creative team behind Molly’s Game has achieved almost the impossible with this finely honed piece of filmography that is at once beautiful and sexy, intelligent and thought-provoking. It is informative and has a moral core; it’s magnificent to look at and will keep your conversations for weeks after you’ve seen it, peppered with suppositions and reminiscences.

On one level, it’s a poker movie. But if you’re not a poker buff, it doesn’t matter. The game and its morality, the energy behind its allure, are portrayed with a slick suaveness that never becomes self-indulgent. Indeed, there are explanatory overlays that speak of the potency of different hands, and it’s a directorial feat achieved with balance.

Similarly, the story is told on an almost documentary level. There’s a narrator to the work which fills in the narrative interstices and lends the story historical flow without dumbing down the performances or making them illustrative.

And then, there is Jessica Chastain in the leading role. She’s beautiful in the sense that LA-film critic Mick La Salle describes French actresses: there’s a realness, an almost harshness, to her which lifts her stature beyond that of bimbo and into the messy realm of high-end gambling behind closed doors. She really looks at the characters she interfaces with, and she embodies her character with a wrenching earnestness that never feels forced.

As the trailer will show you, there’s lots of high velocity gambling, with the lights, the bling, the revealing dresses and the dodgy rich men. But what the trailer doesn’t show you is the deeply intellectual soul of the story.

It’s the true tale of Olympic skier Molly Bloom, who is shaped by the urge to conquer the most difficult challenges, an urge which takes her in a completely different direction to what any of her fans or enemies might have imagined. It’s a tale with heart and soul, blending and twisting James Joyce’s Ulysses and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible deliciously into its narrative and its screenplay.

With honed and strong performances by Idris Elba and Kevin Costner, it’s a work that foregrounds a young woman’s relationship to men in power, and there are psychological themes and intellectual choruses in the work which are allowed to develop in strata.

In short, this yarn, which touches all mythologist Joseph Campbell’s values about the way in which a hero’s life story is constructed, is tight and intelligently made. There are simply no flaws in it. And you will not be satisfied with a single watching of it. This is one of those films that slides into classic status automatically.

  • Molly’s Game is directed by Aaron Sorkin and features a cast headed by Gurdeep Ahluwalla, Mary Ashton, Nicholas Banks, Jon Bass, Tom Black, Jacob Blair, Chris Boyle, Steve Brandes, Gary Brennan, Joey Brooks, Catherine Burdon, Bill Camp, Jessica Chastain, Michael Cera, Laura Cilevitz, Ari Cohen, Michael Cohen, Kevin Costner, Brian d’Arcy James, Karl Danhoffer, Todd Thomas Dark, Lizzy DeClement, Linette Doherty, Dennis Drummond, Dan Duran, Idris Elba, Frank Falcone, David Gingrich, Jake Goldsbie, Zachary Goodbaum, Angela Gots, Graham Greene, Shane Harbinson, Thomas Hauff, Daoud Heidami, Stephanie Herfield, Kjartan Hewitt, Chris Hoffman, Piper Howell, James Hurlburg, Samantha Isler, Morgan David Jones, Tommy Julien, Jeff Kassel, Joe Keery, Robert B Kennedy, Justine Kirk, Khalid Klein, Michael Kostroff, Natalie Krill, John Krpan, David Lafontaine, Maria Lerinman, Dan Lett, Ken Linton, Alanna Macaulay, JC MacKenzie, Bo Martyn, Matthew D Matteo, Madison McKinley, Elisa Moolecherry, Timothy Mooney, Duane Murray, John Nelles, Randy Noojin, Chris O’Dowd, Chris Owens, Vasilios Pappas, Jeffrey Parazzo, Whitney Peak, AC Peterson, Jason Pithawalla, Phil Primmer, Jonathan Purdon, Claire Rankin, Robin Read, David Reale, Amy Rutherford, Victor Serfaty, Chris Siddiqi, Rachel Skartsten, Tony Stellisano, Amy Stewart, Rae Anne Stroeder, Jeremy Strong, George Tchortov, Dov Tiefenbach, Vladimir Tsyglian, Rico Tudico, Alyssa Veniece, Bruno Verdoni, Leo Vernik, Jason Weinberg and Moti Yona. It is written by Aaron Sorkin, based on Molly Bloom’s autobiography. Produced by Mark Gordon, Matt Jackson and Amy Pascal, it features creative input by Daniel Pemberton (music), Charlotte Bruus Christensen (cinematography), Alan Baumgarten, Elliot Graham and Josh Schaeffer (editing), Francine Maisler (casting), David Wasco (production design) and Susan Lyall (costume design). Release date: January 12 2018.

 

Humble giants; flies on the wall

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TAKE TWO INTELLECTUALS with something to say, put them together and record, transcribe and publish their words. Effectively, this is what you get in Footnotes for the Panther, which sees William Kentridge chatting to his friend Denis Hirson about life, the universe, his art, the craft of writing and being in the world.

On the one hand, this curious little book, designed and made with the kind of properness and dignity that lent the hard cover book its longevity as well as its sense of character, a hundred years ago, fits in the 19th century construct of belles lettres: pretty words cast out for posterity. And this makes it feel oddly precious and decidedly prescient and ironic in its sense of nostalgia.

Hirson (b. 1951) is a Paris-based writer. Born in South Africa, he was the son of anti-apartheid activist Baruch Hirson, who was jailed by the South African government for many years. Denis graduated in South Africa in the 1970s and then went to Paris where he made a life around theatre and literature, and where he still lives today.

Kentridge (b. 1955) is a South African-based artist, the son of Sydney Kentridge, who was one of the leading voices in many significant trials that South Africa weathered, including the Treason Trial, the Rivonia Trial and the inquest into the death of Steve Biko. In many respects, William needs no introduction — the meteoric rise of his fame and world respect has rendered his name known everywhere.

The two men knew each other as boys. As they chat, you realise an easy camaraderie which enables difficult questions to be asked and complicated answers to be teased out. The tone differs in the two conversations which were presented for an audience, and the other, more intimate eight, but this doesn’t make them any less readable.

So what you get when you read this book is a give and take, a recitative play between two men who have allowed you to sit, like a proverbial fly on the wall, as they wrestle with panthers conjured by Rainer Maria Rilke and South African nostalgia, with the detritus of Marikana and a brass band from Sebokeng township, among other things. It’s a foray into the work of Kentridge that reaches from his Jeu du Paume exhibition in June of 2010 to Amsterdam and the rehearsals of his interpretation of Alban Berg’s opera Lulu in May of 2015. Lots of work happened in that period.

Without an overriding voice, or internally edited-in contextual material, the work presupposes that you know what they’re talking about. And this, in many respects, is its downfall. It’s also its strength. As you slip deeper and deeper into the words of Kentridge and Hirson, you begin to hear their voices in your head. There’s a profound sense of humility in Kentridge’s mien; there’s humour and sadness; an understanding of the context of the art world, and a reach into philosophy and myth, the magic of chance and the madness of unusual juxtapositions, from violence in Betty Boop cartoons to the ways in which Kentridge represents himself in his drawings, films and other works. It is here where you learn of photographer David Goldblatt’s “fuck-all landscape” and how it makes drawing sense in a South African highveld context, and the thrill of drawing a piece of paper as it blows in the wind.

The work touches on everything from Kentridge’s collaborative talents, to his relentless work ethic and his Norton lectures. These, delivered in 2011-12, as Six Drawing Lessons, were commissioned by Harvard University and put him alongside thinkers of the ilk of Igor Stravinsky, Leonard Bernstein, Octavio Paz, John Cage, Orhan Pamuk, to celebrate “poetry in the broadest sense”. But in discussion, these also represent a rich cross-pollination of Kentridgean energy which considers courage and growing old, confidence in a variety of mediums and that question of so what, in the development of an artwork.

And all at once, you reach the end, and you have this powerful urge to start again. At once. It’s a gem of a publication which doesn’t kowtow to rules. Call it a vanity piece, if you must; but it’s a delightful dialogue to challenge the idea of formal research, as it places everything on the proverbial table. It’s detailed and nuanced, direct and mesmerising. And one reading just doesn’t do it justice.

  • Footnotes for the Panther: Conversations between William Kentridge and Denis Hirson is published by Fourthwall Books, Johannesburg (2017).

Decency in a time of hateful chaos

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IT IS SELDOM that you read a chunk of autobiographical writing by someone and come away not only with a deeper understanding of the historical context of the period under scrutiny, but also with a genuine warmth toward the writer himself. This is patently apparent in this text by Lionel (Rusty) Bernstein (1920-2002), one of the heroes of South Africa’s struggle against apartheid, which is beautifully honed, curated and articulated.

The downside of this eminently meaty read which is at times surprising, exciting and witty, as it takes you through the detail and history of South Africa and pulls you through the bristly heart of the anti-apartheid struggle, is the handling of the publication: there are some typographical errors in this iconic South African text. Not many. But enough. There is also a blatant lack of engagement with the material itself and Bernstein’s biography, which is disappointing. Both authors of the forewords, in this, the second edition of this publication – Lord Joel Joffe and Thabo Mbeki – basically write about what a jolly good text Bernstein’s is. And it is – they do not exaggerate, but both forewords read like press releases marketing the book rather than engagements with the text itself.

You might want to know what happened to Bernstein between 1994 and his death in 2002. You might want to know a little more about Bernstein, the man – though the basic decency of the writing and the way in which Bernstein describes his own position and challenges does a pretty good job of it. You might want to understand what prompted the writing of this important text or when it was published, or even why it was published again in 2017. You might want to know if the drawings on the book’s frontispiece and cover, presumably made by Bernstein himself, were from the Rivonia Trial or the Treason Trial. None of these mysteries are uncovered here.

However, once you get your teeth into the body of the text, all is forgiven. Taking you from 1938 through the challenges he faced in becoming the architect, the political activist, the communist, the husband and father and the mensch that he was, the text is fulsome and detailed. It’s crafted with a sense of openness – it’s written in the first person and the present tense throughout, but there’s a delicate balance that Bernstein achieves from beginning to end – it’s never self-congratulatory or egotistical, grand-standing or foolishly moralistic in its articulation. You’ll weep at the crude and cruel injustices of not only the apartheid regime, but also of the way in which men such as Bernstein were treated in prison.

This work sits with great comfort and dignity on the shelf alongside Raymond Suttner’s Inside Apartheid’s Prison and Jonathan Ancer’s Spy: Uncovering Craig Williamson, not only for its historical iconicity but also for its readability and value as a publication, presenting an understanding of the monster of apartheid as something a lot more nuanced, dangerous and complicated than a litany of white legislation imposed on black civilians. It’s about vindictiveness and loyalty, paying the highest price for one’s values, and above all, it’s about the basic value of human decency. This is a must read for any reader of South African politics, young or old.

  • Memory Against Forgetting: Memoir of a Time in South African Politics 1928-1964 is by Rusty Bernstein and features forewords by Lord Joel Joffe and Thabo Mbeki. It is published by Wits University Press, Johannesburg 2017.