Veld foundling

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GOD doesn’t make mistakes: Grandma Kitta (Shaleen Surtie-Richards) and Grandpa Simon (Royston Stoffels), with their child, Vaselinetjie (Nicole Bond). Photograph courtesy kyknet.

WHAT ARE YOU, effectively, if you do not fit the basic identifiers of the people all around you? This question comes under the sensitive but probing and compelling loupe of newly released Afrikaans (with English subtitles) film, Vaselinetjie.

Like British director Alan Bleasdale’s mini-series that interpreted Dickens’s Oliver Twist (1999), the work begins with a deeply distressed, heavily pregnant young woman on a clear mission of self-destruction, in a veld hostile to her, under an unsympathetic moon . By daybreak, we hear the cries of the baby, who clearly understood the urgency of the situation and snatched at life, while it could.

Thus begins a simply magnificently crafted piece of South African narrative, which places a white child in a Coloured context: the amorphous mixed race community which is historically too black to be considered white, and too white to be considered black, but has a cultural identity which is potent with its sense of self.

And it is here where you meet the skinny and frightened and somewhat fierce 11-year-old Vaselinetjie (Nicole Bond). It’s 1995. She’s being raised by Grandma Kitta (Shaleen Surtie-Richards) and Grandpa Simon (Royston Stoffels) in a district of South Africa, distinguished by its dusty streets and basic poverty. She’s also being teased within a millimetre of her sense of belonging by the other children. She’s everything they are, in terms of her accent and context. She’s also everything they’re not. And they are merciless.

Enter social welfare. And a new chapter in Vaselinetjie’s life, where she gets to experience other children. White children. It is here, in an orphanage – explained to her 11-year-old self as a boarding school – in Johannesburg, where she cuts her teeth as a person with convictions, albeit one with devils. She’s not alone. It’s an orphanage, after all, and her peers have their own demons, some more explicit than hers. It is here where she learns the rules of many games, both inside and outside of the school’s environment, whether it be in learning to slip under the radar of the avuncular house mother Tannie Snorre (Karin van der Laag), or smoking with the boys in the school’s interstices. It is also here where she grows into a young woman (Marguerite van Eeden), and discovers love and heartbreak.

This is no soppy love story though, and while it ends with a satisfying denouement, the characters are put through the proverbial wringer in terms of their need to grapple with the conflict of where they fit in. Themes dovetail and resonate in circles and cycles, and conjoined with breathtakingly fine cinematography, make you feel able to smell the atmosphere in the red brick orphanage with its peeling paintwork and high ceilings, a decaying testament to an earlier era, as you’re able to taste the dust of the Coloured township and feel the unrelenting heat of its climate.

When you think of a film of this nature, you may well consider works such as Irish film maker Peter Mullan’s Magdalene Sisters (2002), or even Jean-Jacques Annaud’s (1986) The Name of the Rose, in which a mass of characters interface to form a social texture. This is achieved with finesse and aplomb in Vaselinetjie: the orphanage is rich with gemstones of stories within stories, character vignettes that are haunting yet tiny, and the creative team behind this film doesn’t stint on this, creating characters such as Killer (Anchen du Plessis and Elzet Nel), who carries her grief with great care; Pizzaface (Daniah de Villiers and Elani Dekker), the daughter of an ‘escort’; and Texan (Ashley Hawla and Arno Greeff), a boy with secrets, shame and fury. Not to forget Albie (Rowan-Raine Pretorius and Marise Loots), a troubled little girl who teeters between her broken plastic doll and chess mastery.

There are moments of woodenness in van Eeden’s portrayal, however, causing the older Vaselinetjie to lose some of that fierce credibility. Your eye is allowed to digress from her more often than it should. This doesn’t, however, hurt the memorable and well honed fabric of the tale.

  • Vaselinetjie is written by Corné van Rooyen and René van Rooyen and directed by Corné van Rooyen. It is designed by Ben Ludik (music), Adam Joshua Bentel (cinematography), Waldemar Coetsee (production), Nerine Pienaar (costumes), Wimari du Plessis, Claudia Hamman, Zeldene Simon and Gina Slingerland (make up) and Quinn Lubbe (visual effects). It is performed by Nicole Bond, Daniah De Villiers, Elani Dekker, Anchen du Plessis, Arno Greeff, Ashley Hawla, Marise Loots, David Mello, Zack Mtombeni, Elzet Nel, Rowan-Raine Pretorius, Melita Steyn, Royston Stoffels, Shaleen Surtie-Richards and Marguerite van Eeden, supported by Izel Bezuidenhout, Anton Dekker, Émil Haarhoff, Henk Hugo, Heidi Mollentze, Bradley Olivier, Jai’prakash Sewram, Dean Smith, Karin van der Laag, Wilbur Jansen van Rensburg and Drikus Volschenk. Release date: September 22, 2017.
  • See a comment on the contemporary relevance of this film by Geoff Sifrin in Taking Issue.
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Forbidden fruit that haunts

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THE horror, the horror: Gideon Lombard is Marnus Erasmus, peeking through a hole in his knotty pine floor. Photograph by Sanmari Marais.

WRITING IS A messy business. It’s a mixture of grammar and correctness, of rhythm and texture, of perspective and controversy. But occasionally it can be so devastatingly lucid that a scene read more than 20 years ago, can still haunt. Irrevocably. Bruisingly. It takes a truly remarkable team of performers and creative people, however, to take something as earth-shatteringly powerful as this in a novel, and to bring it to stage, no less haunting than it appeared on those pages so many years ago. This is precisely what happens in Die Reuk van Appels.

This apartheid-centric tale of propaganda and betrayal, keeping up appearances and the falteringly naive yet fierce understanding of an 11-year-old boy of life, the universe and everything, was originally penned by Mark Behr in both Afrikaans and English, both published in 1993. It rocked the literary equilibrium at the time. Not only for how beautifully it is crafted but also for the unpopular narrative it contains. What does it mean to be a white man, raised — and brainwashed — to understand your pre-eminence in a country, because of your skin colour, only to discover that you’ve been on the side of prime evil, all along? And that it is your own flesh and blood that is the enemy?

Based on the Afrikaans version, this astutely directed and simply brilliantly performed work, is set to turn contemporary local theatre making inside out as it unremittingly focuses on issues as complex and messy as inexplicable hatred, an understanding of who hell is for and why, and an engagement with complicity that hurts.

The bravery and importance of this flawless play that doesn’t stint on describing the appalling horror of an apartheid mindset, cannot be understated. The value of theatre of this nature cannot be overstated, not only in terms of method, but in terms of the multitude of young voices which need to be heard in this country, in Afrikaans as much as in any other language.

Gideon Lombard plays Marnus Erasmus, as he spins a yarn around his family, the South African Defense Force, the mystery of taboo, the surrealness of awful memories and the horror of disappointment. The script is populated with characters from his father, a general in the South African army, to his mother, a wannabe contralto; his sister Ilse and his best friend, Frikkie. Not to forget a sinister character called “John Smith”, who is exotic yet undefined.

Armed with a spinning top and a floppy army hat, an army-issue water bottle, a loose rug on the floor and a military uniform eerily hanging in the air, Lombard embraces that pristine and sparkling element of childhood innocence with wisdom that forces you to understand the character from within and without. More than anything, the work is an indictment on a particular type of Afrikaner mindset at the height of apartheid, from 1974, and its unequivocal (yet superficial) hard-edged moral clarity, which believed that the land was theirs thanks to God. In being so, it offers insight into the agony of hypocrisy as witnessed and stomached by a child.

It’s a difficult play to watch, but an impossible work to drag your attention from, as it begins. And yes, the State Theatre is an appalling ordeal to visit, with its ghastly little artworks hanging in the foyer’s corners and the ups and downs of long corridors that you have to traverse to get to the venue. They still reek of neglect and poor design, of feeble attempts to reposition politicised gestures and statues, but as you get into the space and the play’s sound track punctuates your universe, you forget – and forgive – everything. This play will grab you by the throat and not leave space for anything else.

  • Die Reuk van Appels (The Smell of Apples) is reworked for stage by Johann Smith, based on the eponymous novel by Mark Behr (1993). Directed by Lara Bye, it features creative input by Kosie Smit (lighting), and Lara Bye and Gideon Lombard (set). It is also performed by Gideon Lombard. Limited to no under 16s, as it features sex and nudity, violence and prejudice, it performs at the Momentum Theatre, State Theatre complex in Pretoria until September 24, at Aardklop National Arts Festival in Potchefstroom on October 3-7: https://aardklop.co.za/; and at the Fugard Theatre in Cape Town from October 17-November 11: thefugard.com

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.

If we had nothing but love

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BREL trio: Jannie du Toit leads Chanie Jonker (left) and Susan Mouton. Photograph courtesy Auto and General Theatre on the Square.

THERE’S NOTHING QUITE like a dollop of Brel on a cold winter evening to warm the cockles of your heart. Embraced as schmaltz by generations of song-lovers everywhere, the rough and drunken, sad and maudlin brilliance of Belgian singer/songwriter Jacques Brel (1929-1978) bring together a mix of wisdom and poetry in a way that reminds you why his songs are unequivocal classics; they’re songs that can knock generations-old memories to the foreground within their first three bars and it doesn’t even matter what language they’re sung in.

Led by Jannie du Toit on vocals in English and Afrikaans, French and Flemish, this collection of 20-odd songs are deliciously hand-picked, and feature a gentle extrapolation on the lyrics before the performance of each song. They’re magnificent pieces, some boasting the status of “Brel anthems” and others less well known but no less beautiful, but in performance, they’re sadly not always as crisp and audible as you might wish: the cheek mic on du Toit’s face and the mics on the instruments tend to grind the sound together in a way that flattens it, and the physical arrangement of the stage lacks the kind of finesse that you might expect in a Brel production.

All of this is, however, utterly forgivable. What this production lacks in polish, it makes up for in heart. Du Toit’s reputation as a Brel specialist is significant, and stretches over decades: his rendition in all four languages is utterly competent, with his Madeleine in Flemish topping the evening with a mix of pizzazz and clowning, poetry and tragedy all rolled together.

This heart-warming show doesn’t aspire or pretend to be anything more or less than a body of beautiful work celebrated by seasoned musicians. And you’ll leave with a spring in your step and a song in your heart and a tear or two on your cheek.

  • Bonjour Monsieur Brel is compiled by Juanita Swanepoel comprising songs originally written by Jacques Brel. It features creative input by Clinton Zerf, Matthys Maree, Coenraad Rall, and Jannie du Toit (musical arrangements) and is performed by Jannie du Toit (vocals and guitar), Susan Mouton (cello and piano), Chanie Jonker/Coenraad Rall (piano and piano accordion). It performs until July 16 at the Auto and General Theatre on the Square in Sandton. Call 011 883-8606 or visit http://www.theatreonthesquare.co.za

To be a man

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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

Evita and the astonishing freedom of irrelevance

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A STEPLADDER REACHES up to the ceiling of the stage. The curtains are half closed. There’s a “horrible little doll” representing Economic Freedom Front leader, Julius Malema, and Evita Bezuidenhout, togged in flimsy leopard print and doek with a bag full of goodies arrives for an Imbizo, cellphone at hand, a bag full of goodies under her arm and a litany of rich and fantastic tales to regale us with, through the trajectory of her own history and the murk of lies and fake facts which we’re fed all the time.

But who are “we” in the saga? The Montecasino audience is traditionally largely white. The diatribe constructed, certainly in the first half of this production is extremely white-focused, and you emerge at interval pondering the relevance of Evita, who has been up until now, not only the most famous woman in South Africa, but largely a legend in her own time – ask Archbishop Desmond Tutu – in the arena of political satire.

Interspersed with everything, from a splaying out of fake news into fake history, to jabs at everything from measles vaccinations to Donald Trump’s blatant sexism, the work is beautifully written, top of the moment in political acuity and newsworthiness and well-structured, but it does feel monumentally long – for you in the audience, and for the 71-year-old performer on stage.

But then, as the second half opens, replete with enlarged reproductions of the kind of prints and paintings that adorned classrooms under apartheid, a piano and some other choice props, the piece’s pace heats up and the racial focus of the work comes into astonishing relief. Evita, arguably the world’s queen of fake news, examines the kak in historical cacti, and the repartee whirrs and flies with a mixture of heady political and sexual references which take Mrs Bezuidenhout to a new level of wit.

A character constructed by Pieter-Dirk Uys, who we’ve seen on these stages with a completely different frame of references but a few weeks ago, Evita is always a draw-card for local audiences. All through apartheid, she had the temerity to hold up the crooked and ugly mirror to South Africans. Now, at 71, she’s both suave and naive, politically astute and believable. She’s the epitome of Afrikaans genteel manners all wrapped up in a range of other subtleties and she’s the exactly appropriate vehicle for some of the finest of insults towards South African leadership and history, and like any good jester, carries with her a handbag of bold and brave tricks and jibes, and neither Jacob Zuma nor Thabo Mbeki, Nelson Mandela nor Kgalema Mothlanthe escape unscathed.

Enfolding everything in the polite terms of an Afrikaans tannie who helps out in the kitchen of Tuynhuys, the Presidential Residence in Cape Town, on a Tuesday, Evita who is now a junior member of the ANC – she was during the 1980s, apartheid’s ambassador to the fictional South African homeland, Bapetikosweti – is now a gogo in her own right, and continues playing court jester with as much pizzazz and elegance as she’s done for over twenty years. But today, her bite is even sharper, and her focus more specifically honed. In considering her own racism, she will force you to ponder yours. In considering how she is a non-black South African, she will make you think a little deeper about what it takes to exist with authenticity in this topsy turvy world of ours. And how the white Afrikaner’s relevance has evaporated.

You will laugh, but often it is a laughter spiced with savvy or even sadness, as you acknowledge the bitter truths and historical projections that are within Evita’s ambit, and that reflect on the brokenness of the context in which all South Africans live and make sense of everything.

Death of a golden boy

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WASHING dishes: Lisa (Rolanda Marais), Dirk (Albert Pretorius), Hein (Ludwig Binge), Anya (Ilana Cillier) and Johnny (Roelof Storm) at play.

Sometimes you just know that a film will most likely not break box office records, not in this generation, at least, but that this market-centric prediction has absolutely no bearing whatsoever on its brilliance, its historical merit or its importance as a piece of research. Johnny is nie dood nie is a film of this nature. Featuring impeccable writing, an unforgettably sound understanding of the texture and anguish of the late 1980s in South Africa, and a speculum-like foray into the life of one of young Afrikaans culture’s most important icons, it’s an extraordinary project, but also a brave and essential film.

On one level it’s a loosely historical account of the last 15 years of the life of Afrikaans balladeer Johannes Kerkorrel – born Ralph Rabie in 1960 – bringing in the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll of the era, not to mention the looming terror of mandatory army service for young white males, the PTSD and the sense of utter impotence in the eye of apartheid’s evils. It’s a tale of love and betrayal, of defiance and Alice in Wonderland, and there are moments in which you can almost smell the ether of the period, criss-crossed as it is with the odour of dagga, cigarettes and sweat, in a socio-political nexus laced with ideals and fury.

On another level, it is an essay on the loss of a dear friend. Lise (Rolanda Marais), Anya (Ilana Cillier), Hein (Ludwig Binge) and Dirk (Albert Pretorius) get together to commiserate about the suicide of the one who was central to all of their lives. It’s 2002 and they’re young adults with responsibilities. The flashbacks to the 1980s and their late teens offer clear and troubled insight into the messed up state of South African society at the time, as they present the nub of the Voëlvry movement, a development of politically astute Afrikaans cabaret which set Afrikaans university students afire with a sense of possibility.

When first we meet the eponymous Johnny (Roelof Storm), he’s freshly fired from his job as a journalist, and cocks a snook at the country’s expectations of him with glee. With his platinum blond hairdo and his nimble wit and singing talent, Johnny is like a god. But he’s like a fallen god. He has secrets that will overpower you in their sense of choice, in the Catch-22 that embraced the lives of so many young men of that wretched, double-crossed era.

While the film doesn’t promise to be comprehensive, the light it casts on the era is penetrating, as it is poignant, well-researched and hard-hitting. With everything, from a delicious cameo of the late Barend de Wet, with hookah and existential solutions at hand, to a televised snippet which reflects Evita Bezuidenhout (Pieter-Dirk Uys) chatting to Kerkorrel about life, the universe and music, as well as illustrations by John Tenniel on the walls, and Jan F E Celliers’s poem Dis Al on the window of a student dorm, the work is rich in detail, and unforgettable in texture.

Of the five central characters, it is Albert Pretorius’s nuanced sense of history and sadness that grips the film in an embrace which is haunting, delicate and simply beautiful. You understand implicitly that his Dirk, ultimately is a reflection of Dirk Uys who became the manager of Kerkorrel’s band, Gereformeerde Blues Band.

You have to sit to the very last moment of the film – even after the credits have scrolled up – for the music, however. The work is more focused on the horror and wildness of the times than the poetry of Kerkorrel and his contemporaries, including James Philips (who invented the alter ego Bernoldus Niemand), Koos Kombuis and others, but you must focus carefully. Snatches of Kerkorrel’s songs tie the work together like sinews and connective tissue. There’s a game the friends play in remembering lyrics, and a completely fabulous reconstruction of the iconic and utterly bizarre image that defines his record Eet Kreef  but you can rest assured, his magnificent ballads Hillbrow and In die Tronk are not forgotten.

  • Johnny is nie dood nie (2017) is directed by Christiaan Olwagen and stars Ludwig Binge, Ilana Cillier, Rolanda Marais, Albert Pretorius and Roelof Storm, based on the eponymous stage play by Malan Steyn. It is 106 minutes in length and is in Afrikaans with English subtitles. It opened at Ster Kinekor outlets nationwide on Friday May 5. Visit cinemanouveau.co.za and https://www.facebook.com/Johnnyisniedoodnie/?hc_ref=SEARCH for more details.