Hedwig takes it all the way


OPEN wide: Paul du Toit is Hedwig. Photograph courtesy Pieter Toerien Theatre.

YOU KNOW THAT headache you get when you are grinding your teeth really energetically to ensure that the outer chaos doesn’t make your whole head implode? That is the kind of feeling you may emerge with when you exit Hedwig and the angry inch. It’s a mash up of 1970s David Bowie dress-up values with the fierce weirdness of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, a splash of the aesthetic of Priscilla Queen of the Desert and a generous heaped tablespoon of the kind of stuff that Pieter-Dirk Uys used to fuel Evita Bezuidenhout’s sinister Nazi sister, Bambi Kellerman. Does this make it a transgender anthem? In spite of rave reviews the world over, this is not a certainty.

Telling the story of an East European cabaret singer with a horrid past and a botched sex change operation, it’s a tale of love and disappointment, abuse and self-deprecation, filled to the brim with sexual innuendo. Its hammer comes down not only on the biases tilted at the gender-uncertain,  but on everything and everyone else as well. The Holocaust, epileptics and deaf children are part of the butts in the jokes repertoire and they reach so far down in the bin of distaste that there’s almost a turnabout in your knee-jerk reaction to be offended. Do you laugh, though? Or do you feel the smile freezing horribly on your face?

You don’t get the space to think about that, because on top of all this wretched and ragged humour, are vicious lashings of strobes, in a theatre where the sound is about seventeen times bigger than the space itself. The casualty, as always, becomes the intelligibility of the lyrics, which is a pity – those that you do hear are tight and bitter, strong and wicked.

And while Genna Galloway and Paul du Toit shine unequivocally in their complex genderised roles which dodge stereotypes and stir up discomfort, with humiliation and cruelty spread all around with abandon, there’s just so much of a sensory assault in this work that something of the wit and the wisdom, the schlock and the social critique that you know it embodies feels lost.

It’s staged in a fantastic set that brings all the mess and unglamour, the grubby clutter of a caravan and a drag artist’s sense of self to the fore, where barely an inch of space is left bare. The band performs from above the set and the work is outrageously cluttered with shocking pink spangly stuff, vinyl records and washing pegged on lines.

The songs in this work are potent with potential. They present quirky narratives that resonate with tales from Ovid; and there’s a moment of hand-drawn animation which will make you stop in your tracks to adore it.

A work which leaves you rushing home in a quest for painkillers, but also one that opens your head and eyes to war narratives which have not yet been explored on a popular platform, Hedwig and the angry inch is a strong show with a weak sense of the power of gimmicks. It leaves you pondering what it would feel like if du Toit and Galloway were allowed to wow their audience without the dazzle and flash of the technology.

  • Hedwig and the angry inch is written by John Cameron Mitchell and directed by Elizma Badenhorst. It features creative input by Stephen Trask (music and lyrics), Wessel Odendaal (musical direction) and Niall Griffin (production design), is performed by Paul du Toit and Genna Galloway until April 1 at the Pieter Toerien Theatre, Montecasino complex, Fourways. Call 011 511-1818.

He who turns battered pianos into Formula Ones


TEA with Gershwin: Pianist Charl du Plessis in conversation. Photograph by Robyn Sassen.

HE’S DEVASTATINGLY SUAVE but quietly spoken; he’s funny and earnest at the same time and when he sits at the piano, the world becomes a friendlier place. Meet Charl du Plessis who performs a week-long season at Auto and General Theatre on the Square in Sandton, this week. This Steinway artist who performs with Nataniël and has his own trio is the magic ingredient in any music line up. He recently chatted to My View about the magic of Gershwin, the vagaries of self-promotion and the wonder of straddling jazz and classics, to say nothing of the treasures you can find in a piano’s belly.

Trained classically both locally and abroad, du Plessis’s knack at improvisation is arguably the wizardry that makes his work fly. Nearly 10 years ago, he formed a jazz trio – which today comprises Werner Spies on bass and Peter Auret on drums.

“We started playing the kind of jazz you would find anywhere else in the world. And then something strange began to happen. Over the years in my repertoire, classics and jazz started to merge. More and more. Eventually, I realised I quite like taking classical music and turning it into a kind of jazzy sound, but still keeping the inherent quality of the original classical music. It sort of stimulates both markets.

“Jazz people like it, because they can understand and it opens the doors to classical music for them. And the classical music lovers recognise Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, or Air on a G string by Bach, and all of a sudden it’s new and fresh and they have a smile on their face. I’m not the first person to do something like this, but I have had success with it, and it’s certainly artistically gratifying for me.

“I can play Chopin or Bach, but so can hundreds of other pianists. I like to give the music my own flavour in a sophisticated way so that it is never easy. It is never rommel trommel in the corner of a restaurant kind of thing. It is something distinct, which people like.”

Born and raised in Bloemfontein, du Plessis went to Grey College. After school, he studied piano under Joseph Stanford at Pretoria University and then honed his craft in Texas and Zurich. He returned to South Africa close to 20 years ago.

“The first person who gave me a full time job, back then, was Nataniël, the singer and stage personality; I still work with him. I have learnt so much from him in terms of his unrelenting work ethic. His standards are very high in terms of what he offers his public, always.

“He once said: If you live in a country where you weren’t born, sometimes it’s difficult to really make a contribution because people see you as a foreigner. And this is so true: Even though playing piano essentially has no language, the problem is that there is a matter of being able to contribute a little more. And that’s why I am still here.”

Piano was du Plessis’s first professional instrument. But “when I was little – before my voice broke, I used to sing. So the voice was my first instrument of making music. And then I played piano as well, but not so seriously, and then my voice broke and I was like: ‘Oh hell! What am I going to do now?!’

“I tried to play a bit of organ at university, but the piano was the only thing that really tickled me.”

Being a pianist who also does his own promotion is, he says, extremely difficult, but also quite liberating. “I am not the sort of artist who sits and practises and waits for the New York Philharmonic to phone me. They’ll never phone me because they don’t know I’m alive! But if I phone them, or if I do my own thing and make work for myself, then people are likely to say: ‘Yes, I think I’ve heard of you. Or I think I’ve heard your CD.’ The truth is, these days, it’s every man for himself.”

In 2010, du Plessis was named as Africa’s youngest ever Steinway artist, a status which comes with a responsibility to shine. But du Plessis has done more than shine. He’s given pianos new life, in the most astonishing of ways.

There’s a scene in the 2000 film Billy Elliott directed by Stephen Daldry in which a piano is chopped up into firewood. It’s like watching a murder. Du Plessis concurs. “A damaged piano is like a battered or neglected wife. And the value of a bit of a makeover or a visit to the hairdresser is huge.”

His playing tours all come with a bit of a side-show in which the piano is taken apart. “This developed out of my travels to different concert halls, where sometimes the pianos are in terrible shape,” he says. “I asked Ian Burgess-Simpson, a Steinway-trained technician, to come on board as a doctor who would resuscitate pianos all across the country.”

This healing process was conducted free of charge. “It comprises a tuning – which is like putting petrol into a car – with a full service, which is about going into the machine and replacing stuff, and fixing stuff … and you know what? We’ve had such incredible response from the instruments which were okay – they were satisfactory, and then all of a sudden, they’ve become Formula One racing cars.

“The venues are very happy to have this tour because it benefits them. But how does it benefit the audience? And that is how I thought of the idea of taking the piano apart in front of the audience. When we played in Cape Town for example, one old lady came to me with tears in her eyes. She said ‘I have been a member of this concert club for maybe 15 years. I have never been allowed to see the piano close up. I’ve never even touched it. I’ve never been allowed to go on stage, let alone see the inside.’

“We live in a society in which we can google everything. People don’t like not knowing. They want to open things up and find out how they work. With the piano, I invite people in. I talk, I explain the piece I play, so that it’s not all formal.”

The composer headlining the season at Auto and General Theatre on the Square this week is George Gershwin. “I love him,” Du Plessis is unequivocal. “He’s the universal standard for everyone from jazz saxophonists to opera singers to classical pianists. Gershwin’s one of those guys with one foot in the world of classics, one foot in the world of jazz, and people respect him for that.”

It’s a mixture of musical respect, intimate knowledge of the work and humour, not to mention improvisational fire that will make you fall in love with du Plessis.

How to realise you are beautiful


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

Pearls from a mandolin

Alon Sariel

Who could ask for anymore more than a mandolin in the palm of your hand: Israeli-born mandolinist Alon Sariel visits South Africa this month. Photograph courtesy http://www.letsgo.co.za

HISTORY WILL TELL you the mandolin’s popularity has wavered. It played second fiddle to the fiddle. And when the guitar came into fashion, the mandolin was subject to design modifications, forcing it to take a path less travelled. But good stuff always rises to the surface: When the powers that be put a mandolin into the hands of Alon Sariel, it grabbed him by the heart and the fingers and hasn’t let go. He chatted to My View from Germany last weekend, prior to his brief South African tour.

He tells the story of his roots with the mandolin on his website.  To paraphrase, when he was eight, his world changed. Picture the scenario. It was the 1990s. He was the youngest of five children. His siblings were all teenagers. And the beat of rock and pop permeated his home. His parents decided he should learn music. “They tried all sorts of gym-oriented classes first (which were totally not for me!),” he quips. “But then they gave me the choice of music.” But what instrument would it be?

“An electric guitar!” was his unequivocal unmoderated eight-year-old choice. But the music conservatory he was to learn at wasn’t convinced, quailing at the idea of a child making electric guitar riffs with abandon, and “They offered me the mandolin instead. ‘It’s just like a guitar,’ they said.” They weren’t wrong. “It’s been my voice ever since,” says Sariel, who now in his early 30s, has wooed and wowed the music fraternity internationally, with many concerts recordings and international awards under his belt.

“Early on, I knew if I wanted to have an international career,” Sariel, who was born in the Israeli city of Beersheba, adds. He currently lives in Germany but doesn’t refer to himself as a German immigrant. “I don’t feel that connected to any piece of land – probably like many of my generation. I don’t feel more at home in Berlin than in New York and I think that I do have a mission in this world and it is to spread this music around.”

And the mandolin is small enough to be carried on one’s back, but he says “my instrument is the thing that goes before me, leading me to fascinating places.”

So, you may have been fortunate enough to have seen him perform with Camerata Tinta Barocca, under the baton of Erik Dippenaar, at St Andrews Church in Cape Town on February 7. If you did and you’re now in Gauteng, you’re in the right place. Sariel performs again for Brooklyn Theatre on February 10 and 11 and for Glenshiel on the evening of February 11.

Included in his repertoire in South Africa is a concerto by Emanuelle Barbella who would have celebrated his 300th birthday this year. “It’s a wonderful piece and I really enjoy playing it,” he says. “Barbella?” you might say. “Bar—who?” You might need to google ‘mandolin’, and come away with the belief that’s it’s all terribly old. You wouldn’t be wrong, but you shouldn’t assume it’s irrelevant. Or boring. Sariel says there is a fair amount of mandolin music being written today.

“It’s part of my goal. I try to commission work from living composers whose work I appreciate. Many of the great composers in the classical traditions, like Brahms or Schumann, ignored it. It wasn’t popular during their lifetimes. I wouldn’t like to see the mandolin fade into obscurity this century. So it’s my mission to get audiences to know and hear about this instrument.

“A few years ago,” he says, “I performed Gilad Hochman’s Nedudim (Wanderings). It’s a wonderful piece. It premiered in London, performed in Jerusalem and was recorded in Berlin. It’s garnered lots of attention. I love it because of the part of the mandolin: Some of it is improvised, some is written … when you listen to it, you may think you’re listening to an oud. The work really is a journey.”

Sariel says his biggest challenges are budgetary. “Not everyone is convinced yet of the value of the mandolin. Especially in today’s market when budgets are being cut, everyone wants to go for the secure thing. And the secure thing might well be Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto. Everyone knows it. People love it. It fills halls. If you start with new music with an instrument that is not very known, that doesn’t have a big core repertoire then it is always a risk.

“Some people are curious for something new; others are conservative,” he praises Brooklyn Theatre for being the impetus of his current SA tour and he admits, in spite of the challenges, it is about love: “I love to play the historical instruments. The mandolin of the 18th century is not the mandolin of the 19th century. And they both differ from the modern mandolin.”

In his recordings, he tries to remain true to the original by playing composition, but describes the challenge of accessing an historical instrument as considerable. “Because the mandolin was never as respected as the violin, it wasn’t preserved with as much status as a Stradivarius, for instance. And it was corrupted, from a design and conservation perspective.”

Sariel delights in playing ‘the real thing’ and in finding “original pearls to add to my repertoire. It is a privilege to play these works to an audience who has not heard them before. I don’t shy from arrangements, however: that would be silly, as the mandolin’s repertoire is limited.”

His most recently published album, Telemandolin comprises music arranged to feature the voice of the mandolin. “Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767) didn’t write for mandolin. He just is one of my favourites.”

Sariel brings three programmes to South Africa. Why? “If you have to tour with Tchaikovsky and Beethoven and Alban Berg, it’s a lot to keep in your head or suitcase. I know people often tour with the same programme. But in my case, the concerti are ten minutes and I know them well.

“Bach has it all,” he concedes, when pushed for the composer he would choose to play if he could only choose one. “It’s impossible to describe why in words. I need to just play his work. It’s like he knew all the music he made before and after him.”

  • Sariel performs at the Brooklyn Theatre, Menlo Park, February 10-11. Visit brooklyntheatre.co.za or call 012 460 6033.
  • He also performs at Glenshiel, 19 Woolston Road, Westcliff on the evening of February 11. Call Saul Bamberger: 083 414 0041 or visit Olde ‘n New Recitals on Facebook.
  • In addition, he performs the Valentine’s Concert at Brooklyn Theatre, Menlo Park in Pretoria on February 14 @ 19:00. It’s called Mandolino Napolitano — Neapolitan Love Songs and features Sariel in collaboration with Salon Ensemble, featuring accordion, piano and cello and musical arrangements by Willem Vogel. Visit www.brooklyntheatre.co.za or call 012-460-6033.
  • On February 18, he performs in Stellenbosch at the Oude Libertas Summer Season Festival.
  • His published recordings will be on sale at the performance venues.

The woman who sees the world through her piano


MY ‘black sailing ship’ and I: Lithuanian-born pianist Muza Rubackyte only needs to touch a piano to feel at peace with the world. Photograph by Christine de Lanoe (Geneva).

YOU MIGHT BE forgiven for thinking the Johannesburg Musical Society in association with the Johannesburg International Mozart Festival has somehow managed to bring out Meryl Streep to perform its first concert of the year. You’d be mistaken; Lithuanian pianist Mūza Rubackytė brings not only her classic facial features to South Africa, and she is, indeed, a bit of a Streep dead-ringer, but she also brings her flawless technique, which will dazzle you completely. Last week, she took the time to chat to My View, from her home in Paris.

Hers is a story of piano love and the need to earn an international reputation not once, but twice. It’s about the privilege of working with beautiful music, and above all, of being at home in the world.

“I was born into a family of musicians,” she says, explaining that her first name, Mūza, is a derivation of the Greek term ‘muse’: it’s like her family knew her talents before she was born. “The challenge was to find out which instrument to put into my hands. My mother and her sister were pianists and my father, an opera singer.”

They put a violin into her toddler hands. They got her to sing. She smiles. “I played a lot of instruments as a child; my preference was always piano. I grew up in a house full of pianos. My aunt taught students in the house. For me it was fantastic to be a part of that world. I asked my aunt to add me to the list of her students, so that I could be like the ‘big’ people.”

She wasn’t that big when she debuted: She first played in public with the national philharmonic orchestra of Lithuania when she was seven. And the die, it seems, was cast for a brilliant career.

But growing up under a Communist regime, even after 19 very serious and focused years of music study, she was still a big fish in a small pond. Or was she? She didn’t know. She was not allowed to leave the Communist Bloc to spread her wings.

By the time Gorbachev came into power, in the 1990s, the draconian laws had softened a bit and there was a possibility that she could travel to the west if it was with a plan to study.

“It felt like nonsense to me at the time, as I had studied for so long and achieved so much, already. The Tchaikovsky Conservatory of Moscow, which is still considered among the best in the world, was where I had learned my skills, but the one thing I felt was lacking in their teaching programme was French music.”

So in 1991, with a bid to spend 10 months studying French music, she left the Communist Bloc for the first time. “So, this was my beginning in the West,” she says. “It wasn’t difficult to integrate into western culture, because music is a universal language. But it was difficult to start my career again. In the West, no one knew my successes. I had to start again from nothing. It took me almost 10 years. I met the good people, step by step, but it was a tough time.”

She mentions how her win of the Grand Prix at the Liszt-Bartók International Piano Competition in Budapest in 1981 was not recognised by the music fraternity of the West. It took time, and hard work, but eventually, she won First Prize in the Concours International Les Grand Maîtres Français and she was back on track.

These days, Mūza commutes between Paris, Vilnius and Geneva, when she’s not travelling further afield for concert performances. What’s it like to be on the go all the time? “You need to like it,” she’s frank. “I like to escape from the routine, but being on the move has become a part of who I am. I cannot be at the same place more than three or five days. I get restless. To travel to faraway countries is extremely exciting for me. It’s snowing in Vilnius right now. Here – in Paris – it’s raining. And next, week I will be in hot South Africa.”

But it’s more than just weather. “I like to see the world,” she says. “I am like a shipman or a gypsy. I see the world through my piano. And it’s the happiest of careers for me: I get to travel to the big halls to meet new audiences. I get to live in high level music, and to touch fantastic composers – to understand them and transmit … it’s extremely exciting.”

“Nevertheless,” she adds, “I also adore ‘home sweet home’, where my beloved husband and I dance together, cook together and write together. We are writing an autobiography at the moment about my enchanted life. Often my husband joins me in my tours to live the strong moments in art and see the world together. It’s a real joy for us. The nature is also something that we both really need,” she says, anticipating South Africa’s warm climes and magnificent landscapes.

Acknowledging the complexity of a musician’s career – you may have the ability but what happens next: do you teach or compose? Record or travel? When do you practice? – Mūza composed prolifically until she was about 18-years-old. “There were lots of compositions for piano, for violin, for small ensembles. Doing this was part of my education, but finally, you must choose.

“Being a performer, you need lots of hours of music. It’s not only about playing the piano. It’s about travelling, organising, recording, publicity.” Rubackytė gives master classes wherever she goes. She’s a piano professor at Lithuania’s National Academy of Music and organises a big piano festival in Lithuania, now in its fifth year.

Next week, she performs works by Mozart, Beethoven and Schumann in Johannesburg. “The programme is my choice, but it complies with JIMF’s theme this year of opposites. Schumann’s Carnaval and his Arabesque illustrate a dual personality,” she adds.

With a life’s repertoire of about 40 concert programmes concertos, over 40 piano concertos and 30 recordings, Mūza remains hungry to learn more. At the beginning of the year, she went to her library and took out all the scores she would need for her concert fixtures. “It’s a pile like this,” she indicates a lot. “I cannot take scores in my luggage; they’re too heavy. I have to carry them in my head,” she grins.

She baulks at the idea of choosing a ‘favourite’ composer. “It’s all about the piano. I cannot be ‘vegetarian’ and choose one over another. The privilege of touching the piano is everything.”

Two years ago she was a jury member for the Unisa piano competition, in Pretoria. “It was marvellous. I invited the winner, Daniel Ciobanu, to this year’s Vilnius festival, so I have good souvenirs of your country.”

  • Mūza Rubackytė performs in a piano recital for the Johannesburg Musical Society and the Johannesburg International Mozart Festival at the Linder Auditorium, Parktown on February 3 at 8pm. Visit jms.org.za or www.join-mozart-festival.org for more details.
  • She also performs in Pretoria, on February 1, Knysna on February 6 and Cape Town on February 8. Visit muza.fr.
  • CDs of the programme she will perform in South Africa – recorded in Tokyo – will be on sale at her performances.

The consul, the child, his conscience, her piano


WHY I survived. Lina Kantor (Amato), storyteller. Photograph by Johnathan Andrews.

WHAT IS THE worst thing that can happen to a story about an historical atrocity? That it can be shunned? That it can be told too infrequently? That no one wants to experience it? None of these: the worst thing that can happen to a tale of atrocity is that it is told and retold and retold until its fire is dimmed by commonplace. Film maker Johnathan Andrews steps with sensitive wisdom around these pitfalls, to create something timeless and haunting in just 48 minutes.

Using direct personal interviews, with Lina Amato, the woman herself, who as an eight-year-old, knew that her life was being saved by the Turkish consul of the time, The Story of Holocaust Survivor Lina Amato contains no visual clichés of mass destruction or concentration camps. It has no voiceover, explaining the nature of the work, and attempting to frame and curate your response to it. There are no easy cues to weep. Rather, in a similar filmic understanding as that propagated by Claude Lanzmann in his immense and iconic extrapolation of the Holocaust, a over 10-hour-long documentary called Shoah (1985), Andrews offers his viewers insight into the intricacies and the horror of Lina Amato’s true story.

Currently resident in Cape Town, Amato is today a woman in her 80s. She speaks of the cultural wealth of her life in Rhodes Island, off the Turkish coastline where she was born in 1936. It’s a story that features interjections by SA Holocaust and Genocide Foundation director, Richard Freedman, which offers clear facts that give you context: War was approaching with a cloak of hatred that was to envelop even the smallest of little children.

But under that pall of destruction, enormous empathy was allowed to bubble and manifest in ways that a peaceful society could not contain. Lina tells of her parents’ Italian neighbours who adopted her and taught her to ‘be’ Christian in order to save her life. She tells of the decisions taken by the Turkish consol, Selahattin Ülkümen in 1944 to save whichever Jewish lives he could and of how an island “bathed in sunshine” and home to a tiny community of 3 800 Jews turned into a nightmare of uncertainty. Above all, it is the tough silences in her story that speak more deeply.

Further to this, music is threaded through the tale. Lina’s mother was a piano teacher, and her struggle to save her pianos is potent and legendary, making you think of Sophie’s Choice in the unforgettable story by William Styron. And this, together with a beautifully placed spot of Chopin – by way of his Prelude in A — hooks the film to the Mozart Festival’s focus.

It’s an absolutely beautiful piece of film, which, lasting but 48 minutes, offers a rich and deep understanding of the power of hate, but also the power of love in a world that has lost its moral compass. Further to all of this, the intelligent editorial decisions informing this film present understandings of the psychological effects of trauma, abandonment and guilt that are devastatingly potent in their understated handling.

  • The Story of Holocaust Survivor Lina Amato is directed by Johnathan Andrews and features Holocaust survivor Lina Kantor (Amato), SA Holocaust and Genocide Foundation Director Richard Freedman and Turkish Ambassador in South Africa Elif Çomoğlu Ülgen. Produced by (assistant) Angela Kate Jones, it features the sound engineering of Garrick Jones.
  • It will be screened in Johannesburg on January 27 2018 at the Space Frame Theatre, Education Campus, University of the Witwatersrand, in Parktown Johannesburg. Tickets are free of charge, but seating in the space is limited.
  • The DVD will be on sale at the screening, which is part of the Johannesburg International Mozart Festival, and commemorates International Holocaust Remembrance day, January 27.
  • Visit johnathan-andrews.com , www.join-mozart-festival.org and http://ja-inl.com
  • The DVD of this film may be purchased online through: https://unitedworldnation.org/product/the-story-of-lina-amato/ or https://goo.gl/gDoXCV 

Knocked out by King Kong


TOP of the world: King Kong (Andile Gumbi) stands his ground. Photograph by Jesse Kramer.

IT WAS THE show that launched the international careers of such performers as Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba and the Manhattan Brothers. King Kong. It’s been labelled iconic and groundbreaking, and frissons of its great potency filtered through the ether long before the Fugard Theatre’s season of this show took to the boards. A tale of love and boxing, with exquisite harmonies and clarinet riffs to make you weep, it saw light of day in 1959, changed the game plan of what musical theatre was in this country and has not been performed in entirety until now. Does this version do this glamorous history and all the urban myths around the work justice? In short, it doesn’t.

Skating on the momentum of the 1959 production of the show, this version of it has some truly beautiful moments and some utterly delicious performances, but you watch it and quietly wonder whether part of the work’s original charm did not perhaps have a lot to do with the novelty of being a show from apartheid-riddled Africa. Was it not perhaps the exoticism of the moment that gave Makeba and others their ticket to a real career?

Richly enfolded in the complicated beauty of the 1950s, in terms of clothing style, dance ethos and an energy of simmering protest peppered with a lot of racial legislation, this tale based on the life of boxer Ezekiel Dlamini is a cautionary one of hubris and talent. It’s a yarn that reflects on petty jealousies and the vulnerability of an ego in a world beset with tsotsis and small-town shebeen queens. It’s a series of love stories, interwoven with boxing successes and failures and one in which an idol is lionised and then destroyed by his own society.

But the work is less about the wows of the story. Billing itself as a jazz opera, it does, indeed feature, some beautiful music, which has shifted into classic South African status, and yet, as a musical entity, it doesn’t hold together tightly, and feels a little more like a play with music incidents.

Looking beyond the song and dance sequences, the performers are not supported by the creative team in a way that enhances their physical presence on stage. Whether it is odd lighting decisions, costumes with the dowdiness factor ramped up as far as possible, or peculiar staging instructions, something is lost in the capacity of performers such as Andile Gumbi (who plays the eponymous boxer) to hold the audience. You will love looking at him – he’s physically beautiful, but there’s something amiss in how he connects with the stage, the work and the audience. The more you look at him, the more it’s clear that this omission is not his fault; it rests on design decisions.

This is not the case, however, when it comes to Sne Dladla in the role of the barber, Pop, who tells the story. Known as a stand up comic in his own capacity, Dladla reveals a smooth sense of poetry in his delivery that you might not have experienced before; he embraces his character with a full heart that will have you yearning for more lines for him. Similarly, Dolly Louw, a member of the female ensemble. She exudes such delightful presence every time she’s on stage, that your heart and eyes drift in her direction and remain with her, lapping up her enthusiasm.

Lerato Mvelase in the role of Petal, the thwarted young lady with a very fond eye indeed for the King, is another case in point. Armed with an utterly magnificent voice, a dowdy cardigan and some horn-rimmed specs, she’ll make your ears prick up, but keep you guessing in terms of her stage persona. Opposite a magnificently voiced Nondumiso Tembe in the role of slinky, sexy Joyce, and balanced by the powerful vocal presence of Ntambo Rapatla as Miriam, there is beautiful harmony in the work, but it is not exploited visually.

Indeed, there are times when you look at this production and cannot see anyone in it. The lighting design is centralised and overall constantly leaves cast members in the dark. There’re moments where their singing voices reach with loneliness from darkened corners, taking time for you to realise who is actually performing.

But the biggest problem with this work which looms in your face throughout, is the set. As you take your seat in the theatre you might have a moment that teeters with your sense of orientation: it looks like you are in the Fugard Theatre.

And there’s the rub: the Fugard boasts a stage that is considerably smaller than that of the Mandela. It’s less deep, more vertical. The set, like a huge rusted machine with many different doors and hiding places, is very in-your-face. And clearly, it comes directly from the Fugard, with nary an alteration. Indeed, as such, it squeezes the breathing space out of the stage itself. And while there are moments where nuance is evoked in the pockets of the set, by and large, something is lost in the telling of this tale of greed and misfortune, ice creams and vulnerability, simply because everything is hammering on your eyeballs from the same distance.

Having said all of this, the live band, the boxing ring scenes and much of the choreography hold this work together with a compelling energy. You will leave the auditorium whistling the production’s theme songs, but not with the kind of fire in your heart or belly that comes of having seen true greatness.

  • King Kong: Legend of a Boxer is written for stage by Pat Williams based on the book by Harold Bloom, and directed by Jonathan Munby and Mdu Kweyama. It features creative input by Todd Matshikiza (original music), William Nicholson (additional lyrics), Charl-Johan Lingenfelder (additional music arrangements), Gregory Maqoma and Richard Lothian (choreography), Paul Wills (set), Tim Mitchell (lighting), Birrie Le Roux (costumes), Sipumzo Trueman Lucwaba and Charl-Johan Lingenfelder (musical directors) and Mark Malherbe (sound). It is performed by Sne Dladla, Rushney Ferguson, Andile Gumbi, Ben Kgosimore, Dolly Louw, Barileng Malebye, Lungelwa Mdekazi, Namisa Mdlalose, Aphiwe Menziwa, Athenkosi Mfamela, Given Mkhize, Lerato Mvelase, Sibusiso Mxosana, Siphiwe Nkabinde, Edith Plaatjies, Sabelo Radebe, Ntambo Rapatla, Tshamano Sebe, Sanda Shandu, Nondumiso Tembe, Shalom Zamisa and Joel Zuma, supported by a live band: Sipumzo Trueman Lucwaba (band leader/bass), Blake Hellaby (keyboard), Siphiwe Shiburi (drums), Billy Monama (guitar), Lwanda Gogwana and Joseph Kunnuji (trumpets), Zeke le Grange (tenor sax), William Hendricks (alto sax, clarinet) and Siya Makuzeni (trombone) at the Mandela Theatre, Joburg Theatre complex in Braamfontein, until October 8.