Blood in the water, a sjambok on the wall

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STAINED sheets and the wrath of Mamma: Frikkie (Zak Hendrikz) and Sussie (Liezl de Kock). Photograph by Jan Potgieter.

THE POTENTIALLY SINISTER and foetid context of what goes on — or used to go on — behind closed farm doors in grim and unbending religious South Africa comes under close and gory scrutiny in Reza de Wet’s riveting tale of incest and dirt, horror and gamesplaying. It’s as much a psychological tale of trauma as it is a foray into really graphic representations of violence, sinister complicity and the space between twisted imagination and terrifying reality. With a sterling cast headed by the inimitable Liezl de Kock as Sussie, the work will bleed into the very interstices of your nightmares, but promises to retain its status as a classic of South African theatre making.

Diepe Grond, the work in its original Afrikaans, saw light of day at the Market Theatre in the mid-1980s and some 30 years later, premised on an English translation of the work by de Wet herself, it doesn’t miss a beat in terms of the grim filth of a mixture between staunch Afrikaans righteousness infiltrated with an unwavering sense of religious value, and a clear understanding of what is evil, juxtaposed with moral values that have had their sanity and their heart torn out by the roots.

Sussie and Frikkie Cilliers (Zak Hendrikz) live in abject filth. There is dirt everywhere. It’s in baking tins and disused food cans and all over the table. You can smell the detritus of their body fluids on the stained mattress, in your mind’s nose, as you look at the careful and rich detail of this set. The chamber pot and the basin of water constitute their bathroom. The nanny, Alina (Thembi Mtshali-Jones) is a maternal yet sinister presence, but she is moulded to fit a traditional understanding of domestic maid in an apartheid South African context. But this is dirt and domesticity with a history that has become frozen by an event.

The set embraces everything, with the dun-coloured screen that allows for shadow against muted light and indicates another room in the house, the raw wood made of what seems to be shards of railways sleepers, and the bed itself. The only anomaly is the shiny surface of part of the construct that seems to contradict the rustic values of the space.

These ruins of what was once a farm house, with the children’s mother and father at its helm is the source of a mysterious and destructive relationship between the family and the dearth of water in the land, as well as a repository for hideous secrets. Which brings Mr Grové (Mpho Osei-Tutu) into the mix. He’s a lawyer, a young black educated man, with a job to do. A will to ratify. Information to relate. He has no idea what he’s in for.

There unfolds the kind of madness that you may recognise from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 film Psycho, which sees the characters becoming caricatures of their parents with the flick of an eyebrow, the lilt of a word, the gut-wrenching depth of a screech of pain. And you may think of Yael Farber’s harrowing Mies Julie that too deals very explicitly with the mess and rot behind farm doors in apartheid South Africa. But African Gothic stands its own ground and leaves you feeling wrecked for other reasons. The stories that are told between these siblings, and the stories that are alluded to present an understanding of abuse and madness that will keep you riveted to your chair, throughout.

Having said all of that, the work is not completely flawless. There is a sound track which seems to operate on a loop, and sinister music interjects in places where the machinations of the performances say it all with much more muscle. While the blood-curdling giggles of hyenas in this sound track work, it is the music which strips the here and now from the piece and forces you to remember that this is just a play. Further to that, it is something as small as hairstyle and a physique that affects some of the energy of this piece. Hendrikz’s hairdo is fashionable and primed, blond, curly and tapered, and it clashes with the values of Frikkie’s context and his abjection. Similarly, his body is ripped. And tanned. And we see much of it, which is not necessarily a thing to complain of – but in the context of Frikkie, you expect something baser, something paler and thinner, something you don’t want to look at, but do, as we see with de Kock.

All in all, the work is a violent firestorm of political emotions which reflect an understanding of the land and of life in the isolated reality of a disused rural farm, where jackals bay and the wind seeps willy nilly through the walls, where the spilling of blood is present everywhere and the innocence of utter cruelty is splayed out like a springbok. It promises to be one of those cultural imperatives that continues to raise the bar in theatre-making in this country.

  • African Gothic is written by Reza de Wet and directed by Alby Michaels. It features design by Oliver Hauser (lighting and audio visual), Sarah Roberts mentoring students (production), Jo Glanville mentoring students (costume and props), Nadine Minnaar (set), Franco Prinsloo (sound), Madeleine Lotter-Viljoen (costume construction), Caitlin de Villiers (props construction) and Christelle van Graan (make up). It was performed by Liezl de Kock, Zak Hendrikz, Thembi Mtshali-Jones and Mpho Osei-Tutu in a brief season at the University of Johannesburg’s Con Cowan Theatre. This represents phase four of a 13-month project; the fifth phase promises to see the work hosted on national and international stages in 2018/9.
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Roll up! Roll up! White-faced dark tales for the brave

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WHAT say you, my fine zucchini? Michelle Douglas in Couplet. Photograph courtesy NAF.

THE HIGHLY POWDERED corpse-white face which seems to be disconnected from anything else, pokes through shimmering curtains. It has red cheeks and blackened eye-holes, a startling grimace and a proclivity to spew rhyming lines from its mouth with abandon and complexity. This malleable and mesmerising face sets the tone for Steven Feinstein’s two-hander which tells dark and chilling tales, all cast in rhyming couples. Michelle Douglas – the owner of the face in question – brings to this work which conflates Burlesque and Vaudeville with sleight of hand and Victorian grotesqueries, a sparkly sense of how the tales twist, and from the get-go, it seems as though you’ve stepped into a dinkum PT Barnum experience.

From fearful Freddie to the girl who couldn’t tell a truth, to the tale of Vincent who lived in a world of heartlessness, to the plight of two nasty homeless thoughts and some zucchini narratives, the stories are frisky and bleak in their engagement with evildoings and bad stuff. It might make you think you’ve mistakenly stepped into the Scaffolds’ madcap 1968 song, Lily the Pink, based as it was on a 19th century ballad, framed on the life of a famous concoctor called Lydia Pinkham. But this is no explication of a medicinal compound, it’s a leap and a hop into a world of evilness under the aegis of bawdry, humour, a lot of make up and dresses containing hoops and much cleavage. And indeed, the genre classically points itself to an element of rude meanderings and sexual innuendos, which Couplet doesn’t engage with here, a fact which might lead you to believe it’s a show more for young people than seasoned grown up theatre-goers.

Spiced with fantastic artifice and delightful masks, the work tries hard, but the problem is that you sit there, old or young though you may be, grasping for crispness, and holding on to every rhythm with expectation, so tightly, that the language loses its edge. Given that the nimbleness of a show like this depends on the language, it’s a big blow for the work’s charm. You might think rhyming couplets and believe you can experience predictable rhyme with unpredictable words inserted in hilarious places, but sadly, you don’t get this here. And the laughs don’t come as plentifully as you might wish.

The stories have great potential, but there are many of them and they twist and curve around one another in ways that might leave you so dizzy that you forget what belongs to whom. Rather than telling one story from beginning to end, Douglas and Julie-Anne McDowell, her partner in crime, concatenate them, which leads to bits of scary boys and girls peeking into stories which are not their own.

With a delicious use of masks and puppetry, the work is candy for the eyes, and that powdered face of Douglas’s is its magic ingredient, but the work in entirety might leave you wanting more tightness, as well as a push a tad stronger against those boundaries of permissiveness.

  • Couplet is written by Michelle Douglas and directed by Steven Feinstein. It features design by Feinstein (production), Oliver Hauser (lighting), Lien van der Linde and Christelle van Graan (puppets and masks), Sandy Muller (costumes), Rob Joseph (sets) and Jahn Beukes (music) and is performed by Michelle Douglas and Julie-Anne McDowell until October 28 at the Auto and General Theatre on the Square in Sandton. Call 011 883-8606 or visit http://www.theatreonthesquare.co.za

The boy who loved cats

Agony

CHERRY red lips on a bed of snow. Craig Morris is Malcolm Leask. Photograph by Aman Bloom.

PERFECTION. IT’S SOMETHING every parent wants of their child, no matter how dysfunctional they may be in the rest of their lives. Taken to another level, that quest to make your child the best at ballet, at tennis, at maths can become pathological, twisted and poisonous, and it is on this bizarre relationship that Agony is premised. Written with an impeccable sense of texture that enables you to experience the smell of cat food and that of new tennis balls in your mind’s nose, the work is an unforgettable cipher to the sadness of a life stuffed to bilious satiety with other people’s dreams.

It is here, in this dingy flat filled with cats, that we meet Malcolm Leask. He’s alone. Nine months’ rent in arrears hangs over his head, and the crackle of Puccini on his record player fills the vacuum. That, and the cat food. That, and the memories, which bang and twist against one another in a way that will make you panic and weep as you sit there watching this tale of make believe and other people’s filthy secrets and threats unfold.

It’s a story told by several highly skilled professionals – with light and with puppets, with direction and with writing, which might make you think of Irish actor Patrick Magee and how his physical presence embraced the task of Krapp’s Last Tape which was written by Samuel Beckett with his voice in mind. It’s a story naked of gimmicks which evokes that of Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy in transient ways. But this is no paean to discovering one’s sexuality. It’s no celebration of distant youth. It’s a direct, often ruthless portrayal of what happens when all that pressure to excel is turned inside out, exposing instead the flaws of the one who imposed that pressure. It’s about what happens when one runs by chance into secret fantasies of others that smash one’s life into so many smithereens they can’t be put together again. It’s a story about the intimacy of a theatre’s wardrobe and one that sees the dolphins on the shower curtain weep at the bad things they’re made privy to, and it’s one about reclaiming a sense of self in a world broken by other people’s ugly greed, as it is one that glories in the perfection of closing that last clasp above the zip, of a beautiful ball gown.

And at its core is Craig Morris. Dancer, performer, magician with light and space and bodily presence, Morris gives Malcolm Leask the unequivocal dignity he warrants. To the world, this character might be considered tragic. Within Morris’s reach, he’s a hero making his final curtain call in the face of all the sham and drudgery and punishment that has been dished to him. This play will haunt you with its idiosyncrasies as it will pepper your thinking with what ifs.

  • There’s a brief season of this riveting and completely magnificent work – in loving memory of Greg Melvill-Smith – at Centurion Theatre, in the beginning of November, if you have missed the current season.
  • Agony is conceived by Greg Melvill-Smith and Douglas Thistlewhite, written by Iain Paton and directed by Megan Willson. It is performed by Craig Morris and features design by Jenni-lee Crewe (puppets) and Barry Strydom (lighting). It was performed in the Downstairs Theatre as part of the So So1o Festival at Wits University, on September 29 and 30 and October 8. It performs at the Centurion Theatre on November 3 and 4. Visit centurionteater.co.za or call 012-664-7859.

Lessons from the moon

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DOWN boy! Nhlanhla Mkhwanazi in A Man and a Dog. Photograph by Jan Potgieter (NAF).

THERE’S AN INSTANT in A Man and a Dog in which you fall irrevocably in love with Nhlanhla Mkhwanazi and it happens right at the beginning of this piece. It has something to do with the gusto he injects into his performance and something to do with the utter sense of brazen vulnerability which infuses the characters he sketches as the piece unfolds. Reflecting a careful portrait of a dog with all its canine foibles, from the outset, the work takes you through the terrain of a young Zulu man: it’s a rocky terrain that is pocked with crevices, but you know you are in very safe hands.

A Man and a Dog is a foray into the values of community, and the idiosyncrasy of traditional storytelling and oral narrative. Interwoven into the text – which is about five minutes too long – is a sophisticated reflection on the tough socio-economic challenges that millions of South Africans face, from being raised by grandparents in the city to being rejected by a mother’s husband in the village; challenges that reflect how a world can shatter and shift with the smallest of accidents and challenges that force one’s mother to become a maid to a rich madam, taking her away from you again.

It’s a heartbreaking and true tale peppered with digressions into beliefs and legends, and the boldness with which Mkhwanazi performs conflates beautifully with the way in which the texture of South African society is revealed. It’s never a pretty image, and the work is evolved to contain elements of nuance which angrily reflect on how men have let down women and how women are impossibly burdened with trying to keep it all together.

While the anger in the text towards the end becomes, from time to time, so pervasive that some of the magic at the work’s outset loses some of its spark, the piece is a strong and convincing extrapolation on the underbelly of life in South Africa. It’s mottled with Catch-22s, which sees a young Nhlanhla of eight being tossed in this direction and that, his dog a loyal follower.

But you always hurt the one you love most, as the saying goes, and the work presents with a couple of sharp bends in the flow of narrative: Unexpected ones that will make you weep.

A Man and a Dog is a strong piece of theatre, told with sophistication and directness. But it is Mkhwanazi’s presence on stage that sets it afire.

  • A Man and a Dog is written and directed by Penny Youngleson based on a story told by Nhlanhla Mkhwanazi. It is also performed by Nhlanhla Mkhwanazi and features set and costume design by Penny Youngleson. It is performed in the Amphitheatre as part of the So So1o Festival hosted by Wits University, tonight (October 7) at 7pm. Visit webtickets.co.za or www.wits.ac.za/witstheatre

Lies that bind us

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MY grandfather, myself: Maude Sandham tells her family’s tales. Photograph courtesy Wits.

WHAT DO YOU do when you discover an implacable secret that effectively will cause tectonic shifts in your relation to the world in which you’ve lived up until now? Do you try to secrete it back where you found it? Do you address it and follow up all its innuendos even if it brings you to a point where you’re addressing the dead and don’t know which way is forward? This is part of the rich and beautiful challenge Maude Sandham set herself in honouring the life and secrets of her grandfather, Alan.

And there follows a very richly constructed text written with a strong hand and a sophisticated sense of timing and of clarity. The language is lucid and poignant and runs directly from the heart with a sense of unwavering frankness. The tale is a true one, unfettered with sensationalism or unnecessary detail or fluff, but a wrenching one premised on apartheid’s draconian values and rules. And it is immediate: we meet Maude’s grandfather, a husband and father, a bricklayer employed by the railways, and a man who is stoic in the face of the indignity of being poor and white – but he is utterly bereft of a true sense of belonging because of a secret that would shatter everything he stood for.

Generations succeed generations and children are born, plastering away a past that is understood for its damaging consequences. It’s a tale that resonates with that of the Afrikaans film Vaselinetjie, and one that serves as a potent hit back to generalisations about what skin colour means. Centred on the Johannesburg suburb of Crosby, known for being a repository for poor people who were white, the work is coupled with a set that comprises projected images of old family snaps that have not been digitally cleaned up, and in consequence, it is deeply haunting, hanging on to authenticity with photographic grain. And the optimistic young face of the boy in one of the photographs becomes a cipher for complex levels of betrayal.

The revelation of the secret is the nub of the play and it is evolved in layers of devastating subtlety that give voice to the depth of value in a sense of belonging; a subtlety that remembers the bond of sibling love even through the horrors of separation.

The complicated challenges of telling your own story and being the pivotal character in the unfolding tale is clearly one not lost on Sandham who embraces the text with a fulsome sense of directness, but an engaging humility, sweeping you into the values of self-doubt, classical music and memory.

Criss-crossed by references to the other side of the tracks, the work skirts deftly from cliché, and features a humble armchair and a standing lamp, on a carpet; there’s a small table on which a framed photograph stands, its back to the audience. It’s a play in the internal context of a domestic environment, and yet, in being so, it’s a play that opens its heart to the helter-skelter emotional values central to what being raised in a world where the brutality of racial segregation felt obvious.

Unflinching yet vitally important in saying what it does, it is a play of this nature, crafted with a keen sense of aesthetics and a potent understanding of the magic of storytelling that makes you remember what theatre is all about. This kind of work is the kernel and heart of a festival such as So So1o. It deserves legs all over the country – and publication.

  • Tracks is written by Maude Sandham and Nicola Pilkington. It is performed by Maude Sandham and directed by Nicola Pilkington and is the So So1o commissioned play for 2017. It performs in the Downstairs Theatre, Wits University, until October 8. Visit webtickets.co.za or www.wits.ac.za/witstheatre

The things we’ll do for rain

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CASTING light: Hannah Van Tonder is Ntombizonke. Photograph by Tahlia Govender.

AT FIRST, IT’S difficult to believe or understand that that small incident which corrupts a great sheet of fabric covering the stage, is a human being, and yet as the play unfolds and takes you hither and yon through ritual and ancient tradition, contemporary quasi-urban values and a whole litany of prayer, you get to understand how the gesture and belief, the need for water and the love of the land interface, under the steerage of this one performer.

The work is brought to astonishing life by a concatenation of props which recalls, in a sense, Paul Noko’s earlier work Fruit, in which the props held the nexus of the material. Here, though, there’s more, but there is also less. Ntombizonke is the young woman born of a bride who is not a virgin. It transpires that her virginity becomes the suggested sacrifice that must be made to appease the gods in the name of much-needed rain.

Thus follows a tale of fantasy and religious-evocative gesture, but one bruised by too much enthusiasm — the kind of enthusiasm that packs the work so full of references, that it leaves scant space for the simple act of breathing. As a result, everything is brought into the mix, including envelopes of what seem to be seeds cast among the seating, sugar and water for the audience to dip its collective hands into and a pervading sense of ceremony, much of which becomes a red herring as it is not caught up with clarity in the work’s logic. Indeed, even the title of the work becomes sensational in its sense of taboo.

While Hannah Van Tonder in the title role, represents all the voices of this community, which reach back through generations, sometimes her diction is a casualty to too much speed. She is, however, beautifully choreographed, and the work takes on its own dance momentum, which is almost more compelling than the words themselves.

The value of this play which engages a fantasy ceremonial past cannot, however be understated. As it stands, it feels like a young draft in the development something that warrants growth and maturity.

  • The Cursed Vagina is written by Hannah Van Tonder and Paul Noko and directed by Paul Noko. It features design by Thulisa Phungula (music) and Teresa Phuti Mojela (choreography) and is performed by Hannah Van Tonder, in the Amphitheatre, as part of the So So1o Festival hosted by Wits University. The work performed on October 5 and performs at the Nunnery on October 7. Visit www.wits.ac.za/witstheatre or www.webtickets.co.za

Poppie and her beastly baes

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TAKING the cake: Poppie Plaatjies of Khomasdal, Windhoek (Abby Molz). Photograph courtesy Obett Motaung.

A YOUNG WOMAN’S quest for acknowledgement and the kind of basic ordinariness that comes of marriage and babies in a world fraught with abuse, sexual interference, utter loneliness and other irrevocable and intimate disruptions is the focus of this compelling one-hander. But this ain’t no pity party. Poppie Plaatjies comes home from work, where she is a Checkers cashier, discards her high-heeled shoes and her push-up bra in the same dismissive sense that a man would discard his tie – but with more complex manoeuvring, and tells us her tale.

Abby Molz becomes the character with a ferocity that is potent and emotional and the performance she yields is strong and three-dimensional. She offers an insight into Poppie’s life and universe in a way that will make you consider the socioeconomic realities of the Afrikaans-speaking Coloured community of Namibia and South Africa. It’s not dispassionate, but it will leave you with the sense of a whole evolved world, all its grit and filth intact.

The character’s sex is important to the machinations of the story: it features in the title – koek being Afrikaans slang for vagina – and throughout the gestures she makes and the narrative that unfolds. It’s about brothers and lovers, old men and violent men, it’s about her mother’s boyfriends and the way in which she is putty in their hands. But ultimately, it is about the lone voice of a chronically vulnerable young woman fraught with fragile bravado and aware of the complexity it takes to be human in a world which has conspired to break you because you’re a girl and that’s what the culture allows.

Molz’s performance is, however, slightly bruised by her miming in parts of the piece, which reveals a sloppy engagement with the imagined objects at hand. You’re often not sure exactly what she’s doing as she mimes the kitchen chores or pages through a magazine. She irons with a gusto that would break any iron – mimed or not – and she twists things in a way that renders their identity blurred.

The work is scripted with a literalness and a sense of the predictable, but in being so, it comprises a rich and palpable texture that does credit to the medium of the monodrama and the slice of life it promises. Molz’s is certainly a name to watch, in this industry.

  • My Koek is Moeg (My Cake is Tired) is written by Nashilongweshipwe Mushaandja and directed by Obett Motaung. It was performed by Abby Molz on September 29 and October 1 in the Amphitheatre, as part of the So So1o festival, hosted by Wits Theatre. Visit wits.ac.za/witstheatre