Big fish, conjured

OldMan

MAN of war ahoy! Manolin (Taryn Bennett) and crew (James Cairns and Jaques de Silva) cast out to sea. Photograph courtesy Auto & General Theatre on the Square.

THERE ARE FEW things as gratifying as a spot of Hemingway to pepper up a dull Johannesburg evening with a bit of culture, but this is Hemingway as you could never have anticipated him. One of this country’s most exciting repertory theatre groups, under the pens of Nick Warren and Jenine Collocott have created a gem of a work that will make you laugh and cry, sailing gloriously and with great skill on the coattails of Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea. Even if you don’t like – or know – modernist literature.

Like their production of the Snow Goose, a few seasons ago, the work hinges more on accounts of the incident rather than the incident itself, but in doing so, not one iota of the texture and the fabric of the tale is compromised, and a whole sea replete with the greatest challenge of an old fisherman’s lifetime, and a humble village of loyal friends, is cast in a simple framework with a turning set, put together with a couple of planks, a log and a table, and some incredibly fine masks and very simple puppets.

It’s a curious novel. On the one hand, celebrated as arguably among the most important novels of the modern era, The Old Man and the Sea (1951) is an example of short, tight writing at its peak. You can read it in a few hours, but still the monumental struggle between big fish and small man becomes almost biblical in its largeness. It contains a parable similar to tales such as Moby Dick, which gives you something to take home with you – about old age, mortality and the challenges of being in the world.

And you might wonder what a group of contemporary South African theatre makers can do with a work of such historical gravitas and serious reputation. Rest assured that you’re safe in the hands of Jaques de Silva, Taryn Bennett and James Cairns, who take apart this great classic with immense bravery and chutzpah, but also an incredible amount of intelligence and skill. The gravitas remains, but is woven into a texture of village life that is rich with humour and tall stories, earnestness and dominoes.

The story is fleshed out with characters such as Manolin, the young boy who Santiago, the old man in question has been training in his boat, but also the village fishermen who tell the incredible tale of a man who went out for the biggest fish of his life, and came back with a story. Indeed, this production reinvents the textures and love affairs, the humour and the pathos of this unnamed fishing village.

Flavoured with songs of the ocean, and sutured together with mime that harnesses a very real sense of magic, the work is truly a brilliant experience: it is beautifully honed and tells a clear story with a very big fish (and an even bigger heart).

  • The Old Man and the Sea is adapted for stage by Nick Warren, based on the eponymous novel by Ernest Hemingway. It is directed by Jenine Collocott and features creative input by Jenine Collocott (production design), Sue Grealy (music), Alida van Deventer (puppetry), Alistair Findlay (set) and Steve Clarke (sound). It is performed by Taryn Bennett, James Cairns and Jaques de Silva at the Auto and General Theatre on the Square in Sandton until October 7. Call 011 883 8606 or visit www.theatreonthesquare.co.za
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Forbidden fruit that haunts

Die Reuk van Appels_images by Sanmari Marais_-34

THE horror, the horror: Gideon Lombard is Marnus Erasmus, peeking through a hole in his knotty pine floor. Photograph by Sanmari Marais.

WRITING IS A messy business. It’s a mixture of grammar and correctness, of rhythm and texture, of perspective and controversy. But occasionally it can be so devastatingly lucid that a scene read more than 20 years ago, can still haunt. Irrevocably. Bruisingly. It takes a truly remarkable team of performers and creative people, however, to take something as earth-shatteringly powerful as this in a novel, and to bring it to stage, no less haunting than it appeared on those pages so many years ago. This is precisely what happens in Die Reuk van Appels.

This apartheid-centric tale of propaganda and betrayal, keeping up appearances and the falteringly naive yet fierce understanding of an 11-year-old boy of life, the universe and everything, was originally penned by Mark Behr in both Afrikaans and English, both published in 1993. It rocked the literary equilibrium at the time. Not only for how beautifully it is crafted but also for the unpopular narrative it contains. What does it mean to be a white man, raised — and brainwashed — to understand your pre-eminence in a country, because of your skin colour, only to discover that you’ve been on the side of prime evil, all along? And that it is your own flesh and blood that is the enemy?

Based on the Afrikaans version, this astutely directed and simply brilliantly performed work, is set to turn contemporary local theatre making inside out as it unremittingly focuses on issues as complex and messy as inexplicable hatred, an understanding of who hell is for and why, and an engagement with complicity that hurts.

The bravery and importance of this flawless play that doesn’t stint on describing the appalling horror of an apartheid mindset, cannot be understated. The value of theatre of this nature cannot be overstated, not only in terms of method, but in terms of the multitude of young voices which need to be heard in this country, in Afrikaans as much as in any other language.

Gideon Lombard plays Marnus Erasmus, as he spins a yarn around his family, the South African Defense Force, the mystery of taboo, the surrealness of awful memories and the horror of disappointment. The script is populated with characters from his father, a general in the South African army, to his mother, a wannabe contralto; his sister Ilse and his best friend, Frikkie. Not to forget a sinister character called “John Smith”, who is exotic yet undefined.

Armed with a spinning top and a floppy army hat, an army-issue water bottle, a loose rug on the floor and a military uniform eerily hanging in the air, Lombard embraces that pristine and sparkling element of childhood innocence with wisdom that forces you to understand the character from within and without. More than anything, the work is an indictment on a particular type of Afrikaner mindset at the height of apartheid, from 1974, and its unequivocal (yet superficial) hard-edged moral clarity, which believed that the land was theirs thanks to God. In being so, it offers insight into the agony of hypocrisy as witnessed and stomached by a child.

It’s a difficult play to watch, but an impossible work to drag your attention from, as it begins. And yes, the State Theatre is an appalling ordeal to visit, with its ghastly little artworks hanging in the foyer’s corners and the ups and downs of long corridors that you have to traverse to get to the venue. They still reek of neglect and poor design, of feeble attempts to reposition politicised gestures and statues, but as you get into the space and the play’s sound track punctuates your universe, you forget – and forgive – everything. This play will grab you by the throat and not leave space for anything else.

  • Die Reuk van Appels (The Smell of Apples) is reworked for stage by Johann Smith, based on the eponymous novel by Mark Behr (1993). Directed by Lara Bye, it features creative input by Kosie Smit (lighting), and Lara Bye and Gideon Lombard (set). It is also performed by Gideon Lombard. Limited to no under 16s, as it features sex and nudity, violence and prejudice, it performs at the Momentum Theatre, State Theatre complex in Pretoria until September 24, at Aardklop National Arts Festival in Potchefstroom on October 3-7: https://aardklop.co.za/; and at the Fugard Theatre in Cape Town from October 17-November 11: thefugard.com

Angry black womxn

collectiveamnesia

THE FACT THAT this anthology of poems has to date sold over 2 000 copies, according to its publisher, attests to the need for inflammatory words of this nature, couched as they are, in the conventions of poetry and uttered by a young person – Koleka Putuma was born in 1993 and is an individual who wields the term ‘womxn’ with conviction and isn’t afraid to do so. It doesn’t however, mean that the work is completely flawless.

Peppered with incredibly beautiful and dangerous turns of phrase that shreds violence into laughter and duct tapes screams with staples, the 51 poems in this anthology take on the monster of memory: memory of being black and poor and a child, memory of the knowledge of violence perpetuated – against women, against queers, by religious values, by relatives – and memory that turns over the challenges of making sense of one’s body, one’s supporters and one’s terrors.

Unashamedly constructed in the first person, the work embraces everyone’s values and the popular political/cultural/historical references are as much about today and tomorrow as the newspaper or the internet might be. Indeed, the political edge is the nub of these works, which don’t claim to be poetic in the romantic sense, but pour themselves from Putuma’s keyboard into your sensibilities almost seamlessly.

The work is, however, slightly marred by subbing errors and a kind of self-conscious concreteness, where you see bullets used in the construction of a poem, words deleted, or words printed very lightly on the page. These render imminently readable poems into rubrics and games, and flaw the flow of the material, sometimes rendering them more list-like than poem like. But there are wordless poems in this anthology which vie with this kind of gimmick remarkably, raising them in astuteness and sophistication.

The work ‘Storytelling’, for instance, is footnoted: “How my people remember. How my people archive. How we inherit the world”, but it otherwise comprises a blank page, hits with a resounding force of devastating eloquence.

All these elements considered, Putuma is a voice to take notice of. Like the angry young men who populated early European Modernism, the proverbial fist she raises in fury and protest against the crooked way in which the world turns, for the voiceless people who live, love and die often ignominiously and anonymously, and against the heft of radical religious beliefs which can break the relationship between a parent and his homosexual child.

You may not have been schooled to read poetry – indeed, it remains the one literary form which still nurses a bad deal in terms of readability. But once you begin the foray into Collective Amnesia, it’s not only the way in which collective memory is thwarted and made to trip up by the universe that will grab you. Read aloud or not, the work flows rapidly, and the shifts and turns in Koleka’s focus horrify and traumatise you as they take you through forbidden sexual climax and into the realms of sexual violence. In short, you can read this cover to cover, or dip into it at will. But be warned: it’s angry poetry, unrelentingly premised on political assumption and the fire of youth.

  • Collective Amnesia by Koleka Putuma is published by uHlanga, Cape Town (2017).

Read this while it’s hot

Unpresidented

US PRESIDENT DONALD Trump invented the word “unpresidented” through his sloppy hold on the English language. He gave credence to the notion of alternative facts through his sloppy hold on ethics, and our very own President Jacob Zuma took the ball and has run with it, offering some of the most splendid material that contemporary humorists can cherry pick to create some of the most biting, hilarious and hard hitting comedy you can imagine. On this wave of impossible, yet real madness, Paige Nick has written Unpresidented which tears strips off current affairs, making you laugh in spite of the ugly way in which South African has been broken by “Number One”.

She niftily yet fairly obviously skirts around facts, constructing a “Muza” and a family of corrupt “Guppies” around the tale, characters who, so replete with grotesquely juvenile behaviour and naively dangerous repartee that you almost become fond of them, stripped, as they are, to reveal their silly bravado, grotesque understanding of the truth and utter inadequacy as adults. Nick pulls no punches in crafting characters who are believable in a comic book type of scenario: the most delicious being Bonang and Refilwe, the two remaining wives of Muza, who have used his time in jail to start new businesses for themselves and commandeer the ex-President’s former office.

It’s 2020, and Muza, the now ex-President of South Africa, has had his jail sentence reduced to house arrest on the compassionate strings pulled by an ingrown toe nail. A shamed journalist guilty of alternative facts in the telling of a story about a cancer patient, has landed the job of writing Muza’s memoirs, only the fallen icon in question has this annoying tendency to lie in such a bald-faced manner that the journo, a chap flawed by his own inadequacies and an overprotective, innocently racist mom, is utterly stymied. Add to the mix a Malawian drug dealer who gets a kick out of using Jewish slang, a series of double-double-crosses involving showerheads and lots of drugs, a couch stuffed with lots of money and a Homestead which has gone to wrack and ruin and you’ve a fabulous plot that will keep you riveted.

This fantastic tale of complicit behaviour, crooks which are almost too sillily villainous to believe (until you cast your eye back at the news), fashion design and tindering wives is a quick and delightful read which will have you in stitches, and there are passages in this material that are so perfectly made, they leap from the pages. It’s the kind of easy companion on the beach or commute, and it’s a refreshing take on a sordid state of affairs.

It makes reference to many scenarios which have trotted themselves out before our very eyes in the last few months, but doesn’t offer context and assumes that the reader knows the true horror of the situation to which South Africa has been privy. For this reason, it’s imperative that you read it now, while everything’s still simmering in the pot of misinformation, alternative facts and blatant shameless hustle.

Unpresidented: a Comedy of Errors by Paige Nick is published by N&B Books (2017), sales and distribution by www.bookstorm.co.za and www.booksite.co.za

Defiance in a place where there’s no darkness

suttner

AMID THE FLURRY of anti-Zuma material from across the board, this bracingly honest, almost painful to read reworking of a text that extrapolates on South Africa’s sense of humanity, stands out. Raymond Suttner was a bright young academic with great dreams for the liberation of this country, in 1975. That was the year in which he was first arrested by the apartheid government, for disseminating pamphlets that aimed to undermine the racist ideology. He first published the body of this text in 2002 – an account of the ten years in all, in which he was incarcerated, much of which was in solitary confinement, and detained without the possibility of trial whilst South Africa was in a State of Emergency.

The current version, revisited, some fifteen years later, is prefaced with a powerful and deeply angry introduction, which reflects on the politics of our time, right now – in a world where the leadership of organisations such as the ANC and the South African Communist Party are espousing values that makes someone as authentic and thoughtful, as committed and focused on the struggle as Suttner was, feel grotesquely betrayed, and he’s not afraid to say so.

It’s a hard-hitting and soulful extrapolation of the realities which we face right now as a society torn and bruised by corruption of our political leadership. For this, it is a very important work, and in the reading of it, you need to read the text from beginning to end, and then to read the introduction again. But further to that, Inside Apartheid’s Prison should be mandatory reading particularly for the generation of young adults – the so-called born-frees – coming into their own, as we speak. It offers lucid reflection on what was happening in this country through the brutality of apartheid and in its aftermath – and in doing so, it’s a readable work by a man who lived to tell the tale.

Suttner’s prose is clean of self-conscious rhetoric. It’s direct and unapologetically in the first person. And in the material, he offers you a revealing and frank self-portrait as he includes many letters which he sent to his close family and friends during the horrendous years of his incarceration. At times difficult emotionally to read, these are missives which make you privy to devastatingly private moments between a mother and her son, between a brother and a sister, a brother and a brother … moments that offer you insight into the very depths of horror in an apartheid jail – the torture, the isolation, the loneliness, the emotional crumbling and the very real attempts to hold it all together, with the aid of literature, sport and relaxation techniques.

Reading it, you are given to understand the damage that incarceration of this nature inflicts on the identity of an individual, and also the extent of privations inflicted on the prisoner – gestures of cruelty that cause – and are designed to cause – the fabric of a psyche to fray.

It’s a tale of a red-cheeked love bird called ‘JB’ (JailBird), and of a half grown female rabbit – animals that feel surreally out of place in the hard and grey and unrelenting environments of a South African prison cell. In being about the psychology and the emotions, as much as it is about the politics, it is a book that has deep soul. It’s a troubling, haunting read, but a vital one: Above all else, it’s a work of truth to values: the writing is pure and remains candidly and vigorously defiant throughout.

  • Inside Apartheid’s Prison by Raymond Suttner is published by Jacana Media, Johannesburg (2017).
  • Suttner is in conversation with Emilia Potenza (curator of the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg) at the Rabbi Cyril Harris Community Centre in Oaklands, on June 28, at 19:30. Booking: Hazel or René 011 728 8088 or 011 728 8378 (after hours); email rchcc@telkomsa.net or rene.s@telkomsa.net or visit www.greatpark.co.za

Here’s looking at you. And you. And you.

Recognition.jpgTHERE’S SOMETHING UNMISSABLY effervescent about a beautifully written short story. It has not only to do with its brevity, but with the way in which its writer crafts a whole universe in a few pages. And with a particularly good short story, it’s a universe replete with everything, a universe that will haunt you forever. This is the kind of experience you can anticipate with David Medalie’s latest anthology of South African short stories, Recognition.

There is not one of these hand- picked, lovingly formed tales that glares out for being under par or without a voice of its own. Cohesively, this anthology offers a uniquely South African voice. It is beautifully crafted, in spite of the fact that stories deal with a wide range of issues, from feeling unwanted to being broken, from remembering abuse to articulating violence. It’s a series of tales which give you insight into the soul of South Africa, from its youngest and most vulnerable to its oldest and most hard done by.

These 22 stories by a range of South African authors – living and dead, contemporary and historical – are powerful testimonies to our ability, as South Africans, to laugh and cry, disparage truths and describe things as they are. It’s the kind of collection that you must take a breath from, every now and then, so that you can keep the memory of each story pristine in your heart and not allow them to merge.

Loosely bound by the notion of recognition, the focus of this anthology splays wide across the Karoo as it burrows into the poorest, most humble township homestead. It’s a discourse about robbers frightened in rich estates and Muslims who digress from their faith and their family, and a series of essays on hunger and meeting strangers on a train. It’s about what might happen to the widows of apartheid’s leaders, and how a blanket feels to a man who has nothing.

Many of the stories are written in the first person, but this is not to say that they are autobiographical. This is South African fiction at its finest, offering you a taste of everything in a rich and fulsome smorgasbord. Medalie is to be celebrated for putting together this brand new collection – on some levels, it evokes Encounters, a book of South African short stories, also selected and edited by Medalie, that slipped into school curricula and first saw light of day in 1998. Recognition is  the kind of book – if it does become part of South African school syllabuses – with which you know your children will be in safe hands, if they are taught with it, or gravitate toward reading it of their own accord.

As you read this book, many diverse South African voices will fill your head. The brilliance of Medalie’s curation of this selection means that it doesn’t self-censor or mute itself around terminology that is no longer considered acceptable. It doesn’t skew itself apologetically away from racist caricatures or perspectives articulated by writers or their characters. It tells it like it is. And it gives the kind of recognition to South Africans large and small, rich and poor, good and evil, that we all need to read.

  • Recognition: An Anthology of South African Short Stories selected edited by David Medalie is published by Wits University Press, Johannesburg (2017). It features stories by Herman Charles Bosman, Achmat Dangor, Nadia Davids, HIE Dhlomo, Ahmed Essop, Damon Galgut, Nadine Gordimer, Dan Jacobson, Alex La Guma, Mandla Langa, Wamuwi Mbao, David Medalie, Kobus Moolman, Njabulo S. Ndebele, Lindiwe Nkutha, Pauline Smith, Can Themba, Miriam Tlali, Chris van Wyk, Mary Watson, Zoë Wicomb and Makhosazana Xaba.

How to make them come back for more

FreeAssociation

STEVEN BOYKEY SIDLEY has a most engaging gift. His writing flows with congruency and cunning, dipping and splashing through conceptual bumf, popular rhetoric and conventional trends, with wisdom and ease. It is searingly witty and hard-edged and reads with a fluency that makes you not want to put it down as it cuts to the heart of sacred cows in every paragraph. The narrative he constructs in this, his latest novel, plays with the values of the social-media-heavy world in which we exist, turning it this way and that, stretching its possibilities and madnesses tight and exposing its underbelly in a way which puts the reader in amongst the ‘in-crowd’. You know the flaws of the character, you recognise the secrets of his heart, and you’re there just to see how it all fits together.

And thus you get to meet Max Lurie. He’s a podcaster of 33 with credentials and history but scant self-belief as a therapist. A Los Angeles-based Woody Allen-type character, he’s excruciatingly self-deprecating. And often annoyingly so. Sometimes callous, he’s a loving son and brother who often masks his vulnerability with sheer bravado. During the slice of Lurie’s life that Sidley exposes us to, he’s rattled from side to side by issues of sex and others of lies, by violence and cruelty and by plots that don’t always pan out exactly as you might anticipate they do.

The book is constructed of interspersed podcasts and chapters which build up the narrative spine of the text very well, enabling you, as the reader, to engage with what Lurie’s listenership is being exposed to, not to forget the truths which he dilutes and dresses up in making them more palatable to said listeners. There’s a potent South African link in Lurie’s producer, a young man by the name of Bongani Maposa, who immigrated to the States and has found himself a niche and has the wordage to justify his every move and is not afraid to use it.

Then there’s a love interest with a shaven head and a tight grip on UX technology, and a couple of characters which are cast around the rapidly shifting world of hits and likes, shares and the ability to grab audience attention. Oh, and there’s also a schizophrenic homeless guy who is most likely a scientific genius, whose also the lynch pin in a tale that goes in a direction you really won’t expect.

But more than a tale about a man who makes his living out of entertaining a public to listen to his personal diatribes about nothing – the kind of thing for which Seinfeld is famous – the novel is a critique of the vanities of our world. Loosely drawing on the idea of free association which made the surrealists famous last century, his is a terrain where anything goes. It’s bitingly acerbic and surprisingly gentle in its engagement with everything from the Deep Web to Alzheimer’s. An illegal fire arm is tossed into the mix, as is a vial of Nembutal, the suicide drug.

This book, like Sidley’s play Shape, which he wrote with Kate Sidley in 2016, is an unabashed product of today. It engages with all the issues that are so central to the multiple personality disorders characteristic of our era, with charm. Words get inserted into characters’ mouths that enable them to reflect with wisdom and naiveté about the splendid and mesmerising cacophony of values and complete moral conundrums that this world is heir to. Free Association doesn’t let go until the last page: even the issue of misery making better ‘art’ than happiness comes under Sidley’s loupe, as he tears strips off the preciousness with which contemporary society views itself.

It’s a bracing novel, which dismantles nostalgia willy-nilly. Beautiful in its tightness and flippant in its sense of self, this kind of writing does fall in danger of becoming too slick, but Sidley keeps this aspect reined in. It’s a tight, easy read which has long and deep conceptual and contextual threads. You won’t be disappointed.

  • Free Association by Steven Boykey Sidley is published by Picador Africa (2017).