Humbug, opaque Victorian language and a ghostly trio

Please Note: This production contains halogen lights shone directly into the audience’s eyes.

ChristmasCarol

BAH! Scrooge (Jason Ralph) on a bid to discover the ghost of Christmas Present. Photograph courtesy http://www.artslink.co.za

IT SEEMS THAT Charles Dickens’s Christmas Carol is the flavour of the season this year. There are no less than three manifestations in Johannesburg of this Victorian cautionary tale about a miser and how his ways have been changed by ghosts of his past and ghosts that point the way to a dire future, if he keeps up his parsimonious and downright horrid behaviour. This production, staged under the directorial pen of Elizma Badenhorst, she of the impeccable The Mystery of Irma Vep staged earlier this year at this theatre, lacks the pizzazz and directorial wisdom you might have expected.

While there’s nothing wrong with paring down a great classic and rendering its detail and texture bold and direct – as you may have seen in the National Children’s Theatre’s production of A Seussified Christmas Carol – it needs to be slick and carefully handled. And cognisance needs to be taken for people in the audience who are not completely familiar with the original story.

This production pulls out all the audio-visual tricks in the book. Some of them are astonishingly achieved, with animation, puppetry and masks, and a great sense of spooky whimsy is at times evoked. And there’s a fantastic quotation from the work of Giuseppe Arcimboldo – the Renaissance artist who made portraits using painted foods – in the form of a giant and rambunctious mask but you need to be seated appropriately to get to see it.

Alas, the magic and whimsy evoked by some of the animation and the presence of the ghosts is not the general flavour of the work, however. At times the animation and the conflation of overhead voices and miming feels glaringly amateurish. At others, the Victorian nature of the text overwhelms the action and even the scariest of spooks with clanking chains and appropriately placed howling, doesn’t succeed in driving the work.

And then there’s the lights. It’s difficult to understand how and why a team headed by someone capable of creating as fine and focused a piece as The Mystery of Irma Vep would resort to the lumpen trick of blinding the audience with bright lights. As you sit there with your eyes closed or heavily shaded from the harsh halogen glare, you vaguely wonder what is being covered up here – because this is exactly what it feels like.

Having said all of that, Jason Ralph in the key role handles the miserly old Ebenezer with aplomb. He’s wily and rude, shrewd and quite hilarious. His volte face after the ghostly trio have seen to him, is believable. Supported by Naret Loots who mans the puppets and slips between a multitude of characters, the duo evoke an energy which is not, however, developed. Further to this, Loots has a tendency to smile very broadly on stage, particularly when she is the spirit of a puppet rather than a character itself. What happens is your eye is drawn to her smile and the puppet-generated illusion gets shattered.

As a result, what feels like a vanity project with a lot of exciting possibility trips up on its own sense of enthusiasm. Also a word of warning – something which many productions of Dickens fall into: this is not a children’s show – it’s more for children, admittedly, than Dickens’s Oliver Twist is, for instance – but the complexity of the language and nuance and curvaceousness of the tale will lose the focus of the sproglets rather quickly.

  • A Christmas Carol is written by Charles Dickens, adapted for stage and directed by Elizma Badenhorst. It features design by Naret Loots (animation), and Wessel Odendaal (music) and is performed by Christopher Dudgeon (voice-over), Naret Loots and Jason Ralph at The Studio Theatre, Montecasino complex in Fourways until January 7, 2018. Call 011 511 1818 or visit pietertoerien.co.za
  • The three versions of this Dickensian classic include this production, A Seussified Christmas Carol directed by Francois Theron, which is reviewed here, and The Man Who Invented Christmas, a British film directed by Bharat Nalluri, which releases on South African film circuits today (December 15). This film will be reviewed on this website in the next few days.
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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.

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

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.

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

From the mouths of babes

thwala

SINGING to make the world feel beautiful. (from left) Violet Ledwaba (partially obscured); Tisetso Masilo; Zinhle Mnguni; Sakhile Mlalazi; Luyanda Mahlangu; Surprise Seete and Nyiko Kubayi. Photograph by Adriana MC

WHEN YOU KNOW there are children in the cast of a staged work, you instinctively lower the parameters of your expectations. They’re not professionals, after all. Theatre’s a difficult thing to do, if you’re a child. And it’s a truism that the fact of children on stage means that the mommies and daddies in the audience are the ones to whom it is addressed. But when you see Gcebile Dlamini and Sinenhlanhla Mgeyi’s Thwala, you realise from the get-go that this is simply something extraordinary and you will be swept away by the muscularity of the performances, the wisdom implicit in the work’s structure and quite simply the value and ethos of this story.

Comprising an all-girl cast, aged between 11 and 16, the work conveys a simple and bold story about a pastor taking sexual advantage of little girls who live in an orphanage. Already it’s a focus that seems too complex and too sophisticated – not to mention too disgraceful – for these angel-faced children to be confronting, and yet, tragically, this kind of story is par for the course, given what contemporary youth have to face all the time, in this day and age.

While the performers, led by Sakhile Mlalazi as Sebendzile Skhosana and Amehle Mene as the priest are completely wonderful in their sense of self, their sense of cohesion with their peers on the cast and their understanding of character, full credit is due to Dlamini and Mgeyi: the staging of the work, the use of props, which are drawn by the cast, the discipline of the cast and the sense of context they present is exceptionally well developed.

The priest gets his comeuppance and the young girls’ headscarves are uses to represent not only a sense of female modesty but the bars on the prison, in a poetic touch. And in telling all of this, in an amalgamation of languages, the work doesn’t miss a beat: a marimba band lends the work its soundtrack and singers and a chorus add to the energy and fire generated here. It’s not a happily-ever-after fairy tale, but one coaxed into life by the horrors that are endemic to our society, playing very directly into the focus of the #metoo movement.

Will these young women, who put many a professional stage production in this city to shame, get to see professional careers on the back of a university degree in performance? Maybe they will, maybe they won’t. With their socio-economic context, it is not a given that the expense of higher education in a field such as drama is something that any of them will be able to take for granted.

While you might weep at the beauty of their understanding of characters bruised and torn by corrupt figures of authority, you need to reflect on the potential future of these girls. It bodes well for the possibilities of theatre in this country, and serves to lend a very developed reflection on what projects such as the Hillbrow Theatre’s Outreach Foundation continues to do. But this is no pity party. Whatever happens in the future of these children and this initiative, the magic seeds that engender values and creativity have been sewn. The seasons of Thwala have been brief, but there deserve to be many more in the future of this production.

  • Thwala is directed and created by Gcebile Dlamini and Sinenhlanhla Mgeyi, in collaboration with the cast who are from Centurion College. It features creative input by Bigboy Ndlovu (choreography), Themba Moyo (musical direction), Gcebile Dlamini and Sinenhlanhla Mgeyi (costumes), members of the cast assisted by Gift Dube and Benjamin Sambo (set) and is performed Neliseka Malinga, Thobeka Malinga and Hope Mwenda (voice coaching) and is performed by Nyiko Kubayi, Violet Ledwaba, Luyanda Mahlangu, Tisetso Masilo, Amehle Mene, Sakhile Mlalazi, Zinhle Mnguni, Hope Mwenda, Bontle Ndlovu, Nthabiseng Ndlovu, Tumelo Nkoele, Gugulethu Nxumalo, Aminathi Radebe, Surprise Seete and Pearl Segwagwa, supported by a marimba band, comprising Matham Fokane, Pearl Mmamorare, Bridget Moyo, Abigail Skhosana and Ukho Somadlaka. It performed in the Inner City Drama Schools Festival in August, the Drama for Life Sex Actually Festival in September, and was hosted by Drama for Life at the Emkhaya Theatre, Wits University between November 3 and 5. The work is hosted by the Outreach Foundation at the Hillbrow Theatre. Call 011 720 7011 or visit outreachfoundation.co.za

Mary’s boy-child

The Man Jesus. Starring: Lebohang Toko. Directed by: Robert Whit

FOR what shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world and suffer the loss of his soul? Lebo Toko in The Man Jesus. Photograph by Suzy Bernstein, courtesy The Market Theatre.

IRISH WRITER COLM Tóibín did it with the Testament of Mary. As did Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis with The Last Temptation of Christ. South African-born playwright Matthew Hurt steps into this hallowed terrain in taking one of western culture’s most known biblical tales and splaying it out in a quasi-fictional stage production. And under the directorial reach of Robert Whitehead, there’s an element of chutzpah and wisdom for which this production should be commended. But it is not all pervasive.

Armed with a greenish robe, a lightly brocaded shawl and thong sandals, Lebo Toko takes on the whole community surrounding Jesus, which comprises a mêlée of men and women and a whirligig of serious political, biblical and apocryphal figures. He is supported in the multiple criss-crossing tales he tells, with a set comprising wooden pallets and paper scrolls and a soundscape which brings the texture and presence of village dynamics to unsettlingly jagged life.

While the mottled flavour of the theatre, painted as it is in patches of turquoise, browns and whites, is distracting and fights with the set, which serves as a multitude of hiding places rather than as something that has direct functional value, it is the sound design and music that lends much of this work its poignancy and fierceness.

Toko generally does an admirable job, but is stretched in a myriad of directions – some of which seem too far or far-fetched – and the casualty in this work, which is maybe 15 minutes too long, is often in either the articulated language, which, when it reaches the outer margins of shrill, loses its clarity; or in the characters represented: from Judas to Simon, Mary to Johanna, John the Baptist to King Herod, they’re handled with a similarity in tone, boldness and focus that leaves you a tad bewildered as to who is who; sometimes the camp key is pressed a little too vehemently, and sometimes nuance flies out the window.

If you’re not completely familiar with the twists and turns in the way in which the biblical tale and its fictional counterparts duck and dive around one another, you may get lost in the folds of this work, which oddly blend a sometimes two-dimensional reflection of what Judaism means – or meant – with all its loaded connotations of history, belief and politics.

Structured in such a way as to carve out an understanding of Jesus not through direct representation of him, but through his implied presence in the opinions and the gossip of others, the work is rich in text and resonates with general competence, but it is the way in which the presence of Mary, mother of Jesus, enfolds the whole production that lends it the maternal edge that holds it together with a universal energy that is haunting.

She’s a young, unmarried pregnant woman, at the outset, looking critically and not without horror at the way in which her society seems to have lost its moral compass. And when all is said and done, at the other end of the tale, she’s a woman who has had to face any mother’s most awful nightmare. Throughout this work, at times Toko gleams and sparkles, shines and glistens, but it is his portrayal of Mary that is unequivocally a victory for him.

  • The Man Jesus is written by Matthew Hurt and directed by Robert Whitehead. It features design by Noluthando Lobese (set and costume), Mandla Mtshali (lighting) and João Renato Orecchia Zúñiga (composer and sound) and is performed by Lebo Toko at the Barney Simon Theatre, Market Theatre Complex, until November 5. Call 011 832-1641 or visit markettheatre.co.za