Broken dreams and sibling lies

spieelbeeld

HAPPILY ever after: Andrea (Donnalee Roberts) and Wynand (Ivan Botha). Photograph courtesy rsg.

GIRL HAS HER heart broken. She goes away to recover and meets someone new. And they all end happily ever after. You think you can hear the chimes of mainstream wedding bells in the near distance. But you’d be wrong – not entirely, but mostly: Ronel Mostert’s Spieëlbeeld (Mirror Image) is an engaging and well defined romantic piece of storytelling in Afrikaans, and it’s a very good reason to stay at home and listen to the wireless tonight.

Featuring performances by Donnalee Roberts as Andrea opposite Cindy Swanepoel, her sister Minka, the work is a love story, but bears and underlying complex message about sibling rivalry, sibling loss and sibling honour. The title of the work reveals a little more of the plot than you might have considered and it becomes a tad predictable as it unfolds, but it will keep you on the edge of your seat: Will Andrea find true love? Will the inimitable Vlooi (Eloise Cupido), the help at a hotel in Camps Bay, and her loose gossipy tongue find its come-uppance?

Ultimately the message of this nuanced and tightly written work is one articulated centuries ago by the Greek philosopher Plato: Be kind, everyone you know is carrying a great burden. But when you lead the life of a busy family doctor, juggling romantic commitments with an ailing mother, and trying to keep a straight and professional face to the world, it’s not that simple.

There are hairpin bends in the story, which bring it to a satisfying and strong sense of closure, one which makes you remember why soppy clichés are very powerful in our society.

  • Spieëlbeeld (Mirror Image) is written by Ronel Mostert and directed by Christelle Webb-Joubert, with technical assistance by Bongi Thomas and Evert Snyman. It is performed by Ivan Botha, Eloise Cupido, Mandie du Plooy-Baard, Donnagh Lee Roberts, Amanda Strydom, Cindy Swanepoel, Bronwyn van Graan and Karen Wessels, on RSG, tonight December 14 at 8pm. It will be rebroadcast on December 18 at 1am in RSG’s Deurnag programme. It is also available on podcast: rsg.co.za.
  • RSG can be found on 100-104FM, on DStv channel 913 or live on http://web.sabc.co.za/digital/player/1.0/rsg/index.html#listenLiveTab
  • See this interview with director, Christelle Webb Joubert, which offers insight into the project’s back story.
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He ain’t boring: he’s my sloth

Sparky

ALL in the family: Mommy (Genevieve Oliver), Libby (Boitumelo Phaho), and Sparky the pet sloth (Sandi Dlangalala). Photograph courtesy http://www.artslink.co.za

WHAT DO YOU DO do if your mommy’s a work-from-home tax consultant who simply will not bend in the urgent and earnest quest to enhance the household with a pet? You can sing and you can dance. You can become furious and stamp your foot. You can cajole, pleadingly. And then, you can play by her rules and get the utterly unexpected. Sparky takes all of these values in a bunch, blends them with the most charming of laid back sloths (Sandi Dlangalala) and presents a perfect opportunity for young performers to shine with beautiful abandon.

It’s a very simple gentle story, with the cutes ramped up all the way, and the values clearly exposed. Sparky – not to be confused with the 1947 story Sparky’s Magic Piano – is an American yarn about accepting one’s own limitations, and working creatively within the parameters of authority. It’s about a little girl called Libby (Boitumelo Phaho) and her know-it-all friend Mary (Christina Moschides) and a quest to make sense of the world between hugs of a very cuddly and extremely lazy sloth.

Riffing and raffing it up in the wake of what young children might think animals should be trained to do as tricks, ultimately, it’s a crisply told story about the value and complexity of being a mum with commitments, of falling in love with an animal, and of learning how things work and how things are spelled. It’s a story of disappointment and delight and while it is a bit dated in the lyrics department – does anyone still know who Tony Danza is? – it’s tight, focused and together.

Both Phaho and Moschides, young performers though they may be, exude a confidence, an understanding of characterisation and a sense of rhythm that far surpasses their age limits. Offset against the comforting performances of Genevieve Olivier as the mommy and Gareth Meijsen as the school teacher, the work exactly hits the mark for the three-to-six year olds for whom it is designed.

It does remain curious, however, as to why young parents still insist on bringing their under-three-year-olds to the theatre; this play is created for little ones, but not utter babies, and the toddling presence of someone who is still in nappies and cannot yet engage with the experience is not only cruel to the littly in question, but idiotically selfish to the whole audience. It’s clear you think your baby’s brilliant – he’s yours after all. But trust the theatre professionals on this, and bring him next year, or the year after.

  • Sparky is written by Jenny Offill and directed by Francois Theron. It features design by Dale Scheepers (musical direction), Jodie Davimes (choreography) and Stan Knight (set) and is performed by Sandi Dlangalala, Gareth Meijsen and Genevieve Olivier with three child casts: Group 1: Elektra de Melo and Tannah Proctor; Group 2: Christina Moschides and Boitumelo Phaho; and Group 3: Erica Harris and Neo Thokoane, co-ordinated by Liz-Mari Botha, at the Wynnstay theatre, National Children’s Theatre complex in Parktown, until December 23. [This review is premised on a performance which featured the children in Group 2]. Call 011 484 1584 or visit nationalchildrenstheatre.org.za

Scrooge! Glorious Scrooge!

Seussified

WHAT a little turkey for Christmas! So says Mrs Cratchit (Nieke Lombard) and her husband, Bob (Alessandro Mendes), feeling the pinch, courtesy of Scrooge. Photograph courtesy National Children’s Theatre.

WHAT DO YOU do with a fine and classical tale of Christmas told in Dickensian language, if you want to add a bit of sprite to its shenanigans and a bit of verve to your audience engagement? That’s easy. You Seussify it. So says American theatre-maker Peter Bloedel with his pen as much as his passion for things that make the name Dr Seuss shimmer with recognition, eclecticism and general cartwheeling madness. This fine and beautifully directed work offers the whole package –  with a sniff of classical Seussical self-deprecation, in rhyming couplets, electric green hair and hilarity; and a glut of Dickensian shlock.

It’s all rolled together by a delicious team of performers and designers, under the directorial eye of Francois Theron with Daniel Geddes adding a twinkle of choral energy while he also performs the main character. In short, A Seussified Christmas Carol is everything you would expect from Dr Seuss, and from Dickens, only more, because you get both for one ticket.

The charm, delight and flippancy departments in this work go full out in giving linguistic faux earnestness to the idea of Seussical grammar, and they don’t stoop in showcasing the talent of Blaine Shore. A newcomer to this theatre, his stage presence — be it in the role of Old Fesswig, the dead Jake Marley or other characters — is bold and clear and lends an energised, camp, fleshed out and nuanced insight into the insanity of what Seuss means to his fans.

Ebenezer Scrooge is the kind of bloke that offers insight into why Christmas is a time of goodwill to all beings, kindness and joy to the world. And that’s simply because he’s the utter corollary. With his fingerless gloves, his elaborate dressing gown and his penchant for real miserliness he embodies the notion of meanness down to the tips of his slippers. And who’s he mean to? Bob Cratchit (Alessandro Mendes), for one – his loyal employee. Bob’s a man who has the short end of the stick, but sees it all as a half full glass. Is he simple? No. He’s kind. And he’s poor.

Stepping aside from the notions of Victorian poverty as reflected in Dickens’s 1843 Christmas chestnut, Bloedel injects the kind of rhyming charm which would enthral Dr Seuss himself, and you get delicious, bold and well-formed performances from everyone, including the child performers on board, collectively ramped up with the presences of electric green hair, Seussical red and white stripes and wild, almost callous hilarity. While some of the articulation is not as clear as it could be, the gist of the work is upheld with the kind of Seussical tempo that first put the National Children’s Theatre on most people’s must do lists close to 10 years ago.

With inventive and hilarious language that pokes fun at many things, both historical and contemporary, it’s a tale of an emotionally short-sighted man, four ghosts and the value of holding a mirror up to one’s heart. It might make your heart brim over a little, but it’s all in a good cause.

  • A Seussified Christmas Carol is written by Peter Bloedel and directed by Francois Theron. It features design by Daniel Keith Geddes (choral arrangement and vocal direction), Sarah Roberts (set and costumes), Stan Knight (set construction), Jane Gosnell (lighting) and is performed by Cassius Davids, Jessica Foli, Daniel Keith Geddes, Nieke Lombard, Nomonde Thande Matiwane, Alessandro Mendes and Blaine Shore, in collaboration with three alternate children’s casts co-ordinated by Liz-Mari Botha: Group 1: Joshua Hibbert, Onkagile Kgaladi and Vuyile Zako; Group 2: Brayden Steenhoff, Kaih Mokaka and Shayna Burg; and Group 3: Asher Steenhoff Paidamoyo Mutharika and Aaralyn Muttitt; and understudy Erin Atkins. [This review is premised on the performance featuring Group 2] until December 23 at the National Children’s Theatre in Parktown. Call 011 484-1584 or visit http://www.nationalchildrenstheatre.org.za

Bra Gib warrants more

Kente

AN UNDERSTANDING OF the contribution of South African theatre-maker Gibson Kente (1932-2004) to local stage history cannot but be an important addition to the reading list of any SA theatre lover. And accordingly, Robert Mshengu Kavanagh’s book A Contended Space tries hard to be everything to every reader with these priorities in mind. Sadly, he makes so many promises in this book that it is the legacy of Kente himself that ends up being compromised.

Arguably, Kente’s vision was central to the amorphous beast we recognise as SA township musical theatre. It vies from a European avant-garde reflection on narrative, audience and other formalities and weaves into the ideas of performance espoused by German 20th-century theatre practitioner Bertolt Brecht. It’s independent and unapologetic, playing to majority audiences and influencing many significantly. Kente, who was a contemporary of writers such as HIE Dhlomo, RRR Dhlomo and Sam Mhangwane, penned political theatre at its richest.

“No”, shouts Kavanagh, arguing that there is a difference between political theatre and theatre for the people. And he’s entitled to his opinion. The thing is, whether you feel Kavanagh’s definition of political theatre is too wide or too narrow, becomes academic: the book is so riddled with writing errors you emerge feeling battered even if you’re a champion of Kavanagh’s approach.

The first great sin in this book is the omission of an editor (whose brief is the content’s flow) and a sub-editor (who fixes grammar, spelling, consistency and style). Instead, you get visual errors, spelling errors, errors in the language’s flow and errors in repetition that make what could have been a beautiful and informed read, tortuous.

This reflects a shoddy understanding of the final product: A Contended Space is not a blog post which can be fixed anytime: it’s the fruit of years of work. It bears the stamp of a publishing house. It’s meant to last forever. The least you deserve, as the reader, is attention to the visual presence of the thing to say nothing of the focus of the language.

And alas, as you feel roughly trod on by this book’s errors, so are you are offered promises which do not deliver: Examples plunge into too much detail too quickly, leaving your head spinning in an inchoate understanding of Kente’s work and influence.

Other detail is skirted around. When mention is made of an “Israeli who penned a play called Sola Sola”, for instance, you might be curious to know the name of this person, but nay, ‘tis lost among lots of facts.

Indeed, on the topic of facts in this book, expect to be assailed by them in the form of shopping lists. Armies of them. Pages and pages of references to plays with their dates of performance are shoved before your eyes – so many examples that the basic assertion they illustrate is lost. There is insufficient use made of footnotes in this material.

And all of this happens before you reach the focus on Kente himself. Indeed, you’re subject to four sections (that’s 11 chapters) describing what Kente is not. Granted, you do, eventually get to read his context, but this happens after more than 100 pages of comparison, contemporaries and other asides. One or two well-placed tweaks in the flow of this books focus would have turned it around.

Try as you might to go head to head with the density of the text, the third hurdle you encounter is voice. The writing slips between third and first person all the time. Yes, it’s a problem when the verb tense of the material is inconsistent; the casualty is clarity. But when suddenly Kavanagh himself pops into the thus far formal descriptive, historical narrative as a character – be it as someone in Kente’s audiences, or a fellow playwright in a given programme, festival or season – something else happens: it’s no longer clear who this book is written for or what it aims to be.

Is it an academic overview of Kente, the man and his work? If so, why is there a comment that goes “I’ll bet my bottom dollar that Kente’s house was robbed”? Betting of bottom dollars or clichés of this nature sit curiously with academic writing principles. Maybe A Contended Space is an informal overview of the man and his work, plus the author and his work? Maybe. This feels kind of in line with the crusading lines Kavanagh takes, writing about “white” and “black” theatre, and reflecting upon the injustices of apartheid in a reductionist capacity.

Wade through this and toward the end of the book, you will be rewarded with detailed readings of several key Kente works, including Lifa, How Long, Too Late and Sikalo. Here, you may want to heave a sigh of relief, but alas the problem doesn’t end: Kavanagh plunges head first into character analyses, offering great chunks of quoted text from the plays in question; he doesn’t really explain why. Is this book meant to be a textural analytic tome? Maybe, but it doesn’t do this convincingly.

The book’s final sin is the dismissal of the principle of ‘show and tell’ in the writing. Kavanagh tells you things about apartheid, about the challenges of theatre in the 1970s in South Africa, about Sharpeville, without showing you the broader trajectory. If you don’t know the basics of the history, you may well feel abandoned in a morass of roughly sketched scenarios.

But there is light at the end of this tunnel: the further into this book you read, the more developed its approach becomes, but you have to steel yourself against its focuslessness quite heftily. Ultimately, you emerge with a modicum of appreciation of the giant Kente was, but it’s a messy read, which could have been a fine contribution to Kente scholarship, under a good editorial pen.

  • A contended space: The theatre of Gibson Mtutuzeli Kente by Robert Mshengu Kavanagh is published by Themba Books, Harare, Johannesburg, Cairo, London (2016).

How to hold infinity in the palm of your hand

Luigi Pirandello

TAKE my hand and let me share my humanity: Luigi Pirandello wrote The Man with the Flower in his Mouth in 1922. Photograph by Gianni Ansaldi.

THE MAGIC OF radio theatre, when it is well done, knows no bounds. In the hands of competent theatre makers, the project is unrestrained by the complexities or cost of set or the challenges of lighting or costumes. Armed only with crisply uttered language, delivered with beautiful coherence, the director casts a whole world in the head and sensibilities of a listener. And this is what you get in the Afrikaans translation of Luigi Pirandello’s 1922 play, The man with the flower in his mouth, which debuted on Radio Sonder Grense on November 30 2017, but is available for purchase on podcast.

It’s an extraordinary piece of theatre premised on a simple idea and brought to muscular life with words so beautiful, you will want to eat them, but when you understand the thrust of this short work, you leap back with a realisation that reaches into your very sense of mortality.

Two men (Chris van Niekerk and Anrich Herbst) meet by chance at a bar near a railway station. They’re strangers to one another. The one has missed his train. The other has some things to share. Things that resonate with the idea of being present in the present. Things like the idea of cleaving to the minuscule details and humdrum gestures in the lives of strangers. Things such as the pondering of the substance of the furniture in a good doctor’s waiting room.

Like a character in a Gabriel García Márquez novel, or the implied personage in the William Blake poem, he holds the secret of his mortality hidden, yet close to the surface. He speaks of the joy of boredom and the roots of a lust for life. He has an illness, a tumour – a flower if you will – inside his mouth. Evoking plays of the ilk of Freud’s Last Session, the work deals with the horror and embarrassment of transfiguring illness and imminent death, but it does so in a removed context that forms and mouths and asks questions about the fragility, the preciousness of existence. It’s a work about death, reflecting on it as a logical defining border to life. And it’s a work which offers insight into the values that Pirandello brought to theatre making; gestures which opened the doors to absurdist possibilities and a breaking down and a rebuilding of theatre tradition.

The work in Afrikaans is completely extraordinary – it’s a very fine translation – and within seconds, you’re there woven into the text and surrounded by Pirandello’s black humour cast by a man carrying a very large burden, that is his own, but effectively, the lot of everyman.

It’s a beguilingly simple play that brings humour to the horror of illness, as it gives potency to the simple, complex art of conjuring invisible theatre. On this imaginary stage, presented in the proverbial dark space of radio, it’s a real achievement: an instant Afrikaans classic.

  • Die man met die blom in sy mond (The man with the flower in his mouth) is written by Luigi Pirandello and translated into Afrikaans by FB Van der Merwe. Directed by Christelle Webb-Joubert, and featuring technical input by Bongi Thomas and Evert Snyman, with Kobus Burger as executive producer, drama, for the radio station, it is performed by Anrich Herbst and Chris van Niekerk, and debuted on RSG on November 30 and is available on podcast: rsg.co.za.
  • See this interview with Christelle Webb-Joubert which offers insight into the project’s back story.

Reclusive Salinger and the challenge of a good yarn

rebel

JUST write: Nicholas Hoult is JD Salinger. Photograph courtesy comingsoon.net

AN UTTERLY COMPELLING reflection on the terrifying reality of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and the value of an editor, Danny Strong’s film Rebel in the Rye starts off with sheer charisma, a great sense of authenticity and a tough confrontation with what it takes to be a published writer and what this means for the pocket and the craft.

Telling the life story of American writer JD Salinger, the work flows beautifully up until it tells of the unmitigated success of his first novel, Catcher in the Rye. At that point, the narrative thread becomes lost in too much slavish attention to detail. It is a well made piece which won’t lose you because of its polish, pizzazz and sheer beauty and because of the footholds the first part of the work have established in your sensibilities, but it unwinds disappointingly without the momentum with which it began.

Nicholas Hoult plays an utterly gorgeous Jerry Salinger: he’s focused yet dispassionate, is able to go into melt down as he’s able to shut off communication with the world. He’s a young man of the 1930s with all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, with its jazz and booze and the stars of the era, which include Eugene O’Neill, Truman Capote and Charlie Chaplin. Lighting, set, cinematography and costume come together in reflecting the texture and nuance of the 1930s with a sense of brutal truth. And as such, Salinger is a perfect cipher for the creation of the quintessential 20th century novel, as he breathes life into Holden Caulfield, the uncompromising voice of the youth of the era and Catcher’s main character.

As you watch Salinger confront and challenge his dreams, he concatenates against rejection time and time again, and as a very well worn Whit Burnett (Kevin Spacey), a university teacher and mentor, offers him the emotional wherewithal to become who he must, you get to understand a little of the context of what it takes to become a creative professional. Salinger’s is a world, where no one takes your job as a writer of stories seriously and where the challenges to perform are stiffer than in any other field.

You also get to see the muscle of editorial impetus where Salinger is guided by The New Yorker to tweak his work further and make it even better. You’re explained the difference between a writer and a masturbator, and given a handle on the value of the voice in a story. And above all, you’re exposed to the idea of the Novel, as an almost sacred term and you get to see the inner workings of a writer who knows his own talent but is humbled by the industry’s trajectory of heroes, the makers of masterpieces.

And essentially, the nub of the film is captured in this first half. However, every single woman in the work, without fail, is represented as a tough and hard-edged bitch, overwhelmingly whiny and shallow in her judgey perspectives. It is the men who embrace the story’s guts and stamina, and resoundingly, the film offers deep insight into how war infiltrates Salinger so profoundly it alters how his soul is constituted; you see him fight hard against the kicks and pricks of life and memory to retain his dignity and carry on writing.

While the work is clustered with nuggets from The Catcher in the Rye, and offers insight into the complex character that Salinger developed into, it’s not an unequivocally satisfying or moving watch, but rather one which runs out of emotional steam as it goes. Yes, Salinger made some decisions about the future of his writing career which were not sexy in the Hollywood sense – by electing never to publish again and secluding himself in a house in a wood for the rest of his life, he effectively closed his personal doors to the kind of smarmy happily-ever-after tale or dirt-picking foray that Hollywood loves, and the production team behind this film try their best to honour this as earnestly as they can, but something is lost. Indeed, had the latter part of the film been cropped with a tighter editorial hand, more might have been left unstated, and the work might have retained its ability to sing.

  • Rebel in the Rye is directed by Danny Strong and features Celeste Arias, Nicolaos Argyros, David Berman, Eric Bogosian, Lucy Boynton, Nancy Braun, Roger Brenner, Anna Bullard, Adam Busch, David Cryer, Brian d’Arcy James, Hope Davis, Zoey Deutch, Tim Dougherty, Dana Drori, Chris Ecclestone, Austin Eisenberg, Ron Fassler, Kit Flanagan, Neil Fleischer, Kristine Froseth, Victor Garber, Nalan González Norvind, Alyssa May Gold, Matt Gorsky, Evan Hall, Sydney Hargrove, Devin Harjes, Kelsey Rose Healey, Nicholas Hoult, Keenan Jolliff, John Knyff, Alana Kyriak, Kevin Mambo, Jefferson Mays, Kellan McCann, Doris McCarthy, Bernie McInerney, Caitlin Mehner, Jalina Mercado, Michael Metta, Christopher Moser, Sarah Paulson, Andrew Polk, Brian Wargotz Reese, Kay Rodman, Will Rogers, Francesca Root-Dodson, Matthew Rosvanis, Karen Walsh Rullman, Amy Rutberg, Jimmy Smagula, Kevin Spacey, Janet Stanwood, Braven Strong, Jadyn Tattoli, James Urbaniak, Bernard White, Luke David Young and Frankie Zing. It is written by David Strong based on the JD Salinger biography by Kenneth Slawenski. Produced by Bruce Cohen, it features creative input by Bear McCreary (music), Kramer Morgenthau (cinematography), Joseph Krings (editing), Dina Goldman (production design), Deborah Lynn Scott (costumes) and Alexandra Mazur (set decoration). Release date: November 24 2017.

 

The man who thought he had bigger fish to fry

Akwarius

SOMETHING to chill you to the very fins. Photograph courtesy http://www.rsg.co.za

THERE’S A SERIAL killer loose on suburban the streets of Johannesburg. He has an unabashed penchant for young women with red hair and is impartial whether the colour is natural or from a bottle. He’s nifty in his ways, meticulous in his habits, has a clear sense of detail and he’s cruel in a clinical kind of way. On one level, profiling this guy is just part of another day’s work for police captain Sakkie Joubert (Anton Dekker) and his young side-kick Cassey Davids (Su-An Müller-Marais). On another, this Afrikaans-language radio play is a gripping yarn of pathologies and horror with a fish hook or two in its tail. It debuts this Thursday evening at 20:00 on Radio Sonder Grense (100-104FM).

This hour-long play is everything you demand from the detective thriller genre, and then some. Joubert is an older cop, who’s seen everything; he’s been around the proverbial block several times, and he’s completely focused on his work and on doing it as well as possible. But in doing so, has he overlooked something absolutely crucial? Dekker gives the character, in your mind’s eye, the gravitas of a Detective Inspective Michael Walker – played by British actor David Hayman – in the Channel 4 series Trial and Retribution based on Lynda la Plante novels in the 1990s. He’s something of South Africa’s real life (late) supercop Piet Byleveld. Instinctively, you warm to him. You trust him. You know that he will get the baddie.

You don’t know how it will transpire. Tightly detailed, yet concise, the play presents characters who are convincingly developed in their local context. You listen with horror, instinctively trying to pinpoint the killer. When you realise who it might be, you cringe in horror. Not that person, you whisper, quailing, and unable to turn away from your radio, for even one second. While the final line of the work tends to veer towards a little too much sugar, it is, perhaps what you need, perched as you are on the edge of your seat, pulse racing.

This is a beautifully written piece of work, succinct, scary and direct. It’s about the unnerving reality of what Tinder can bring into your life and it’s about the pathologies you plant in your loved ones while you might be away from them, chasing your own dreams.

  • Akwarius is an Afrikaans-language radio play written by Marion Erskine and directed by Bettie Kemp. Featuring technical input by Neria Mokoena and Patrick Monana. It is performed by Anton Dekker, Anrich Herbst, Duncan Johnson, Mari Molefe-Van Heerden, Su-Ann Müller-Marais and Magda van Biljon. Kobus Burger is executive producer: drama for RSG.
  • It will be transmitted on RSG (100-104 FM or on DStv channel 913 or listen live on http://web.sabc.co.za/digital/player/1.0/rsg/index.html#/listenLiveTab ) on December 7 at 8pm and on December 11 at 1am, in the radio station’s Deurnag It is also available on podcast through the radio station’s website: www.rsg.co.za