Judge this man by his suit

thesuit

LOVE me tender: Philemon (Siyabonga Twala) with Matilda (Zola Nombona). Photograph courtesy The Market Theatre.

EVERY SO OFTEN, a piece of literature is crafted which is simply perfect – in its character development, in its narrative structure, in how the language fits together. Nadine Gordimer’s short story The Train from Rhodesia (1952) is one of those. As is the chapter in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina about the horse. And Can Themba’s story The Suit, is another, unequivocally.

Every so often, theatre gurus get together to give theatrical life to a written masterpiece, and sometimes they get it right. It is, indeed, a true rarity for the performed version to meet the written version with such patent values of respect and artistry, that you must hold your breath when you watch it, because you know you are in the presence of true greatness. This happens in this version of The Suit, which has just enjoyed a Market Theatre season.

As you walk into the theatre, you are accosted on two fronts: the seating is arranged as though for a tennis match: audiences are ranged facing one another. This has been done before in different Market Theatre venues and it poses curious and somewhat unnecessary challenges on the audience.  And then, there’s a huge door as a part of the set. It dominates the work with a crazy kind of bombast that alludes to the French windows of a large house. It’s an effective entrance point to the tale, but poses an anachronism – the characters are living in Sophiatown in the 1960s. There are no big double doors in the lower middle income context extrapolated here. Further to that, there are some odd decisions which see the work’s text transposed in projection onto the work.

These issues are ones which you forgive as soon as the cast begins to perform. And you forgive them, because each cast member is so finely focused on the ethos of the character he or she represents, that you have no more space in your consciousness to think of anything but the tale they tell.

It’s a violent story of psychological cruelty, featuring a suit which is dramatised to sinister levels. The tale is a tragedy, but one not unconscious to the magnificence of the music of the era or the dress culture. This work – along the lines of Dominique Gumede’s Crepuscule – is a adulation of sheer beauty in a time of unmitigated horror, against the backdrop of the cruelty of apartheid.

Matilda (Zola Nombona) is a young woman with dreams to be someone more than just a wife. But then she meets and marries the beautiful Philemon (Siyabonga Twala) and becomes the envy of all her peers. But while he goes out to work, she becomes bored and lonely. And she digresses. And is caught. And she is punished in a way that lends a banal object – the suit in question – a level of horror akin to what Alfred Hitchcock did with sparrows in his film The Birds (1963).

While there are astoundingly fine performances on the part of Twala and Nombona , something has to be said for the magnificent performance of Molefi Monaise, who, within a few seconds of character development, is able to offer such a rounded reflection of the character he represents that his uncharacteristic silence on the bus that preempts the unfolding of the whole drama, chills you to your very bones.

A work of devastating subtlety, of the style and wisdom we saw in The Suitcase written by Es’kia Mphahlele and also directed by Ngcobo a couple of years ago, which also featured Twala in the lead, The Suit is hauntingly unforgettable. Featuring exquisite choreography by Luyanda Sidiya, it offers unvoiced reflection on the Matilda character’s alter-ego. Danced by Lesedi Motladi, it’s an aspect to this work which lends mystery and tender fragility to a story wrenched with betrayal and violence.

The season of this important work coincided with Africa Day, but it’s a work of such wisdom and value that it begs for a longer season.

  • The Suit is written by Can Themba and adapted for stage by Mothobi Mutloatse and Barney Simon. It is directed by James Ngcobo and features design by Luyanda Sidiya (choreography), Richard John Forbes (set), Thapelo Makgosi (lighting), Ntuthuko Mbuyazi (sound) and Sue Sey-Steele (costumes). It was performed by Molefi Monaise, Lesedi Motladi, Andile Nebulane, Lindani Nkosi, Zola Nombona and Siyabonga Twala, in a season at the Mannie Manim Theatre, Market Theatre complex in Newtown, from May 5-28. Visit markettheatre.co.za or call 011 832 1641.
Advertisements

Blacks and Blues

hallelujah

FUNEREAL energy: Bonga (Malibongwe Mdwaba) speaks at the burial of his friends.

THE HORROR OF hatred within a community comes firmly under the loupe in this important play, which boldly explores the underbelly and the universality of pain within a culture. Hallelujah! intertwines religious values with social bias, poetry with music and young voices with veteran ones. In short, it is an exceptional demonstration of skill on the part of its director, Fiona Ramsay.

Crisply structured, tightly engaged and beautifully rendered, this version of Hallelujah! is ingenious in its reflection on the potency of radio culture, which is the cipher for the heart of the story and the kernel of communication which forces its controversy on a public with its own views. Its set is simple and defined by clarity that conveys the retro directions in a contemporary era. From beige shoes with spats, to Brill crème, this is a work which feels like it’s the 1950s, but when you cast your eye and ear deeper into its tale and its values, you realise that it’s happening right now.

In 2000, Xoli Norman crafted this work which engages with the social monstrosity that has made so-called corrective rape (and murder) inflicted on black lesbians a real phenomenon. Horrifyingly, this phenomenon is still a part of our social fabric, almost 20 years later, and black lesbians remain vulnerable to the shards of a society broken by prejudice. This version of Hallelujah! digresses from the original production in that it has been reworked to accommodate several more characters. It also features poems written by Norman, specifically for this manifestation of the work.

Following the life of Bonga (Malibongwe Mdwaba), an aspirant poet, the play introduces you to his friends and his energies. One of his friends is a lesbian, named Lebo (Angelina Mofokeng). She’s also a poet and has a partner, Thandi (Mamodibe Ramodibe) and a young child. Passionately aware of the complexities her life’s realities bring, Lebo is central to the work, and carries a frisson of potency wherever she appears on stage. She’s deeply sensitive to insult, is patently aware of how bias and patronising comments slip into casual conversation and knows that her path is fraught with horror.

And it is upon the unthinkable manifestation of this horror that the play turns. Death and anger are the seeds sown in a drama that touches as sensitively on the stupid brutality of bias and hatred in a specific community as it paints a deeper image of the senselessness of baseless hatred – be it for another’s gender, skin colour or any other so-called leveller.

But the importance of this work is not only about the story it tells. In showcasing the skill of Wits student performers, alongside the pianism of the inimitable Tony Bentel, it casts a light on young talent in a way that will make you sit up and take notice. Blending very young performers with the presence of a veteran pianist brings an internal magic to the work and Bentel’s grey hair and fluency at the keyboard lends him the gravity and the universality of the eternal man at the piano keys, who is effectively an outsider in the tale, and because of this becomes a narrator of sorts. Also, the device of using one instrument, as opposed to a trio not only sketches in implied musical outlines of the bar, the Blues genre and the atmosphere, but it brings the piano muscular presence in the work, along the lines of what Makhoala Ndebele achieved in his direction of Zakes Mda’s Mother of All Eating,  a couple of years ago.

The Hallelujah! season was brief, but its impact has been significant for student repertoire, specifically as well as that of South African theatre at large. Look at this list of student performers’ names. Remember them. It’s not the last you’ll be seeing of them onstage.

  • Hallelujah! is written by Xoli Norman and directed by Fiona Ramsay. It features design by Daniel Philipson, Jemma-Clare Weil and Teneal Lopes (set) and Daniel Philipson (sound and light). It performed by Tony Bentel, Bhekilizwe Bernard, Harry Adu Faulkner, Ziphozonke Sabelo Gumede, Megan Martell, Sandile Mazibuko, Bathandwa Mbobo, Malibongwe Mdwaba, Angelina Mofokeng, Ulemu Moya, Mamodibe Ramodibe, Rose Rathaga and Kopano Tshabalala, at the Downstairs Theatre, Wits University complex, Braamfontein, until May 27. Visit wits.ac.za/witstheatre, www.webtickets.co.za or call 011 717 1376.
  • For a comment on the social context of this play, read this.

Me and my jazz guitar on the brink of hell

 

Coco.jpg

Beginning like a mashup of Oskar’s shenanigans in Günter Grass’s Tin Drum and the gently crass lyrics of 1940s band Spike Jones and the City Slickers, the autobiography of Berlin-born jazz guitarist Coco Schumann reflects prosaic insight into the European Holocaust. It gives life to the adage that when the world is on fire, all you must do is carry on carrying on.

The book is a translation – it was originally published in 1997 in German and is translated into English here by John Howard – and it is written not by a writer, but by the man who lived through this historical kaleidoscope, and for this reason, it is fairly ordinary read. The dramatic context in which Schumann grew and played music is allowed to bubble on its own historical momentum rather than through the craft of description.

With each chapter named in honour of a jazz standard: How High the Moon, Summertime, Razzle Dazzle and Autumn Leaves, Schumann’s realisation of the stigma of his Jewish identity, his assignation to Auschwitz and his arrival at Theresienstadt where he was successful in starting his band, the Ghetto Swingers, are tucked away between the interstices of the music.

While Schumann’s writing style is understated and peppered with details of domesticity, living as we are, two generations from the reality of the Holocaust, something is lost in the placing of Michael H Kater’s informative afterword as an afterword.

The son of a Jewish woman and an Aryan man, Schumann was according to Jewish tradition, Jewish. According to Nazi tradition, he was not a full Jew, but Jewish enough to be killed. Having found his “grandmother” of a guitar, Schumann played music through arguably one of modern Europe’s most hateful periods, and not only did he live to tell the tale, but he played music through the war, and still does.

From an explanation of his hated Jewish identity to the horror of Kristallnacht, his entry into Theresienstadt, a ghetto moulded by the Nazis for PR, to his meeting the notorious Josef Mengele at the doors of Auschwitz, Schumann’s life story describes many circles of dreams awakening, being crushed and brought to life again. Ultimately, it is a satisfying read offering strong insight into the horrors of war, but more significantly, the fierce determination to keep one’s dreams flourishing.

  • The Ghetto Swinger: A Berlin Jazz-Legend Remembers by Coco Schumann is published by Doppelhaus Press Los Angeles (2016).

Paisley, graves, some drumming and time

trophee

REMEMBRANCE of things past: Trophee. Photograph courtesy Rudi van der Merwe.

THE SCENE IS set for something utterly extraordinary. Quietude pervades. There’s a tight row of wooden crosses, standing plunged into the ground. And the riffs of sound filter through the space, subtly at first and then with richer resonance. You’re on high alert. You don’t know what might happen. And then the corner of your eye is snagged on something that you can’t believe you’re looking at. It dances. It twirls. It looks like a giant in a Victorian frock. A faceless one. The percussion runs in tandem with its movements. And as you look, there’s another. And another. And they’re coming towards you, in their own ponderous, gestural way. Thus begins Trophée, a detailed and moving experience about loss of life, the values of trophy hunting and what war means in our world.

If you think of the opening scenes of Günter Grass’s Tin Drum – or even the 1979 film version directed by Volker Schöndorff – where a young woman dressed in several large skirts sits on the stubby field of a farm, and eats potatoes that she has just roasted over a fire, something of that earnest madness is conveyed in Trophée. Perhaps it has to do with the sweeping and searing soundscape created by Béatrice Graf, perhaps it has to do with the land so deeply invested in meaning, populated by these three dancers in their big dresses. Either way, there is an ethos of the imminence of war. The land seems thick with expectation, and suppurating with deep-seated blood. And it’s a strange thing: here you’re sitting on the roughly mown soccer field of the National School of the Arts in Braamfontein. There isn’t a war going on. This land isn’t so invested in meaning. But the site specificity of this haunting and beautifully designed work takes your head and heart and simply shifts its values completely. And this land becomes any land. A place of battlefields and the spilling of blood.

As the piece unfolds, which sees some unbelievably beautiful drumming that will set you afire, conjoined with the displacement of grave markers that evokes some of the powerful scenes of poppies and grave markers in Richard Attenborough’s Oh! What a Lovely War, there’s an interleaving of heraldic  symbolism and metaphors of acquisition. The dancers’ gender doesn’t matter; they represent  women: The widows and mourners in the face of war. There’s an elephant evoked and World War helmets covered in thick white lace that offer a sinister and persona-less reflection. The figures wear glittery paisley over their big skirts, vessels for so much by way of gesture and movement.

Several years ago, Dance Umbrella offered platform to an extraordinary French work involving an industrial trench digger ‘dancing’ to the sound of Maria Callas singing. For many seasoned Dance Umbrella audience members, this was a pinnacle in the festival’s history thus far. It was something that became a touchstone to what Dance Umbrella could be about. The wisdom and subtlety, drama and quietude of Trophée stands alongside that trenchdigger in a gesture that touches on so many soft spots in our understanding of ourselves and this world in which we exist, and in doing so, doesn’t attempt to offer silly platitudes or crass observations. It just is. And that is what matters.

Can the Dance Umbrella possibly maintain this level of fine sophistication and engaging beauty throughout this, its 29th annual festival? So far, so good.

  • Trophée is choreographed by Rudi van der Merwe in collaboration with Susana Panadés, featuring design by Kata Tóth (costumes), music (Béatrice Graf) and Victor Roy (scenography). It was performed by Claire-Marie Ricarte, József Trefeli and Rudi van der Merwe in the National School of the Arts Soccer Field, on February 25 and 26 as part of Dance Umbrella 2017. Visit www.danceforumsouthafrica.co.za or call 011 492 0709

Visual riffs, beautiful portraits

jazzuary

SIMPLY MAGNETIC: Artist Proof Studio’s Bambo Sibiya’s portrait of jazz great Hugh Masekela.

How do you blend jazz – an abstract but very specific musical genre – with visual art? On one level, it seems natural – the idea of some cool riff being translated into a glorious autographic line – but when you think of an art audience, will this gel? Will this be meaningful to everyone who looks at the work? The project might make you think of the powerful collages of veteran artist Sam Nhlengethwa, but curator Tumi Tlhoaele clearly comes from the next generation in her competent and cool straddling of the chalky line between beautiful images and fabulous sounds, in putting together a real gem of a show that coincides with the Jazzuary Masterclass hosted by radio station Kaya fm.

The exhibition features the work of seven visual artists; the brief was premised on the work of jazz greats such as Philip Tabane, Hugh Masekela, Johnny Dyani, Letta Mbulu, Louis Moholo-Moholo, Pat Matshikiza and Winston Mankunku Ngozi, each artist was told to make work that “responds to, reflects upon and interprets the music.”

Dangerously wide, in a sense, but one that has been resolved satisfyingly, in the most part. As you enter the space, which is part white cube, part jazz venue – there are Drum covered pillowcases and a worn in leather settee, with a cat on it that is quite territorial – you are assailed in the best possible way by Bambo Sibiya’s beautiful and magnetic drawing of jazz great Hugh Masekela. Blending friendly and explorative draftmanship with paintings, different circular reflections of South Africa’s leaders and icons behind Masekela’s wise and wonderful face, this is an important work which in its ambit and reach fills the whole oblong space of the Res Gallery.

Effectively, it is such a strong work that it could easily erase the presence of everything else on show, with its captivating sense of life. You look into Masekela’s charcoal eyes and you can hear his music. From this great work, it feels like a bit of a come down to engage with the more abstract works of artists such as Palesa Mopeli who works with rubber innertube, constructing sculptural networks that slither and glide against the wall and suspended from the ceiling. They resonate with the influence of Nicholas Hlobo’s approach but relate fairly abstractly to the exhibition’s underlying theme.

Malcolm Jiyane’s reflection on jazz is about crowds of moving people, indicated with an energetic sense of visual rhythm. A multi-instrumental jazz artist, Jiyane’s small but intense pieces whorl with implied sound and jiggling bodies, but you need to stand up close to grasp their visual impact. They do not call you in from the street.

Energy is, similarly what drives and holds the painted works of Layziehound Coka and Ayanda Mabulu. The latter’s large political piece draws together many reflections from a reference to the French Revolution to complex and grotesque layers that deal with sacrifice and bloodshed. It’s a large work, too big for the position it holds in the gallery, and its loudness prevents you from looking from far enough or near enough. Further, while there’s nothing wrong with the work itself, it’s a bit of a hard-to-read anachronism in the context of this exhibition.

And if you feel nostalgic for the work of Nhlengethwa, look at that of Neo Matloga. Indulging in collage like Nhlengethwa, Matloga doesn’t run too closely to the veteran artist’s metaphors. Rather, he constructs his own in a series of relatively small, deliciously quirky collages which really make you want to dance.

But then, there’s the work of Neo Mtsoma, which answers all those unasked questions raised by Sibiya’s piece, about the portraits of the jazz performers themselves. In this body of work, you see a dignified digression from the abstract playfulness of the more autographic pieces. You see the honour and the passion, the loneliness of the performer on stage, and the ugly beauty of the effort to make great music.

  • Considering Genius is curated by Boitumelo Tlhoaele. It comprises work by Layziehound Coka, Malcolm Jiyane, Ayanda Mabulu, Neo Matloga, Palesa Mopelia, Neo Ntsoma and Bambo Sibiya. It is on show at the Res Gallery in Rosebank, until January 28. Call 011 8804054 or visit resgallery.com or http://www.jazzuary.fm