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).
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.

Berksie deserves better

berksie

TALK RADIO HOST John Berks needs no introduction for most radio listeners. Instrumental in bringing Radio 702 to life, and in sowing the seeds for talk radio in South Africa, he had humble beginnings in Klerksdorp in the 1940s, and his is a life story that takes him to LM radio in the 1960s, to the mushrooming of South African radio in the 1980s, to the halls of radio fame, as he follows his dreams. By any accounts, it’s a story which should shimmer. But in this book, it doesn’t.

The writing is lucid enough, but unforgivably amateur inconsistencies in the spelling of names, the repetition of story threads which skew facts, and the material’s structure make you think this book was rushed through with nary a consideration for its integrity as a piece of writing, or a document of radio history.

Binckes fleshes out the irrelevant minutiae of Berks’s anecdotes in the third person. What the book gains in simplistic narrative that teeters on superficially entertaining reading, it loses in ignoring not only Berks’s voice but also the context of radio in South Africa. The few verbatim accounts of telephone gags Berks did on radio, are fabulous but alas too few, and the resulting work is a laboured, poorly written, appallingly edited read, which presents Berks as a socially inept fluke who was in the right place at the right time.

If you remember how Berks seduced the radio waves with his dulcet tones and reinvented its tradition with utter chutzpah, and complete hilarity, this amateurish book makes no sense. Binckes’s attempts to offer the back-story of this icon of South African entertainment reveals Berks as a man of monumental inadequacy with an itch and a stutter and a tendency to resign from jobs serially. Reminiscent of the Danny Kaye biography by Martin Gottfried, there’s such a focus on the man’s petty faux pas that descriptions of his talents feel hyperbolic.

The book improves as it goes; ironically, the most coherent chapter is the last which deals with Berks’s thwarted presence on RAM FM, a Palestinian/Israeli radio station under the aegis of entrepreneur Issie Kirsh.

As a biography, it’s a missed opportunity. Berks’s colourful character, his talent for mimicry and his iconic presence on air, exuding drama, sex appeal and charisma, just don’t sparkle from these pages.

  • What A Boykie: The John Berks Story is written by Robin Binckes, by published by 30° South Publishers, Pinetown (2015)

A splendid afternoon with the naughtiest boy in the world

justwilliam

“Cor! Blimey! Crikey!”  “You would say that, wouldn’t you?!” There is a very special place in the heart of many a former radio theatre fan, for real British radio drama; the kind that we in South Africa used to hear on the ‘A Programme’ on radio; the kind that is blithely politically incorrect, as it takes a chunk out of the preciousness of societal norms while it is gingerly yet viciously rude and has the internal doubts and give and take that make the whole discursive domestic culture so very endearing and barbed. Think Dame Margaret Rutherford. Think Maggie Smith, and indeed, think of the crisp and sarcastic, farcical and totally hilarious writing of the calibre of Agatha Christie, Edith Nesbit, and of course, Richmal Crompton, the creator of Just William.

This theatre work, drawing from the pen of Kenneth Williams and under the powerful directorial eye of Alan Swerdlow brings together a whole range of anachronisms and theatre traditions – on radio and on stage – utterly flawlessly. In the hands of Malcolm Terrey who plays Williams playing William, the naughtiest boy in the world, eternally an incorrigible 11-year-old, the three stories told here are just not enough: they come with a level of colour and detail that is at once innocent and delicious in its girl-hating mischief. And you will wish there were more – or that you could tune into the same programme tomorrow afternoon and hear some more of William’s madcap adventures with his mates.

Terrey, a man who won’t see 50 again, is completely perfect in this complex play within a play: he skips from being the six-year-old tyrant Violet Elizabeth to being Aunt Emily with her dentures, large bosom and thigh, seemingly limitless capacity for bread and jam, to say nothing of cake, and her propensity to snore, but then, Terrey bounds back as little William Brown himself, a boy who is the centre and the generator of some of the most farcical mishaps you can imagine.

Just Carry on William is a scrumptious bit of nostalgia which will enable you to laugh uproariously at the obnoxiously ridiculous without feeling the need to check in your political correctness. The character was written from the 1920s until the 1970s and spawned several generations of warm following and much theatrical and film interpretation. While this isn’t a show for children, given the complexity and honed nature of the language, it’s certainly one about children and their fierceness and foibles, their idiosyncrasies and petty yet very vicious and real brutalities. It’s an essay on social manners but it’s also a jolly good laugh and the kind of tonic that we all need after a rather stressful year.

  • Just Carry on William based on the stories by Richmal Crompton is directed by Alan Swerdlow and performed by Malcolm Terrey at The Studio theatre, Montecasino, Fourways until January 17. Visit www.montecasinotheatre.co.za or call 011-511-1818

How to fall in love with Afrikaans

Brilliant: Nataniel tells the impossibly delightful history of the fork, and other fine things. Photograph courtesy kyknet

Brilliant: Nataniel tells the impossibly delightful history of the fork, and other fine things. Photograph courtesy kyknet

What is it that can take a language coloured by historical violence, a conservative community with historical bias on its hands, and turn them completely around, enabling the community in question to view itself in an hilarious and truthful mirror? The unequivocally miraculous phenomenon of Afrikaans culture that singer-storyteller-performer of many additional talents Nataniël has been bringing to South African stages since 1983 is arguably amongst the best success stories in the arts of this country. And he continues, relentlessly: Banket met Nataniël (Banquet with Nataniël), a radio show that will be flighted on November 20, on RSG, as the finale of this year’s RSG Arts Festival, is one of those impeccably delicious bits of theatre that will leave you completely the richer.

This afternoon saw a live studio recording of the work, in the SABC’s magnificent if desperately underused recording studio, and within a set comprising large candles, an orchid and black drapes, the inimitable performer gave the spellbound and oft almost hysterical audience another beautiful gem.

A concatenation of his stories told in Afrikaans, and his songs, mostly performed in English, features in this show, which is about the back story of food and etiquette and what makes human society, tick. Above all, it’s a one-man revue which will make you remember why the arts are important to society and why you need to cherish each day, and make the simple gesture of eating a piece of toast with a lump of butter melting into it, as memorable and beautiful as a banquet.

Delivering a heady mix of home truths, hilarious nonsensical juxtapositions, and asides in his characteristic deadpan approach, Nataniel cocks a fond and gentle, but nevertheless blatantly honest snook at the society from which he originates; a master of succinct storytelling, he conjures up such delights as the young opera singer with a lazy eye that made everyone too frightened to look at her when she sang; the woman with a body resembling in Volkswagen beetle, in light blue crimplene; the security guard with beautiful muscles but a cake-less history and a detailed and thoughtful glance at the underbelly of manners in our society.

He tosses in a bunch of clichés about life being unpredictable and precious, but never allows himself to digress into the maudlin or even the anticipated. Rather his material, like his reflection on a dark chocolate-covered koeksister, remains hard and crispy to the first bite, but blending sweet and sour tastes. Indeed, his material, like his fondness for aligning seemingly contradictory flavours, throws salty in juxtaposition with sweet, hot with cold. But above all, it’s about a celebration of the nuances and texture, the spiciness and caveats in the language of Afrikaans itself.

The experience is astonishing. The show will not be repeated but should not be missed.

  • The RSG Kunstefees, comprising a rich array of culture that you can imbibe with your ears runs from Sunday November 15 at 3pm until Friday November 20 at 10pm. This, the third radio-based arts festival in South Africa may be accessed on 100 to 104FM or on DStv channel 913. The festival is also available online on rsg.co.za – where the full programme is available.
  • Banket met Nataniël will be broadcast on November 20 at 8.40pm.