Wrap your farm in your haversack


KISS of choice. Adam (Joel Leonard) shocks his peers when he puckers up to Gontse (Khumo Baduza). Photograph courtesy Wits 969.

MAKING SENSE OF life, the universe and everything, when you have kicked your sister out of the home for behaviour you’ve deemed debauched, buried your brother due to no fault of yours or his, are so deep in your cups that you cannot tell real life from sinister dreams, and have your ancestral soil in a bag which you carry around you is faced head on by Simon played by Abongile Matyutyu in Mmu, the one production which went to the National Arts Festival, representing Wits’s student body.

A fresh and complex tale that ably sways through different chronologies and circumstances, Mmu is about the soil we drop onto the graves of our loved ones. It’s about our understanding of the muscular connection between identity and land. Featuring several stories which run concurrently, in a soapie gossip-worthiness rubric, it’s told with clear directorial skills, and you’re not left out in the cold as to who belongs to whom or how the narrative fans out.

Pinned to farm novel traditions and their discontents in a contemporary South African world, replete with a history of accidental crime and the alternatives offered by the shebeen, it features Adam (Joel Leonard) as the white pivot around which the drama rotates. Born on the farm, he inherits it when he grows up. The other thing he doesn’t lose in growing up is his love for the children of the farm’s staff with whom he spent his childhood scrabbling in the sand and spinning bottles. Only it’s love of a less platonic nature, now.

Sometimes not completely believably a man with many love interests in mismatched contexts peppered with power dynamics – because he seems too young – or one with the maturity to negotiate a farm selling operation, Leonard forms an able counterpoint to the rest of the cast, but it is Matyutyu in the central role of Samson that populates the work with the energy and the madness that keeps it tight and well-focused.

A stand out performance by Kashifa Sithole in the role of Maria offers an angle which blends poignancy with humour in a deeply empathetic capacity resonant with the ubiquity of church values in a world spotted by obscenity. And besides, you fall in love with the bigness of Maria’s heart.

Further to that, along the lines of Chilahaebolae, performed under the auspices of this university earlier this year, there is a fantastic collaborative energy and give and take between the cast. It lends the work the kind of busy messy soundscape that being in the traffic of the city entails.

While a low point in the plot is the final moment, which falls a little like a lead balloon in its predictability, and begs for more workshopping, it is the developed and powerful texture and narrative that keeps this story potent, vibrant and eminently watchable.

  • Mmu is written by Quinton Manning and directed by Sinenhlanhla Zwane and Luke Reid. It is performed by Khumo Baduza, Joel Leonard, Abongile Matyutyu, Nambitha Tyelbooi, and Kashifa Sithole, in the Nunnery at Wits University, as part of the Wits 969 Festival. It performs again on July 26 at 17:00, July 28 at 13:15 and 18:00, July 29 at 14:00 and July 30 at 14:30. Visit webtickets.co.za or visit Wits 969 on facebook.


Unchain my dog!


DOG on a short chain: Phokobje the jackal (Paul Noko) comes to grips with the limitations imposed on Mpja (Sibusiso Mkhize). Photograph courtesy Wits Theatre.

A MASH-UP OF ancient storytelling techniques with crude humour and cartoonish action, Chilahaebolae is a curious new work featuring a mix of students and professionals that plummets into the annuls of colonialism through allegory and offers a sinister edge into the price that one pays for creature comforts. It’s a tale of a tail cast in the life of jackal and a dog, powered into life with a dynamic choreographing of sound and energy on the part of its chorus, played by the whole cast.

Nourished with layers of personification, the animals in this work are neither beast nor human, but something between the two, and while the humour ranges from utter physical slapstick to some frisky sleight of hand wit, generally, the work is too lacking in nuance to fly. It is also so replete with slo-mo violence, that you feel your jaw begin to yawn of its own volition at yet another sjambok smacking the recalcitrant jackal in the balls: the work is about 20 minutes too long and there are a lot of repeated refrains which compromise rather than strengthen the story at hand.

We meet Phokobje, a wild jackal (Paul Noko), with his twisted loyalties selfishly in place. His mate Mpja (Sibusiso Mkhize) is a dog who bears a different kind of brunt and learns early on about the price one pays for an easy meal and a good place to sleep. Featuring a very feisty cat interpreted by Zimkhitha Mothlabeng, Chilahaebolae is a fantasy world that showcases the one-dimensional role of the butcher, the fashion designer and the circus master in a narrative seething with colonialist values that is as bloodthirsty as it demonstrates a naked thirst for money.

Unequivocally the highlight of this work is the manner in which the cast is woven around the story. Making animal sounds, and serving as features in the set – from fixed poles onto which a chain can be attached, to a tap dispensing water, an electric wall and diverse creatures of the night, the cast of ten becomes interchangeably a beast with its own internal complexities and you find yourself forced to pull your attention from them and back to the main scenario at hand.

The downside of this play is its utter lack of subtlety. Skirting around issues of sinister intent, death, murder and horror, the work is a very shouty one and rather than grabbing audience attention by the scruff of its neck, it tends to degenerate into a volume contest, which does become a bit of an assault, given the limited space of the theatre. You find yourself grabbed by the ears, and not in a good way. This is a pity: the basic premises of this work bring it to the periphery of narratives of the ilk of George Orwell’s Animal Farm or Aesop’s fables, but the articulation leaves it just there.

  • Chilahaebolae is written and directed by Kgafela oa Magogodi assisted by Obett Motaung. It features design by Quinton Manning (choreography), Thando Msibi (costumes) and Ntokozo Ndlovu (set) and is performed by Siphosam Kamwendo, Joel Leonard, Abongile Matyutyu, Sibusiso Mkhize, Zipho Mokoena, Zimkhitha Mothlabeng, Nakesa Ndou, Paul Noko, Nolitha Radebe and Shane Veeran. It represents a collaboration between Wits Theatre, Wits School of the Arts and the Market Theatre and it performs at the Barney Simon Theatre, Market Theatre complex in Newtown until May 28. Visit markettheatre.co.za or call 011 832 1641.

Dirty, smarmy secrets


HE ain’t heavy, he’s my mop: Jerry Mntonga plays Handy Andy. Photograph by Mariola Biela.

THE POMP AND flippancy of a political leadership blindly consumed with its own intrigues and self importance comes under the brutal gaze of seven young Wits writers in Smallanyana Skeleton, a parody loosely cast around South African values. Blending a multitude of talents, from beat-boxing to set design, the work is fresh and vital, cleaving irony and wit with a deeper message, but on the whole, it is bruised by a lack of polish.

As you walk into the rubbish-strewn theatre, it is being mopped by a guy in overalls. The wet mop on the theatre’s black floor becomes a cipher for a multitude of messages, from sex to death, as the guy, “Handy Andy” (Jerry Mntonga) is part outsider and part insider in this tale of sordid immorality based on getting down and dirty in secret, stealing big things such as monuments and fooling tax payers.

With unquestionably inimitable value as a new South African story, the work is hinged  too closely to real people on the current political stage: a character called Honourable Godzille, compromises the parodic thrust the work promises. Is this a play about Helen Zille or is this a broader-based attack on hypocrisy and the skeletons in cupboards of a generic political leadership?

While there is an occasional tendency toward overacting by some of the cast, there is also an energy which leans a little too closely to cinematic dynamics, downplaying formal theatre conventions and hurting the clarity of the tale itself.

Having said that, this work contains some of the self-reflective humour of a selfie-obsessed, social media-dependent society that only writers of this generation can articulate with as much internal knowledge, and harsh criticism, as the work requires. There are some truly fine moments of nuance and improvisation in this play, which is built against a very nifty set conflating newspaper street posters with media interaction rather deliciously.

While the tale is a smarmy one which languidly flows from the issue of rubbish disposal pipes being too wide or too long and into sordid hotel bedrooms, thence to toilets and closets, it is hurt by too many transitions where you’re left in the dark while the cast changes scenes. These breaks in the narrative flow hurt the focus of the story, and often, you’re left proverbially in the dark as extraneous bits and pieces of narrative are strewn about, sometimes not completely coherently.

But the immense value of a play of this nature, featuring students ranging from first years – Nambitha Tyelbooi who plays Jenny List (the journalist) and Thando Mulambo who plays Honourable Humdrum, to young professionals – cannot be underestimated. The fun that was had in the construction of the work shows unquestionably, and is contagious. But the hilarity of the tale, and to an extent, its darkness gets bewildered in the overall messiness of the story.

  • Smallanyana Skeleton is written by Samantha de Jager, Sam Kentridge, Lehlohonolo Mmeti, Sarah Nansubuga, Daniella Oosthuizen, Caitlyn Spring and Joe Young, facilitated and directed by Kgafela oa Magogodi. Featuring design by Julian August (lighting) and Edmund Braatveld and Tsholo Ramosepele (set and costume), it is performed by Bradley Cebekhulu, Abongile Matyutyu, Jerry Mntonga, Lucky Mqoboli, Thando Mulambo, Danielle Oosthuizen and Nambitha Tyelbooi, in the Wits Amphitheatre until August 27. 011 717 1376

Of baked beans and Hello Kitty, modest bling and uncurbable skinder: Welcome to Boegoespruit Ext 25

The Boegoespruit 'family',  clockwise from back: Twala (Jovan Muthray); Christina (Francesa Matthys); Unti (Sharmyan Kassen) and Shaamiela (Kirsty Marillier). Photograph courtesy www.wherevent.com

The Boegoespruit ‘family’, clockwise from back: Twala (Jovan Muthray); Christina (Francesa Matthys); Unti (Sharmyan Kassen) and Shaamiela (Kirsty Marillier). Photograph courtesy www.wherevent.com

The thrill of being in the presence of fresh young work as it hatches is incomparable. When you sit in the audience of this delightful work, created in entirety by students, you realise the palpable dynamite that there is in this industry, waiting to explode into professional careers. Boegoespruit Ext 25 is a work not without its flaws, and not devoid of a formulaic construction. It’s also rough around the edges and does need more sharpening, but with all these healable bruises, it’s a solid and delicious piece of theatre that offers a self-deprecating glance at the idiosyncrasies of being coloured, being poor and being hilarious that will make you sit up and take notice of these four young performers.

The saga of a spaza, Boegoespruit Ext 25 is an essay on informal contemporary living conditions, replete with gossip and tragedy, humour and pathos that will move you to spontaneous laughter and tears. The characters are larger than life: Twala, a ‘hairchetect’ (Jovan Muthray), who wears golden pants and a jacket zhooshed into bling with bits of hardware from cold drink cans; Unti, the massively bosomed baked beans queen (Sharmyan Kassen), with a Hello Kitty penchant who runs the spaza shop; Shaamiela, a school girl who knows more about social intercourse than perhaps she should (Kirsty Marillier); and Christina, a bank clerk on a trajectory to be somebody in this world (Francesca Matthys).

Together they form an approximation of a family and reflect on the see-sawing of life, punctuated as it is by a lack of material comfort, a rumbling sense of self-deprecating humour and many dollops of rich local colour. The plot is simple, and has a nice hairpin bend in it, but not a satisfyingly developed ending. And while Unti and Twala steal the show in terms of how well their characters are developed, Unti’s make up is so overdone that she reads as a male in obvious drag, from the get go.

Once you realise that is not the case, you quickly learn to roll with the social punches that this play, which borders on being a revue of sorts, delivers, wrapping real issues of homophobia, rejection, deep sadness and drug addiction into the hilarious fabric of this sustainably strong work. More than anything, the text of Boegoespruit attests to the robustness of this community, stained as it is by the detritus of apartheid and broken by social bias. As a theatre piece, it attests to the way in which the students understand the principles of clowning, of playing to an audience and of collaborating with genuine generosity. The set, too, offers an intimate and astute understanding of the society being reflected, and works well. Remember these names: you will be seeing them again on professional stages soon.

  • Boegoespruit Ext 25 is directed by Leonie Ogle with design by Nthabiseng Malaka (set) and Hlomohang Mothetho. It is written and devised by the cast: Sharmyan Kassen, Kirsty Mariller, Francesca Matthys and Jovan Muthray, and performs at the Nunnery, as part of the Wits 969 Festival, on July 21, 23, 24 and 25. Tickets via co.za

Mythomania: give us more magic



Something beautiful this way comes: Nomathamsanqa Mhlakaza and Boitumelo Magolekgo in OCA, choreographed by Oupa Sibeko. Photograph by Ruphin Coudyzer.

Something beautiful this way comes: Nomathamsanqa Mhlakaza and Boitumelo Magolekgo in OCA, choreographed by Oupa Sibeko. Photograph by Ruphin Coudyzer.

When you enter the auditorium and take your seat, there is such a fantastic promise of magic in this seven-piece production, your senses are tweaked and attuned to seeing wonderful incarnate. There’s a squadron of origami creatures of all shapes and sizes floating in the air, and a sphere filled with feathers. There’s a bit of a dodgy ramp made of what looks like papier mâché, but the magic of the origami birds make you forgive that.

But there’s also music, so pervasive and jarringly loud and tonally repetitive, you feel your nose might start bleeding. The Downstairs Theatre is a relatively small space. It conveys an intimacy that could be worked with, particularly in a production that plays on your inner chords with magical stories and old myths, but someone made a decision to turn the volume up. And it’s a bad one: the sound is so pervasive it almost prevents you from seeing the dancers.

But see them, you must: while most of these performers are obviously not trained in the discipline of dance – they move their limbs without drawing the movement into their diaphragms and souls – there’s a sense of dignified beauty in several pieces, which should push further. The descriptions of the myths represented here that you find in the programme notes are delightful, but in several pieces, the relationship between work and words doesn’t resonate.

The highlight is a duo between Persephone and Hades. Called Seeds of Life, Seeds of Death, it’s choreographed by Amy de Wet and performed by Shannon Tootla and Jonathan Young. Without knowing the intricacies of the myth or the manner in which this myth is reworked, this is a scene of love, life and anger, featuring a pomegranate. Touching and resounding with a reflection on the Adam and Eve tale, it’s a power relationship articulated around two interesting performers with great possibility. The give and take between them is shiny in its directness and compellingly authentic in its sense of honesty.

In OCA, which is choreographed by Oupa Sibeko and performed by Nomathamsanqa Mhlakaza and Boitumelo Magolekgo, an immensely powerful relationship is articulated. The work speaks of a woman and her sister who seems disabled. And it’s beautiful. But its correlation with a mother and child and a child impaired with the stigma of albinism, as the programme explains, is not developed with sufficient conviction.

The pieces in this project involving several dancers, including Kaangs Creation and the Rock of Sisyphus have moments of idiosyncrasy and interest, but the individual dancers seem too inexperienced to carry their cameo roles with a sense of authority that should catch your eye. In the former, in particular, the dancer who takes the role of the Mantis God comes across as a doleful beetle with a baleful gaze in an uncomfortable costume, which just saddens the piece.

Costumes also have a spark of something, but in some of the works, like Obanje Abiku, which derives from West African values, the colour coordination of the dresses actually cheapens the work’s impact – as do features like great big green bows at the back of the Mothers’ costumes in the Sisyphus work.

Mythomania has some utterly beautiful moments, and completely well developed transitions between pieces, but there are not enough of these moments. The work in entirety is curious and interesting and has fantastic potential, but the scariness of magic in a production is not sufficiently probed or prodded, either through the dancers’ techniques or through ostensible gimmicks in the tale.

  • Mythomania, a Wits University production, features choreography by Joni Barnard, Kyle de Boer, Amy de Wet, Luke Draper, Alicia Hofmeyr, Gaosi Raditholo, and Oupa Sibeko; performances by Justine Barger, Joni Barnard, Grace Barnes, Meagan Connolly, Samantha de Jager, Marion de Pontes, Skye Gibson, Anna Star Hlali, Ben Kgosimore, Rachel Makatile, Nthabiseng Malaka, Boitumelo Magolekgo, Francesca Matthys, Nonkululeko Mduli, Nomathamsanqa Mhlakaza, Candice Modiselle, Abigail Molemo, Palesa Mannakgotla, Dimakatso Motholo,Simphiwe Ndhlebe, Danielle Oosthuizen, Kendal Petersen, Oupa Sibeko, Kim Taylor, Shannon Tootla, Andrea van der Kuil, Lauren Vankeirsblick, and Jonathan Young; and design by Catherine Dickinson and Kamini Soobben (set); Catherine Dickinson, Claudia Hansen and Kamini Soobben (costumes); and Abigail Thatcher (lighting). It performs at Wits Downstairs Theatre until August 16.

Gogol’s insanity onstage and utterly delicious

Taken In: the cast of Government Inspector. Photograph by Ruphin Coudyzer.

Taken In: the cast of Government Inspector. Photograph by Ruphin Coudyzer.

Occasionally one comes across a production in which the behind-the-scenes fun factor of the work spills out with such abandon and into the audience that it becomes immediately contagious. This is far and away the case with the current production of Nikolai Gogol’s Government Inspector, which in terms of the outrageous costumes and supremely developed characters bears comparison with Sylvaine Strike’s recent award-winning rendition of Moliere’s The Miser.

In a sense, sitting in the audience of this Russian farce which has been worked over with a gentle South African veil of iconography, including bribery and foppery is like being in the actualisation of a novel by Franz Kafka, Günter Grass or Lewis Carroll (or a hybrid of the three). There’s a moment where it feels like you’re looking at a circus etching by Max Beckmann that has come to life.

Director Jessica Friedan yields an understanding of the use of the artifice in theatre in Gogol’s work, which is simply delicious: There’s a line between funny and terrifying that most of the characters, including and especially the land owners, Bobchinsky and Dobchinsky, played by Dimakatso Motholo and Gillian Wittstock respectively, embody, thus carrying the work with a sense of Gogol veracity that will make you laugh. A lot.

Government Inspector is the work of utterly fabulous collaboration and lots of enthusiastic nods must be cast in the direction of not only set designer Zewande Bhengu, but also the costumier, Andrew Hofmeyr. Their contribution both palpably assist in making the work the inimitable success it is: the level of creative freedom that is being swung in this work can only be described as outrageous, and it fills the interstices of this work with wisdom and savvy.

But further to this level of loving the Russian dramatist who wrote so dirtily and wittily of parochialism 150 years ago, is the manner in which the narrative unfolds. Even the rolling in and out of different elements of the set, plays beautifully into the mix of a synthetic world view and the understanding that this is a play and not an attempt at real life.

It’s a farce of the best kind, leaving the audience in the know, but the cast out on a limb: the mayor (Peter Terry) receives a notification that a Government Inspector will be arriving incognito to examine the town. Hysteria breaks out and ultimately the wrong person is not only fingered, but wined and dined, bequeathed and betrothed and celebrated for all the wrong reasons.

Terry is a fabulous mayor – not only does he show us his superb acting chops (which we haven’t seen on stage for quite some years) – but he does so with a generosity of collaborative skill which makes you understand the benefit that his work brings to the younger performers.

Matthew Lotter as Ivan Khlestakov is the other professional counterpart, and he whips up his character into a frenzy in all the right ways. Just short of corpsing all over the stage, he offers a reflection on this role of a scoundrel who lands by chance with his bum in the butter, which such largesse and energy, you will fall in love with the idea of him.

Reading between the programme’s lines, the rest of the cast are students. There are some astonishingly fine performances here, and some weaker ones there, but by and large, this production is handled with such intelligence and professional focus that the lesser experienced or talented youngsters are swept off their feet and into the thick of the madness and brilliance of the tale. Clocking in at almost three hours, this is a highly watchable and frankly unmissable piece.

The Mayor and the Police: Peter Terry and Lucky Mqoboli. Photograph by Ruphin Coudyzer.

The Mayor and the Police: Peter Terry and Lucky Mqoboli. Photograph by Ruphin Coudyzer.

  • Government Inspector by Nikolai Gogol is adapted by David Harrower and directed by Jessica Friedan. It is performed by Zoe Beavon; Melody House; Matthew Lotter; Sabelo Makhubo; Campbell Jessica Meas; Nomathamsanqa Mhlakaza; Kirsten Mohamed; Obett Motaung; Dimakatso Motholo; Lucky Mqaboli; Jövan Muthray; Michelle Schewitz; Peter Terry; Searatoa van Driel; Saskia van Ryneveld; Gillian Wittstock; Jonathan Young; and Nonkululeko Zandamela and features production design by Andrew Hofmeyr (costumes); and Zewande Bhengu (set). It performs at the Downstairs Theatre, Wits Theatre Complex in Braamfontein, until April 30. (011)717-1376.

Hillbrow deserves better

Maria (Sasha-Lee Kelly) and Jimmy (Pierre Kok). Photograph by Ruphin Coudyzer.

Maria (Sasha-Lee Kelly) and Jimmy (Pierre Kok). Photograph by Ruphin Coudyzer.

It is hard to imagine a production premised on the hurly burly melting pot of society that the suburb of Hillbrow in Johannesburg has always been, as weak. But the work written and directed by John Badenhorst playing at Wits Amphitheatre this week has almost no redeeming features.

With a flimsy one-dimensional tale cast around the fact that Hillbrow was sanctuary for people who didn’t quite fit into apartheid’s categories, and things happened around, above and below the rule of law, the work is supported by actors so unformed and uninformed and wooden in their offering that you can almost visualise the words they have learned earnestly and off by heart.

The highlight of this soporifically staid piece which stumbles and drags and suffers too many castless transitions, in spite of one moment of lovely choreography, is in fact the radiogram in the corner of the set, which lends the work one spot of time-related colour. That said, such scant attention is paid to the authenticity of the set it feels insulting to the era, ten years into apartheid, where aesthetics mattered and manners hid the monsters of bigotry.

A comment from the designer in the programme notes which speaks of how the time frame of Hillbrow in the 1950s is “relatively unfamiliar” is actually offensive: in this day and age, where research is fuelled by google which has the capacity to criss-cross the world and timeframes with abandon, it feels bizarre that something within lived memory of some of the audience was not accessible by the designers. Youth should never be allowed to be an excuse for incompetence.

Like William Styron’s 1979 shattering classic, Sophie’s Choice – made into an unforgettable film with Meryl Streep in 1982 – the work is narrated through the aspirations of a young writer, but sadly, Pierre Kok in the role of Jimmy Horwitz is no Stingo.

Indeed, all that befalls Jimmy, from a sexual awakening to losing friends to murder, are handled with such a lack of style or grace or adult reflection that they leave you completely untouched. He is not only unconvincing as a narrator, but he embodies the role of a Jew, living in a post-Holocaust, émigré culture as though this is nothing at all.

The programme notes and publicity material of this work do not indicate the level of drama education that this faltering young cast of nine have been privy to, which lead you to assume they must be professional. If this is the case, however, this industry is in dire straits: the work reeks of a lack of intelligent research, a lack of developed nuance and a lack of conviction.

But wait, there’s more: it’s a matter of utter perplexity that the venue of the Amphitheatre, which comprises three rows of permanent bleachers with movable slippery plastic cushions and no seats at all, on which it is virtually impossible for an adult to find a comfortable sitting position, continues to be used to showcase work. The venue is diabolically bad and can only make a weak production seem worse. What were they thinking?

Maria (Sasha-Lee Kelly) and Paulie (Oupa Sibeko). Photograph by Ruphin Coudyzer

Maria (Sasha-Lee Kelly) and Paulie (Oupa Sibeko). Photograph by Ruphin Coudyzer

Hillbrow written and directed by John Badenhorst, based on a text by Brian Portelli, features production design by Jo Glanville and lighting by Julian August. It is performed by Pierre Kok; Sasha-Lee Kelly; Phillipa Bedford; Tiffani Cornwall; Ivan André; Tutu Zondo; Oupa Sibeko; Benjamin Bell; and Devon Welmers and is at the Wits Amphitheatre until April 25 (011)717-1376