Of snake shenanigans and trouser vipers

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MY lips are sealed: Funny guys Ben Voss and John van de Ruit.

THE POLITICAL, SEXUAL and otherwise social hooliganism of us South Africans, big and small, black and white make for constantly fertile material with which to play. Particularly if you’re John van de Ruit and Ben Voss. Their Mamba brand, coined in 2002, is still going strong with classic and new sketches and skits that reach as close to the bone – or the boner – as they dare, and come up laughing each time and in this regard and with this premise in mind, Mamba Republic does not disappoint.

From the wiles and faux pas of Parliament (on a soccer field) to an essay on the idiocy of masculinity, Mamba Republic, in evoking the kind of spoofs devised and presented by Spike Jones and the City Slickers in the 1940s, offers sketch upon sketch upon sketch. Not all of them work well, but there are so many, at such nimble and close succession, rapidly firing into the audience, as they tease apart the ludicrous and the downright outrageous that have adorned the South African landscape, of late, that you quickly overlook the ones which didn’t make you laugh out loud.

You won’t forget the hilarious interviews with “Pest means Business” and “President Gupta”, which tosses up the earnestness of tv shows of this nature, throwing finance minister jokes with hilarious abandon into the mix. You won’t forget a spoof of Idols, which is about racist behaviour and silliness. And you most certainly won’t forget the way in which van de Ruit and Voss have taken cuisine to a new level of political humour. Theirs was the white whine which hit the funnies’ headlines some years ago, and this repartee still pushes forth, sending up everything from corruption in the SABC to the draconian frowns of political incorrectness.

This is easy and good entertainment: the puns and jokes are there, as they are in the news broadcasts, and the work offers a flow of dialogue, mockery and giggles which takes apart all the South African stereotypes in all their vulnerabilities to laugh at how they tick. Too nifty to be offensive, too gentle to hurt, the Mamba brand is an excellent one and a real crowd pleaser.

  • Mamba Republic is written by John van de Ruit and Ben Voss. Directed by Dr Mervyn McMurtry, it features lighting design by Michael Taylor-Broderick and is performed by John van de Ruit and Ben Voss at the Auto and General Theatre on the Square in Sandton, until August 20. Visit theatreonthesquare.co.za or call 011 883 8606.
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Are we home, yet?

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WHAT happens now? Grace (Lynelle Kenned) en route to a foreign country to escape a war in Africa. Photograph by Oscar O’Ryan

<<Warning: This production contains strobe lights and lights focused directly on the audience>>

THE TRICK OF writing good material for a stage production is not about packing a story full of so much detail that it develops narrative indigestion, and then focusing interrogation-strong lights on your audience from time to time. It’s about the age-old principle of less is more.

The much-anticipated brand new musical Calling Me Home is, as it is billed, a story of hope, a story of love and a story of home. But it’s also a story of drugs and shallow stereotypes, a story of war and Africa, a story of jail and betrayal, a story of class awareness and poverty, a story of prostitutes and the mafia, a story of woman abuse and exile, and the list goes on. In short, it tries very earnestly to do far too many things concurrently and sadly spins way out of its depth very quickly.

To add insult to injury, it’s a very long show, clocking in at close to three hours, including the interval. It’s this long because the story is pedantic and begs for the decisions of a strong editor. The songs are also annoyingly repetitive. Featuring strong voices which have earned their stripes in the local theatre industry, including Lynelle Kenned, Samantha Peo and Anthony Downing, the work doesn’t respect the individual personae of the performers, and its thunderball of a story which is bombastic as it is clichéd, featuring bland choreography – particularly for the women, and lyrics which utterly lack poetry, become something of an ordeal for the audience to sit through.

It’s a story of sibling love in a time of war, jimmied into other realities in a diversity of directions which make you think there was an angry committee at the helm of this writing project.

Indeed, in the opening scenes, Zolani Mahola presents a strong Lindiwe, who meets Grace (Lynelle Kenned) on the train and the two become friends. Lindiwe is a woman with a terrible tale to tell: she’s a runaway from an abusive husband. As the story unfolds and rolls in a whole range of concurrent directions, Lindiwe turns into a cameo, a casualty of the work.

This is not an isolated instance of thwarted opportunity. Samantha Peo plays Isabella, a tragic figure who is the sister of Rafael (Anthony Downing), Grace’s romantic interest. She sings in a night club, snorts her way through unhappiness and is subject to the whims of Russian druglords, Vladimir (Pierre van Heerden) and Ivan (Christiaan Snyman). Isabella’s tale headlines the second half of the production, and it’s a squalid tale told with great dollops of schmaltz, so earnest in their application that the potential subtlety of Peo’s character is battered by the prosaic nature of the work.

All things considered, with due respect to the professionals involved in creating this work and giving the project life, you cannot help but ask yourself: we live currently in such a violent society; do we really need to spend money to see more war and strobe lights on our stages, in the garb of tricksy techology? Do we really need to be exposed to gun-toting performers casting a fantasy war around us, as we sit in a theatre?

Calling Me Home features innovative set design with animation that will hold your interest – conveying a sense of space and atmosphere which is clear and compelling. But some basic premises in the work hurt what might have been good intentions, and as you peer through these sets at the world the production hopes to magic into life, you come away with some very damaging stereotypes about cultures – Africans are defined by war, poverty and cultural naivete, while Americans are tainted by the overweening presence of Russian crime bosses, construction workers and prostitutes. It’s enough to make you want to flee all the way home, without even being called to do so.

  • Calling Me Home is written and composed by Alice Gillham and directed by Magdalene Minnaar, assisted by Grant van Ster. It features creative input by Nadine Minnaar (set), Joshua Cutts (lighting), Louis Minnaar and Werner Burger (animation), Shaun Oelf (choreography), Alice Gillham and Stefan Lombard (musical direction), Mark Malherbe (sound), Matthew James (soundscape) and Juanita Kôtze and Sue Daniels (wardrobe). It is performed by Luigia Casaleggio, Anthony Downing, Richard Gau, Carly Graeme, Isabella Jane, Lynelle Kenned, Saxola Ketshengane, Vasti Knoesen, Clint Lesch, Tannah Levick, Thiart Li, Zolani Mahola, Kgomotso Makwela, Tankiso Mamabolo, Michael McMeeking, Manda Ndimande, Given Nkosi, Yollandi Nortjie, Samantha Peo, Laura-Lee Pitout, Musanete Sakupwanya, Dihan Schoeman, Conroy Scott, Len-Barry Simons, Christiaan Snyman, Annemarie Steenkamp, Shaun Thomas, Anja van den Berg, Sarah-Ann van der Merwe, Pierre van Heerden, Sebastian Zokoza and Zion Zuke, as well as a live orchestra featuring Cameron Andrews (clarinet), Olga Korvink (violin), Maureen Marler (‘cello), Anna-Maria Muller (flute) and Marga Sander (piano), in the Mandela Theatre, Joburg Theatre complex, Braamfontein, Johannesburg, until September 3. Visit joburgtheatre.com or call 0861 670 670.

Two women, and tea with Greek biscuits

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KINDRED spirits: Grace (Lesedi Job) chats to Luli (Fiona Ramsay) of books and life, persecution and victory. Photograph by Suzy Bernstein.

LAST NOVEMBER, AN extraordinary gem of a play saw light of day at the Market Theatre. It was an unusual work, paying tribute to the complex life of South African Greek political activist, teacher, writer and social historian, Luli Callinicos. And unusual in that, because academics are seldom perceived to be sexy enough to honour, during their lifetimes, in this way. It was also a one-hander, stretching Fiona Ramsay’s characterisation skills beautifully. Now, almost a year later, the same creative team, with the addition of Lesedi Job, in the role of Grace, a young woman who was born in exile in the United Kingdom, presents a new manifestation of the work.

Examining the two If We Digs is an incisive exercise in storytelling priorities: the second version is not remarkably better than the first – rather, it features both gains and losses. In introducing the Grace character, the work resonates like a conversation rather than a self-conscious monodrama. And Grace’s life and identity are opened up to both Luli (played by Ramsay) and the audience.

Her presence as a conduit for Luli’s memories is not sufficiently explained, however. Is she interviewing Luli? Why, then, has she brought her own memories to the table? Is Luli interviewing her? Why then, does Luli offer so much of her own anecdotes? Are they old friends? Not really – they’re of different generations, albeit from within a similar political texture, and their conversations reveal unknowns about one another.

This red herring may be cast aside and be forgiven however, because what a dialogue does for the material as opposed to a monologue, is enrich the give and take in the texture of the material. Job’s presence is refined and impassioned and the character she represents is well honed and a good corollary to Ramsay’s Luli, who encapsulates all the idiosyncrasies of South African Greek culture with wisdom and perspective, as well as with deep fondness.

Also placed on a circular stage, as its earlier manifestation was, the work is homely in its sense of domestic space, but not overworked in detail. It is allowed to breathe – and similarly, the South African (and Greek) music which seeps between the interstices of the play are placed with elegance and subtlety, supporting the textual focus well.

But, you in the audience, who might not have seen the first version of this play, lose access to some of Luli’s stories which were re-enacted and brought to memorable life the first time round. Instead, here, the voices of the people who dot Callinicos’s research over a lifetime of archives and documents become lost and turn into footnotes in the folds of the conversation between Luli and Grace.

Further to that, the work ends too neatly. It’s all wrapped with a hug and a proverbial bow tied in rainbow nation hues which leaves you wanting more, though it’s a long, wordy work. Ultimately, the contribution which Callinicos has made to the world in which we live through her research and teaching, her engagement with her own heritage and her beautiful use of language, is precious and both the first and the second manifestations of this work offer her significant presence in audience awareness and memory. But is the latest version of this play better? No. But that’s not a bad thing – This If We Dig is as much a theatrical gem as the last, but for different reasons.

  • If We Dig is written by Fiona Ramsay and Megan Willson and directed by Megan Willson. It features creative input by Nomvula Molepo (lighting) and Nadya Cohen (set and costumes). It is performed by Lesedi Job and Fiona Ramsay in the Barney Simon Theatre, Market Theatre complex, in Newtown, Johannesburg, until August 27. Phone 011 832 1641 or visit markettheatre.co.za

Drive my car

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BACKSEAT driver: Hoke Colburn (John Kani) and Miss Daisy (Sandra Prinsloo). Photograph courtesy Brooklyn Theatre.

THE ACHIEVEMENT OF theatrical perfection is very rare. And when it happens, you have to grab it with both hands, and make a point of seeing it, whatever it takes. The Afrikaans rendition of the 1989 American story of an elderly white woman and her black driver seems so seamlessly South African, it’s difficult to force your mind around remembering the Jessica Tandy, Morgan Freeman Academy Award-winning version of this work, as you sit and watch South Africa’s unequivocal best doing greatness.

This is simply what you get in the brief season of the work under Christiaan Olwagen’s directorial hand, and with no less than Sandra Prinsloo and John Kani in the respective leads. It is a supremely beautifully crafted work, from top to toe – from the manner in which the costumes fit the context, to the manner in which the performers fill the skins of their characters, to the ingenious understanding of a car as a stage within a theatre, and an audio-visual component that is spot on.

In short, this is as good as it gets. A gentle and empathetic paean to the horror and indignity of ageing, against the changing forces at play in contemporary history and politics, the story is about an elderly Afrikaans woman (Prinsloo) and her son Boolie (Jacques Bessenger). It is his difficult job to gently prise his ageing mum’s hands from the steering wheel of her car and face the implications that this will have on her life and her sense of self.

Enter Hoke Colburn (Kani), a black man who can drive and needs the job. He might not have been formally educated, but he’s completely savvy as to the crooked way of the world – the story takes place in the grim crux of apartheid – and armed thus, without anything on his side, he takes the old lady’s backchat with mostly a pinch of salt and a developed understanding. A story unfolds. Not quite a love story, but an essay about love. It’s also a gentle yet gritty foray about Springbok Radio and learning to read in a cemetery. It’s about the silence that comes of dementia and the quiet dignity of being able to call oneself someone’s best friend.

While the cell phone reference early on in the work does feel slightly anachronistic, the work flows with an easy fluidity – but there is so much more. To see Kani performing in a role that is about the tough discriminatory energies of apartheid, and to see him doing it in Afrikaans, of all languages, lends a deep and resonant understanding of what true performance skill and dignity is all about. His Hoke leaps through politics and time. His Hoke is a man ageing too, who looks death in the eye with a touch of laughter and a lot of soul. His Hoke speaks Afrikaans like a local and he will make you weep with his sense of brave vulnerability. Prinsloo’s Miss Daisy is profoundly brittle and immersed in the egotistical bravado that comes of age. She encapsulates that sense of an old woman that makes you recoil from her and love her, simultaneously. In short, she’s the feisty mum who is the repository of innocent racist values that infused an ideology.

And yes, it is uncomfortable: it reveals all the ugliness of bias couched in wisdom and context. It’s predictable in its structure, but resonant in its articulation of values. Without pussyfooting in political rhetoric or attempting to be politically correct, it casts some magic in the world. In short, seeing the Afrikaans rendition of Driving Miss Daisy is the best reason to be in Pretoria, right now.

  • So Ry Miss Daisy is written by Alfred Uhry and translated into Afrikaans by Saartjie Botha. It is directed by Christiaan Olwagen and features creative input by Rocco Pool (set), Wolf Britz (lighting) and Birrie Le Roux (costumes). It is performed by Jacques Bessenger, John Kani and Sandra Prinsloo at the Brooklyn Theatre, Menlo Park, Pretoria, until August 19. Visit brooklyntheatre.co.za or call 012 460 6033.

Soil tilled to a new level

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PRAISE the lord and pay your dues! The press (Billy Langa, Momo Matsunyane, Lillian Tshabalala, Alfred Motlhapi and Katlego Letsholonyana) interview the messianic Mgnae (Omphile Molusi). Photograph by Thandile Zwelibanzi.

EVERY SO OFTEN in any artistic community, there’s an upsurge of aesthetic do’s and don’ts. It has as much to do with intellectual fashions of the day as it does with the personalities and egos in the industry. But it gives vent and platform to new voices, headlined by virtue of what they are doing with their words and ideas on stage. Monageng ‘Vice’ Motshabi and Omphile Molusi have created a theatrical statement in Ankobia which mashes together the values of Bertolt Brecht with those of George Orwell, in a thunderingly direct South African context. Breathtakingly.

These values are spliced and tossed together in a science-fictionised, sophisticated yet simple context of savagery and corruption which we all know, in this country – indeed, in this world. But this is no easy or direct spoof of contemporary local politics. Wrapping levels of corruption and reflections of religious hypocrisy together, it is a fantasy tale which takes place in 2041. It cuts close to the bone yet is couched in an understanding of biblical narrative and the complexities of acting. A fruit salad, you may think. You’d be wrong: the piece is tautly written and beautifully performed, condensed down to a tale that is easy to follow, even if you only speak English.

In short, Ankobia, featuring sterling performances from the whole cast, in terms of the muscularity and the malleability of their characters, is not only an important bit of theatre heritage for this society, it’s a play for the people in a way that looks to the future of culture. It’s an angry work, which takes pejorative notions, such as racist values, to the hilt and redefines them with an ironic spin. Land issues are transmogrified into a reflection on the magic potency of soil, and the son of God is but an actor on contract (Molusi).

The sinister morality of this work is embraced with visual humour and strong techno-vibes which see an amalgamation of traditional references and a spattering of LED lights. The one flaw in the work is the plasticity of the set which seems to stultify its energy and is not dealt with directly. Having said that, the choreography and dispersal of song gestures and asides lends the work a Brechtian texture, as does the presence of a faux messianic narrator, in all his bravado and flawed values.

It’s a team energy that seethes and bursts with both dexterity and wisdom, and is driven to an even higher level with the use of a musician – Volley Nchabeleng – onstage, lending the piece traditional authenticity and subtlety that is completely appropriate. Similarly, Jurgen Meekel’s audiovisual interjections are positioned with acuteness and fit properly into the material.

But this is no soft or easy story. Ankobia is about twisted values and coerced behaviour. It’s about the purging of brainwashing tools and witches and savages who are the real custodians of a land gone beserk. It’s easily one of the highlights of this city’s theatre picking in a long while.

  • Ankobia is written by Monageng ‘Vice’ Motshabi and Omphile Molusi and directed by Monageng ‘Vice’ Motshabi. It features creative input by Amos Kgaugelo Phala (costumes), Teresa Phuti Mojela (choreography), Thapelo Mokgosi (lighting), Thando Lobese (set) and Jurgen Meekel (audiovisual) and is performed by Billy Langa, Katlego ‘Kaygee’ Letsholonyana, Momo Matsunyane and Omphile Molusi with Volley Nchabeleng playing a wide range of indigenous musical instruments and creating sound effects. It is at the Mannie Manim Theatre, Market Theatre complex in Newtown, Johannesburg, until August 13. Call 011 832 1641 or visit markettheatre.co.za

Bathroom of a million thoughts

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ALL alone in the lavatory. Helen (Gina Shmukler) confronts her future and her past. Photograph by Suzy Bernstein.

PICTURE THE SCENARIO. Suddenly, everything that you may have known in your life has been curtailed down to extreme basics. You’ve a toilet and running water. Electricity. Some magazines, maybe. You can hear what is going on, but cannot reach it. Does anyone know that you are there? You are holed in the guest loo of your house, while burglars ransack your possessions. What is going through your head? This is the premise on which Mike van Graan’s Helen of Troyeville rests. Performed by seasoned actress Gina Shmukler, it is the kind of play that will engage and haunt you, not only because of the magnificent performance, but also because of its political crux.

The work is similar in many respects to the premise in Megan Voysey-Braig’s 2008 novel, Till We Can Keep an Animal. Helen is a white woman who has enjoyed the wide range of privileges that living in South Africa for a white person has presented to her. She’s educated, she’s got all the material possessions she could wish for, including the facility of a guest bathroom, in her home, which has become the repository for everything. She’s widowed. Her daughter has children of her own and lives elsewhere. Hers is a comfortable complacency that comes of age in a context of privilege. All her life she’s had a sense of her own agency. She’s felt that she has a role to play in her own decisions. Suddenly all of this is broken.

There are strange men in her house and she has become victim to a hostage situation and what happens next hangs is in the balance. Helen is savvy of her position as a statistic that won’t leave a blip on news feeds, either way. She’s also cognisant of the awkward role of privileged whites in a society beleaguered by poverty, corruption and oppression that traditionally still befalls people who are not white. She was once a “do-gooder” in society, that enthusiastic buyer of informal knick-knacks from beggars at traffic lights, she argues to herself.

But now she isn’t. Disempowered, disenfranchised, cast out of the picture, subject to the will of others. It is this scenario that forces her to rethink everything – life, her place in it, and what it all means. All she has to bounce ideas off is the bathroom mirror and her memories. And there follows a beautiful concatenation of ideas articulated with a texture and a rhythm that is infectious, almost Shakespearean in its flow, volume and width.

By and large, Helen is not a character given to self-pity, but her mood and her perspectives wax and wane with the flow of time, which does seem to stop, as she strains her ears to get an inkling of what may be happening upstairs in her home. To her possessions. And with a gulp of horror, to her dogs.

Focusing on everything from what she has to what she doesn’t have any longer – she gets you to remourn your own losses – as she ponders the sister she lost, the husband, the adult child who never fitted in, the child of a domestic worker, killed in a crime.

It’s a beautiful play, honed with tiny but provocative musical interludes, exceptional skill and Mike van Graan’s characteristic and intense depth of focus, all enclosed in a tight whorl of values – even to the point where Shmukler’s articulation is not always completely audible – on a level, she is, after all, alone and in her bathroom, allowing her thoughts to bounce off the tiled surfaces.

But it’s also a very frightening play, almost obvious in its framework and in the country’s state of mind with regard to this kind of crime. Handled by professionals highly skilled at their craft, from playwright van Graan to Shmukler to relative newcomer Lesedi Job at the directorial helm of the work, it’s a jewel. But Helen won’t leave your heart or your mind as you leave the theatre.

  • Helen of Troyeville is written by Mike van Green and directed by Lesedi Job. It features creative input by Mandla Mtshali (lighting) and is performed by Gina Shmukler in the Wits Downstairs theatre, on July 29 at 18:00 and July 30 at 18:00, as part of the Wits 969 Festival. Visit webtickets or see Wits 969’s facebook page.
  • For an interpretative commentary on this show, by seasoned columnist Geoff Sifrin, read this.

Make-believe and tiger shenanigans

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OH, mummy, he’s hungry! The Tiger (Jonathan Raath), relishes the remains of dinner, delighting and shocking Sophie (Pascalle Durand) and mummy (Louise Duhain). Photograph courtesy National Children’s Theatre.

WHAT WOULD YOU do if a great big orange, stripy tiger was an unexpected guest at your mummy’s tea table? Like the other tots in the audience, you would undoubtedly be blown away with an excess of cuteness, fluffiness and delight, and forget about the practicalities of feeding a very hungry beast, even if he has mostly dashing manners. The National Children’s Theatre is rapidly honing yet another feather in its proverbial cap, by developing work that caters to the 2-5 age group, and they’re doing it with utterly professional aplomb.

The stage adaptation of Judith Kerr’s The Tiger Who Came To Tea, directed by the inimitable Francois Theron is spot on in terms of the collaborative energies of the piece. Eight-year-old Pascalle Durand as Sophie, the child for whom this orange-striped extravaganza happens, shimmies like a real professional. She carries her role with directness and dignity and her singing voice is like a little bell, loud and clear enough to inspire joy into the hearts of the oldest and most craggy of curmudgeons, let alone the babies in the audience. Above all, she collaborates with the grown ups on the cast as a real team member. This is a child to watch.

The story is gentle and direct, espousing a 1960s normalcy that is about daddy (Kefilwe Mohlabane) going to work in a suit and tie, mummy (Louise Duhain) doing mummy things such as shopping and cooking, and Sophie enjoying the variety of delights that comprise her life, from receiving a kitty in the post to joking with the milkman (Jonathan Raath), and watching the tick-tock of the clock as the day passes.

The Tiger (Raath) in his head-to-toe costume interrupts things, but he’s a very welcome routine-quasher. This brightly coloured work with brilliant black and white props that do not pretend to be the ‘real’ thing, represent a perfect introduction for your littly to the make-believe magic that theatre offers. Clocking in at 45 minutes, and featuring some dance-along activities and some “He’s behind you!” intrigues, it’s a work that is just right for the little tiger in your life. The question must be posed, however, as to whether, like this theatre’s recent production of the Library Lion, audience members can anticipate an isiZulu or perhaps an isiXhosa tiger at their tea table, in the near future?

  • The Tiger Who Came To Tea is adapted for stage by David Wood, based on the eponymous book by Judith Kerr. It is directed by Francois Theron and features creative input by Dale Scheepers (musical direction), Sarah Roberts (costumes), Stan Knight (set) and Jodie Davimes (choreography). It is performed by Louise Duhain, Kefilwe Mohlabane and Jonathan Raath and an alternating child cast of Zoe Buitendag, Pascalle Durand and Luca Teague. This review is premised on the performance featuring Pascalle Durand. It performs at Wynnstay, on the National Children’s Theatre campus in Parktown, until August 20. Visit nationalchildrenstheatre.org.za or call 011 484 1584.