Peep show psychiatry

wings

THE unspeakable horror of loss: James (Mncedisi Shabangu) and Paul (Andrew Buckland), caught in time with Sarah (Jennifer Steyn).

THE INDIGNITY OF mental illness is never an easy topic to extrapolate on stage. It can be complicated by drug-induced fantasies and illogical behaviour that fit and don’t fit into the world. For a theatre work being presented to an ordinary audience – and not students experimenting with stretching boundaries – the nub of the challenge is to represent mental brokenness with both plausibility and dignity, not bruising the one over the other. By the end of this piece, it feels as though you’ve been privy to something that is both too ghastly and too private for it to be staged in a theatre.

The Inconvenience of Wings is a tale woven loosely around the magic realism of a short story by Gabriel García Marquez in the 1950s, The Man with Enormous Wings. It is performed with searing aptitude by an incredibly strong cast, against a beautifully functional set, that is punctuated with doors and windows, nuances and keyholes, but you leave feeling uncomfortably manipulated and morally grubby, if not broken and frightened.

Cast in an inverted timeframe that takes you from 1995 all the way back to 1961, in a very linear way, it reflects on the relationship between Paul (Andrew Buckland) and Sarah (Jennifer Steyn), offering a steep trajectory into the very heart of brutal loss and bipolarity. It touches the way in which trauma can reach so deeply into one’s soul that it can change the workings of one’s personality irrevocably.

And while the topic shouldn’t be taboo, the handling of it in this work is unrelenting: the intensity doesn’t let up for one second. Paul’s an architect and his friend James (Mncedisi Shabangu) is a professor of psychiatry, and a foil for the story to weave in political assertions, but also a sounding board for both Paul and Sarah’s challenges. We never do see Sarah in a state of mind that seems calm or lucid. The focus on nearly thirty years of a relationship highlights only the bad and mad areas, making you in the audience feel as though you are witnessing the enactment of a psychiatric case study, evoking Victorian traditions where aberrations were staged in circuses. It also perplexes you as to why they get together at all.

This is a pity. Love and death, witticisms and hilarity shouldn’t be excluded from a tale of insanity. If you watch Miloš Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), you understand the horrendous context of the world and its severe indictment of institutions for mental illness at the time. But while you’re crying and engaging with the characters, you’re laughing: not at them but at the world in relation to them, and at the niftiness and elegance of the writing.

There’s no laughter in The Inconvenience of Wings and the tears you shed are ones of helplessness  against the lurking monster of manic depression and the drugs that can make it better or break the whole entity. The snippets and snatches of poetry in the text are so beaten about by the context of the dreams conjured by mental illness patients that the magic they may contain is blunted and the fire dulled by your understanding that they’re the ramblings of sick people.

A tale of cup cakes and addiction, angels and traumatised children, this is a tough play by all accounts, and one not suitable for just any audience member.

  • The Inconvenience of Wings is written and directed by Lara Foot. Featuring creative input by Mannie Manim (lighting), Patrick Curtis (set) and Birrie Le Roux (costumes), it is performed by Andrew Buckland, Mncedisi Shabangu and Jennifer Steyn in the Mannie Manim Theatre, Market Theatre complex in Newtown, Johannesburg, until July 16. Call 011 832 1641 or visit markettheatre.co.za
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To be a man

karelseoupa

FLAWED dad, precious grampa: Tobie Cronje plays Karel Brink.

IT IS RARE for the ingredients of a play, the technique and the outcome to resonate with such a sense of shattering potency that it touches you at the core, from beginning to end and doesn’t let go. Karel se Oupa is a new play by the creative team that produced the inimitable Dop, early this year and a kind of kitchen sink drama in Afrikaans, it’s easily the play of the year – so far. Wading through all the what ifs of family business broken by violent crime, nuanced problems, love that is difficult to utter and illness, it’s a work that could easily have skittered into the terrain of maudlin.

It doesn’t ever – this has as much to do with the crispness of the text, the well developed nature of the characters and the impeccable performance of the cast, to say nothing of the splintering silences into which the piece is embedded.

Veteran performer Tobie Cronjé who has earned his stripes on stage in recent years in comedy and pantomime, in this demanding and incisive role confronts the Calvinist values of hypermasculinity as an elderly farmer, Karel Brink, who is also a cardigan-clad grandpa and a father.

He is supported by his maid, Emma (Esmeralda Bihl), a woman who has seen the Brink family through times of horror and deep sadness, but also through the love and humour of the questions about life, the universe and everything that little boys and girls ask the nanny as they’re being taken through their daily rituals. She’s a magician of practicality and can wipe her own tears, bake bread, make coffee, pray to God, sing and feed the dog while she navigates between difficult men who cannot say things they must to each other, because of who they are.

Neels Clasen with devastating finesse plays the long absent son, Karel Junior. And the child in the work, played in this particular performance by Ruben Lombard (8), is electric in his ability to embrace a nuanced and difficult role.

It’s a tale of would haves and could haves and unspoken love between siblings and parents, as it’s a work about regrets and snap emotional decisions. Embraced in its folds is the narrative of farm murders, the magic of flight and the silent life-changing scream that a single telephone call can bring, it is written in a tight and carefully honed Afrikaans that is understandable in its commonsense, even if you have but a smattering of it.

Karel se Oupa offers a critical, almost cruel, glance at the vagaries and vulnerabilities of ageing, peppered with loss, terrible surprises and the need to sweeten horrors so that you can tell them to a small child. It’s an immensely fine work focused on the mysteries of the kitchen, which is defined by its sense of balance and its ability to reinvent a sequence of events through different characters’ eyes, and thus turn the universe on the concept of separating an egg or kneading a loaf of bread.

  • Karel se Oupa is written by Retief Scholtz and directed by André Odendaal, assisted by Anel du Plessis. It features creative input by Kosie Smit (set and costumes) and Nomvula Molepo (lighting) and is performed by Esmeralda Bihl, Neels Clasen and Tobie Cronje, and two alternative child performers: Ian Roelofs and Ruben Lombard. It performs at the Barney Simon Theatre, Market Theatre complex in Newtown until July 2. Call 011 832-1641 or visit http://www.markettheatre.co.za

Here’s looking at you. And you. And you.

Recognition.jpgTHERE’S SOMETHING UNMISSABLY effervescent about a beautifully written short story. It has not only to do with its brevity, but with the way in which its writer crafts a whole universe in a few pages. And with a particularly good short story, it’s a universe replete with everything, a universe that will haunt you forever. This is the kind of experience you can anticipate with David Medalie’s latest anthology of South African short stories, Recognition.

There is not one of these hand- picked, lovingly formed tales that glares out for being under par or without a voice of its own. Cohesively, this anthology offers a uniquely South African voice. It is beautifully crafted, in spite of the fact that stories deal with a wide range of issues, from feeling unwanted to being broken, from remembering abuse to articulating violence. It’s a series of tales which give you insight into the soul of South Africa, from its youngest and most vulnerable to its oldest and most hard done by.

These 22 stories by a range of South African authors – living and dead, contemporary and historical – are powerful testimonies to our ability, as South Africans, to laugh and cry, disparage truths and describe things as they are. It’s the kind of collection that you must take a breath from, every now and then, so that you can keep the memory of each story pristine in your heart and not allow them to merge.

Loosely bound by the notion of recognition, the focus of this anthology splays wide across the Karoo as it burrows into the poorest, most humble township homestead. It’s a discourse about robbers frightened in rich estates and Muslims who digress from their faith and their family, and a series of essays on hunger and meeting strangers on a train. It’s about what might happen to the widows of apartheid’s leaders, and how a blanket feels to a man who has nothing.

Many of the stories are written in the first person, but this is not to say that they are autobiographical. This is South African fiction at its finest, offering you a taste of everything in a rich and fulsome smorgasbord. Medalie is to be celebrated for putting together this brand new collection – on some levels, it evokes Encounters, a book of South African short stories, also selected and edited by Medalie, that slipped into school curricula and first saw light of day in 1998. Recognition is  the kind of book – if it does become part of South African school syllabuses – with which you know your children will be in safe hands, if they are taught with it, or gravitate toward reading it of their own accord.

As you read this book, many diverse South African voices will fill your head. The brilliance of Medalie’s curation of this selection means that it doesn’t self-censor or mute itself around terminology that is no longer considered acceptable. It doesn’t skew itself apologetically away from racist caricatures or perspectives articulated by writers or their characters. It tells it like it is. And it gives the kind of recognition to South Africans large and small, rich and poor, good and evil, that we all need to read.

  • Recognition: An Anthology of South African Short Stories selected edited by David Medalie is published by Wits University Press, Johannesburg (2017). It features stories by Herman Charles Bosman, Achmat Dangor, Nadia Davids, HIE Dhlomo, Ahmed Essop, Damon Galgut, Nadine Gordimer, Dan Jacobson, Alex La Guma, Mandla Langa, Wamuwi Mbao, David Medalie, Kobus Moolman, Njabulo S. Ndebele, Lindiwe Nkutha, Pauline Smith, Can Themba, Miriam Tlali, Chris van Wyk, Mary Watson, Zoë Wicomb and Makhosazana Xaba.

Lorca, butchered

Bloodwedding

BRIDE on a plinth: The sweetheart of one man, the passion of another, Carla Classen plays the central protagonist in Bloodwedding

BY ALL ACCOUNTS, the idea of Blood Wedding by Lorca conjures up a whole rich and gruesome terrain of achingly beautiful poetry, difficult emotional quandaries and an unrelenting tale of flowers and moons, sacrifice and tradition. It’s not clear why the direction of this production, Raissa Brighi chose to edit Lorca, but more so, why she chose not to hone her cast’s skills in articulation more tightly.

While Brighi’s introduction of African songs and traditional approaches to the idea of a wedding enhances the work, deepening it and giving it a rich local context, it is the cropping and changing in the work’s language which causes it to stutter and stumble – it’s not clear why more contemporary jargon have been at times inserted into the text: this mars the flow of language and forces the Lorca fluidity of form to lose shape and become humdrum, at times even comical.

Featuring some achingly beautiful moments, in the lighting and choreographic input into the work, this Bloodwedding is a very shouty affair with performers too lacking in the physical and contextual gravitas of the roles they embody. The mother of the groom, a fiery and fierce woman in the original text, who has lost her husband and her son, is played by Rachel Swanepoel, and while she works very hard at embracing the text and the gut-wrenching emotion, you can’t help but see her as a young girl. Has it to do with the physical presence of the performer and her body language? Either way, this young performer seems under-directed. Similarly with the father of the bride, Henri Strauss.

As the dialogue of the piece begins, your heart sinks: the piece begins with a fine and magnificently danced overture, one so powerful that you might have felt yourself  prepared to be watching a dance piece with no dialogue and a developed engagement with this text of family feuds, class issues and vendetta, through gesture and form. But no: the characters with their unmodulated voices maul the simple magnificence of the original.

Further to all of that, there are few things as damaging as a cellulitic bum cheek exposed erroneously in a dance move. The female dancers have their dignity inadequately taken care of in this work, which sees them wearing revealing underwear which detracts very emphatically from the main issue at hand. It is issues such as this that should have been more carefully addressed.

But as the piece unfolds, with the sensitive criss-crossing of lights that supersede nebulous and unfocused graphics across the space, something gem-like is still evident. There’s a choreographed fight sequence when the two husbands come head to head that will grab your attention and your emotions, and there’s an inspired use of the venue’s red brick walls that lend the piece a lusty bloody sense of reality. Not to forget an utterly superb an understanding of the malevolent and playful presence of the moon on a scooter that also redeems much.

The question needs to be asked, however, regarding the professional levels of this work. Yes, it was performed in the Market Theatre’s main theatre, which makes you believe that this is up there with everything else that has graced this stage, in terms of professionality. But it is acknowledged as having been produced by the Drama Department of the University of Pretoria. But what does this mean? The cast members and creative team are listed on the programme without reference to what year of study they are in, assuming of course, that they are students. Without such context, you must assume that they are professional. But, by the end of the work, you feel that this cannot possibly be the case.

  • Bloodwedding is written Federico García Lorca and adapted for this production by its director, Raissa Brighi with the assistance of Alice Pernè It features creative input by Eugene Mashiane (choreography), Baily Snyman (lighting), Jacinda Barker, Heleen van Tonder and Robin Burke (audio visual). It was performed by Carla Classen, Cassius Davids, MacMillan Mabaleka, Susan Nkata, Palesa Olifant, Henri Strauss, Rachel Swanepoel and Joffe Tsebe, at the John Kani Theatre, Market Theatre complex in Newtown until June 11. It will perform at Graeme College, during the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown on July 2 and 3. Visit www.nationalartsfestival.co.za

Mind the gap: an essay on elegant dishonesty

betrayal

AWKWARD reminiscences: Jerry (Tom Fairfoot) and Emma (Carly Graeme) meet in a pub. Photograph by Philip Kuhn.

IT’S THE SILENCES and gaps between words and the construction of the unspoken beat in this intriguing Pinter work, that lends it its potency and dramatic verve, but it is this potency mixed with extremely classy performances, an understated set and an unequivocal elegance that gives it the edge that keeps you focused. However, as the play reaches closure, you might question yourself as to whether there can be such a thing as just too much elegance and too many manners.

And as the name dictates, Betrayal is a tale of complicity and untruths. Of secrets and lies. And of revelations.  Emma (Carly Graeme) is married to Robert (Antony Coleman). She’s a gallerist. He’s an editor of a poetry journal. They have two small children.

And for a period of seven years, Emma has had a lover. He knows. Her husband, that is. She knows he knows. But does the lover know she knows he knows? Without the classic English understatedness, this narrative could descend into farcical humour, but it’s kept tight and succinct, demure and hilarious in its own capacity.

We meet Emma and Jerry (Tom Fairfoot) in a pub. They’re excruciatingly awkward with one another, but as they hem and haw and blurt out long sentences of memories of their friendship, and then retract them, you quickly realise this was no ordinary association. Love came into the mix.

But then it left.

This is a tale of how men and women dialogue over the deed of love, sex and relationships. It’s beautiful in its elegance, somewhat anachronistic in its costume choices – this is, after all, a period between 1968 and 1977 as the projection tells us – and the clothes the characters wear are a lot more refined than the period dictated. That said, the Bauhaus-style furnishings that quietly comprise the set are as fitting and as versatile as necessary: they’re just right.

One of the biggest challenges of a play of this nature is the danger of the work descending into blandness. Indeed, once you’ve figured out all the different levels of betrayal articulated from scene to scene, there seems little else, and the plot is exactly that – an unravelling of several intrigues. Looking at it in this capacity, the conclusion of the piece seems unsatisfying: but this is less a criticism of the work invested in it than a reflection of the original.

What happens next after the philandering partners have owned up? Why, that’s another whole story, you might suggest. Betrayal is an elegant, eminently watchable and utterly competent work to watch.

  • Betrayal is written by Harold Pinter and directed by Greg Homann. It features design by Homann (set) and Oliver Hauser (lighting), is performed by Antony Coleman, Jose Domingos, Tom Fairfoot and Carly Graeme until July 1 at the Auto and General Theatre on the Square in Sandton. Call 011 883-8606 or visit http://www.theatreonthesquare.co.za

How to make them come back for more

FreeAssociation

STEVEN BOYKEY SIDLEY has a most engaging gift. His writing flows with congruency and cunning, dipping and splashing through conceptual bumf, popular rhetoric and conventional trends, with wisdom and ease. It is searingly witty and hard-edged and reads with a fluency that makes you not want to put it down as it cuts to the heart of sacred cows in every paragraph. The narrative he constructs in this, his latest novel, plays with the values of the social-media-heavy world in which we exist, turning it this way and that, stretching its possibilities and madnesses tight and exposing its underbelly in a way which puts the reader in amongst the ‘in-crowd’. You know the flaws of the character, you recognise the secrets of his heart, and you’re there just to see how it all fits together.

And thus you get to meet Max Lurie. He’s a podcaster of 33 with credentials and history but scant self-belief as a therapist. A Los Angeles-based Woody Allen-type character, he’s excruciatingly self-deprecating. And often annoyingly so. Sometimes callous, he’s a loving son and brother who often masks his vulnerability with sheer bravado. During the slice of Lurie’s life that Sidley exposes us to, he’s rattled from side to side by issues of sex and others of lies, by violence and cruelty and by plots that don’t always pan out exactly as you might anticipate they do.

The book is constructed of interspersed podcasts and chapters which build up the narrative spine of the text very well, enabling you, as the reader, to engage with what Lurie’s listenership is being exposed to, not to forget the truths which he dilutes and dresses up in making them more palatable to said listeners. There’s a potent South African link in Lurie’s producer, a young man by the name of Bongani Maposa, who immigrated to the States and has found himself a niche and has the wordage to justify his every move and is not afraid to use it.

Then there’s a love interest with a shaven head and a tight grip on UX technology, and a couple of characters which are cast around the rapidly shifting world of hits and likes, shares and the ability to grab audience attention. Oh, and there’s also a schizophrenic homeless guy who is most likely a scientific genius, whose also the lynch pin in a tale that goes in a direction you really won’t expect.

But more than a tale about a man who makes his living out of entertaining a public to listen to his personal diatribes about nothing – the kind of thing for which Seinfeld is famous – the novel is a critique of the vanities of our world. Loosely drawing on the idea of free association which made the surrealists famous last century, his is a terrain where anything goes. It’s bitingly acerbic and surprisingly gentle in its engagement with everything from the Deep Web to Alzheimer’s. An illegal fire arm is tossed into the mix, as is a vial of Nembutal, the suicide drug.

This book, like Sidley’s play Shape, which he wrote with Kate Sidley in 2016, is an unabashed product of today. It engages with all the issues that are so central to the multiple personality disorders characteristic of our era, with charm. Words get inserted into characters’ mouths that enable them to reflect with wisdom and naiveté about the splendid and mesmerising cacophony of values and complete moral conundrums that this world is heir to. Free Association doesn’t let go until the last page: even the issue of misery making better ‘art’ than happiness comes under Sidley’s loupe, as he tears strips off the preciousness with which contemporary society views itself.

It’s a bracing novel, which dismantles nostalgia willy-nilly. Beautiful in its tightness and flippant in its sense of self, this kind of writing does fall in danger of becoming too slick, but Sidley keeps this aspect reined in. It’s a tight, easy read which has long and deep conceptual and contextual threads. You won’t be disappointed.

  • Free Association by Steven Boykey Sidley is published by Picador Africa (2017).

Hypocrisy’s crowning glory

tartuffe.jpg

A heady mix of irreverence, theatricality placed in a set simple in its magnificence, that is ramped up all the way and features contrivance pushed to the giddy hilt, Tartuffe is a tightly focused, beautifully choreographed tribute to Molière, which indulges in such an array of over-the-top shenanigans, you become embroiled in the madness and don’t want it to end.

Featuring actors physically large and small, from Vanessa Cooke as the maid Dorine to Neil McCarthy as Orgon, the beguiled father of the house, it’s an impeccable celebration of overstated gesture, eavesdropping and intrigue in the face of utter unabashed hypocrisy. A tale which enjoyed credence in the 17th century, it remains remarkably prescient in contemporary culture: Tartuffe (Craig Morris) is the charlatan smarmily secreted in the church’s moral values for his own benefit. He slips into the confidence, the heart and the intimate family values of Orgon, to almost devastating – but utterly hilarious – effect. But fear not, there’s a grim and sinister twist in the tale that lends it a devilish tone.

There are some strange anachronisms in the language:  the work was originally written in rhyming couplets and has by and large been translated as such in this version. This is a quality which sometimes causes the flow of the poetic metre to stumble and feel uncomfortable. Nevertheless the couplets that do work and the clarity of their articulation will hold you focused and keep you staving off your own laughter, because the hairpin turns of the plot need to be heard to be properly appreciated.

Capitalising on the physical attributes of her cast, director Sylvaine Strike works like a true caricaturist, making the simple gesture of walking up three steps into a sonata, and the act of crossing one’s legs a sonnet.  Indeed, Madame Pernelle, played by Morris is virtually all mouth, and her presence evokes Lewis Carroll’s Queen of Hearts, to excruciatingly funny proportions. Monsieur Loyal, the lawyer, played by William Harding, takes immoderate to another whole level with his size, his sausage and his utterly ingratiating quality which might call up characters such as Dickens’s Uriah Heep, in your mind’s eye.

The music, which represents a pastiche of sound and tunes from the 1920s, is, however, too heavy handed in its approach and it does tend to crush the scenes it infiltrates, jarring and bouncing off the venue’s walls at times. The heaviness of the sound is balanced with acuity with the madly flexible bodies of the cast, however, and this tale of hypocrisy and love, sex and trust is something you wont want to drag yourself away from.

  • Tartuffe is written by Molière, translated from the French by Richard Wilbur and directed by Sylvaine Strike. It features creative input by Sasha Ehlers and Chen Nakar (set), Sasha Ehlers (costume), Oliver Hauser (lighting), Dean Barrett (music composition) and Owen Lonzar (choreography). It is performed by Adrian Alper, Vanessa Cooke, Khutjo Green, William Harding, Vuyelwa Maluleke, Neil McCarthy, Craig Morris, Anele Situlweni and Camilla Waldman at the Fringe, Joburg Theatre, Braamfontein, until June 25. Visit tartuffe.co.za