Blessed (and cursed) by the need to draw

AsherLev

YOU made this? The father (Alan Swerdlow), the mother (Louise Saint-Claire), and Asher Lev, the son (Robert Fridjhon). Photograph by Suzy Bernstein.

IN THE AGONISING moment when Asher Lev’s parents are revealed as utterly out of place in Asher’s world, the tectonic plates of this classic Jewish art story which first saw light of day in 1972, shift. It is a pivot crafted with sheer brilliance that holds this whole play together. But sadly, this interpretation of arguably the go-to novel for any young person who is born into a religious context and blessed or cursed with a talent to create art, is not completely flawless.

The stigma of iconoclasm in a strictly religious Jewish context is a very real one, and adapting this work for stage is complicated. It’s about the challenges a young boy with a talent for art in Hassidic America in the 1940s faced, a tale which spoke directly to the heart of every reader who has ever felt the passion of creativity. The adaptation is by and large solid, but it does feature the narrator speaking directly to the audience quite a lot, which does affect the tone of the material, making it unwittingly seem comedic in its sense of timing. Similarly, there are anomalies in the choice of costume for Asher Lev (Robert Fridjhon), which greatly affects the credibility of the role.

For one thing, he wears a yarmulke embroidered in silver thread and made of glossy satin that speaks of a stream of superficial Jewish fashion that would most certainly not have been de rigueur with a Brooklyn Jew who digresses from the rich phalanx of monolithic values and traditions with which he was raised. For another, he wears a natty little waistcoat which places him uncomfortably between the world of his parents and that of his teacher, not allowing him to belong credibly to either.

But the clothes are the least of it. Indeed, this is not Fridjhon’s best role. We’ve seen him shine and eclipse the stage with his craft, his wit and his wisdom, but his performance here lacks the kind of fierce agony that would contain the horror of banishment so central to the novel. You don’t see the child of six, ten or 13 who is depicted in the text. You don’t see Lev growing before your eyes. You don’t see the kind of raw energy and fierce determination that you may have seen in John Logan’s Red, performed a couple of years ago in this city, with a similar theme revolving around a young artist and his older teacher.

Rather, you’re brother to tears by the pain and authenticity articulated by Alan Swerdlow in his various rabbinical roles, and Louis Saint-Claire as the mother, the model and the gallerist, in turn. To her credit, director Moira Blumenthal doesn’t stint on the use of Yiddish and Hebrew words or religious references, which retain something of the work’s authentic texture, though it could alienate an audience not familiar with some of the terms.

Supported by a mediocre set, which teeters with the aid of numerous thin vertical panels between abstraction and realism, the work contains allusions to the crucifixion painting that draws the threads of the story together to its difficult end, but these allusions are at times hammered home with an obviousness that hurts the story. Also, that moment of banishment that Asher, as a young man, faces, once he has overstepped the line separating art from the rest of his values, seems too low key in the face of the enormity it would represent to a real Asher Lev.

Whether or not you have read the original text, you might well leave this play wanting to seek out your inner Asher Lev and enable him or her to grow the kind of courage to make art that defies all logic and astonishes and frightens the world. And for this, the basic nub and richness of the story which remains intact, much of the flaws in the work become by and large forgivable.

  • My Name is Asher Lev is adapted for stage by Aaron Posner, based on the eponymous book by Chaim Potok. It is directed by Moira Blumenthal and performed by Robert Fridjhon, Louise Saint-Claire and Alan Swerdlow in the Studio Theatre, Montecasino complex, Fourways, until September 3. Call 011 511 1988 or visit pietertoerien.co.za
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Fridjhon’s Sherlock simply queens it

sherlockholmes

DOING it for Queen and country: Robert Fridjhon, Bronwyn Gottwald and Craig Jackson putting twirls on the Sherlock Holmes tradition. Photograph courtesy pietertoerien.co.za 

SOMETHING HAS TO be said for the intricate melding of the minutiae of Victorian language with contemporary ideas, the blossoming into life of a multitude of characters supported by the hand-held technology resonant of radio theatre, and the shenanigans and skulduggery penned by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in the 19th century. All in one evening’s theatre experience. Playwright and performer Robert Fridjhon brings all of this together with utter finesse.

But it is the directorial hand of Alan Swerdlow that adds the cherry on top of this very fine and beautifully crafted piece of work which will have you laughing out loud even if you have come to the theatre on your own. Blending sophisticated if oft very rude repartee and a rash of puns with sheer slapstick comedy and engagement with the audience might not be everyone’s cup of tea – and it certainly isn’t within every cast’s capabilities – but here you get it all, tweaked by an exceptionally ably cast into an intelligent and nuanced laugh-a-second fest. It’s Sherlock Holmes with a dollop of farce, a peppering of British self-deprecation and some of the most hilarious costume decisions you can imagine.

And while there are some digressions in a Goonish or a Monty Pythonesque direction, and you may expect to see a dead parrot at any moment, you don’t: the references are contained and teased out as references and the work holds its own with complete excellence, foraying into issues of sexuality that the Sherlock Holmes tales have always hidden under carpets and in cupboards.

As with many performed murder mysteries reaching from the repertoire of film stars such as Margaret Rutherford and Myrna Loy, often it is the hilarity of the tale rather than the nitty gritty or bloodiness of the crime that are the central focus. Similarly, Fridjhon’s Sherlock Holmes teases apart an alleged stealing of the famed Koh-i-Noor diamond, the biggest in the world, which is owned by Queen Victoria, into a madcap journey between England and France, with a bit of Indian colonialism in between, replete with a couple of murder victims who are actually not dead: it’s stuff to make your head spin.

The work’s small versatile cast simply sparkles: and the helpless laughter you experience in the context of sheer beautiful farce pervades, as the work casts the whole improvised business of a play within a play on a theatre stage. Craig Jackson as Dr Watson (amongst others) and Bronwyn Gottwald as the inimitable Mrs Hudson (amongst others), are utterly perfect for the complexity of the roles, and everything from a self-standing big dress for Queen Victoria to a cat’s tail which becomes the British Prime Minister’s moustache will have you screeching with mirth. But a warning to the unsuspecting: Don’t see this play on a full bladder. It’s as good as it gets.

  • Sherlock Holmes and the Curse of the Queen’s Diamond: An Unrecorded Case, by Royal Request is written by Robert Fridjhon and Bronwyn Gottwald and directed by Alan Swerdlow. It is performed by Robert Fridjhon, Bronwyn Gottwald and Craig Jackson at the Studio Theatre, Montecasino theatre complex in Fourways, until January 15, and at Theatre on the Bay in Cape Town, January 18-28. Visit pietertoerien.co.za

Bohemian Rhapsody’s glorious underbelly

bohemianrhapsody

ANYWAY THE WIND BLOWS: Bohemian Rhapsody through the eyes of a painter, impeccably played by Robert Fridjhon. Photograph courtesy The Daily Maverick.

WHAT AN ABSOLUTE joy to watch a brand new piece of theatre crafted with compassion, structured with wisdom and levity and put together with an impeccable sense of focus. Robert Fridjhon brings you a back story for British rock band Queen’s most famous song ever, Bohemian Rhapsody, breathing muscular, colourful life into suppositions, in a complex, nuanced, rollicking monster of a production that you want to be able to bookmark and return to, again and again. Watching this production, you want to press “pause”, so that you can catch your breath, from time to time, in the wealth of nuance, language and thoughtfulness it unpacks.

Considered a mock opera by some, speculated as a musical interpretation of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment by others, the complicated song which has various parts and features rich haunting and unforgettable harmonies, tells a weird story of love and hate, murder and hell, but the true back story has never been revealed.

Fridjhon casts a magnificent presence over this heady work, which effectively raises the bar for theatre of this nature. Arguably, it will redefine Fridjhon as both performer and writer. Teasing the song’s lyrics apart, but never disrespecting them, this is a quirky story of a painter whose career is thwarted by poverty, a philandering character called Lazarus and paranoia, amongst other things. It’s a grim tale brought into vivid and intoxicating focus with beautiful language, a whole gamut of art historical asides and puns, and a reflection on the 1970s when the song was born that will leave you with the smell of linseed oil in your heart and head.

Don’t expect to see a musical interpretation of the song, but if you do love the music and know it well, this theatre work offers deeply intelligent resonances with the music, which is deftly threaded through its texture. But even if you don’t know the song, the play is robust, watchable and wise enough to hold its own. Structured elegantly with refrains and satisfying narrative rhythms of repetition, the work sees Alan Swerdlow’s direction at its very best, and a mature understanding of the interface of set with sound, which never stoops into being gimmicky or invasive while it flawlessly retains credibility and an almost gothic sense of horror.

It’s another brilliant achievement for Pieter Toerien and Montecasino: something truly not to be missed.

  • Bohemian Rhapsody: The Untold Story is directed by Alan Swerdlow and written and directed by Robert Fridjhon. Featuring set and lighting design by Alan Swerdlow and Francois van der Hoven, it performs at the Studio Theatre, Montecasino in Fourways until April 17. Call 011 511 1818 or visit http://www.montecasinotheatre.co.za

They’re playing your song at Monte

implayingyoursong

Think of Dreamgirls or Jersey Boys on a shoestring budget and you will get an idea of the loveliness of I’m playing your song. It’s a new work, co-written by its director and performer, embracing the period in which arguably some of the greatest popular music in the world was made. It has a cast of two – three, including the piano – but a reach as rich and tight and melodic as the big budget shows. It embraces the life and music of Marvin Hamlisch – he of songs such as The Way We Were, The Spy Who Loved Me and the theme song from The Sting, to name but a few. But in touching all these points, the work is big-hearted and soundly made: it’s backed by a strong team who clearly are deeply in love with the material itself, and what you get, in the audience, is a big musical in a small framework. And it’s a gem of a success.

Indeed, Alan Swerdlow, director and co-writer of the work has done it again. I’m playing your song is beautifully constructed around America’s glitterati in film and music of the time; it doesn’t pretend to be chronological and it doesn’t shy from the overtly Jewish elements in Hamlisch’s life. Rather it is punctuated with chunks and anecdotes, engaging everything from the overbearing presence of Hamlisch’s European refugee mother, to the unapologetic romance describing his relationship with Terre Blair, who he married in 1989.

But in terms of the songs being yours and mine, so is the story: these classics of western popular music are so universal in their meaning and catchiness that the story is not only that of Hamlisch, but it’s yours and mine too. The theme about falling in love. The one about following your dreams. About finding the ‘elbows’ to make yourself a place in the world. And yet, even though it is loaded with all these schmaltzy clichés, it vies from silly maudlin. Granted, the humour is very American and not often sophisticated, and there’s a weird anachronism with a cell phone in the early 1980s, but forgiving those elements, this is a magnificent piece of work, which pays breathtaking and fun homage to the great Barbra Streisand.

It is supported with an ingenious set which is at once a screen for projections and a domestic space, the home for the piano, and the place where Hamlisch’s mother makes tuna sandwiches, with celery.  There are some quirks and light bulb moments in the set which will make you shrill with delight, but overall, there’s a sense of smooth comfort with these performers, in the context of the set, with one another, that’s so delightful that it spills over into the audience from the work’s opening bars until its finale.

You may just have been wowed by Jonathan Roxmouth in the eponymous role in Sweeney Todd at this theatre; you won’t be disappointed with him as Marvin Hamlisch. This multi-talented performer exercises other muscles here, which succeed admirably in giving the musical giant flesh and blood and wonderful humanity.

But in many respects and at several unequivocal highlights, Sharon Spiegel-Wagner steals the show. Playing every female lead, in clever costumes and wigs, she truly comes into her own in this work. Audiences have watched her mature onstage over the last decade or so. But here, she takes on her characters and performs her music with a sense of authority and sheer passion that holds the whole audience in the palm of her hands.

I’m playing your song is one of those shows that touches many buttons in the heart and sensibility of an audience who was alive in the 1970s and 1980s. Although it doesn’t feature the kind of show-stopper musical moments as you might remember from Jersey Boys, its piano work is masterful and witty and its interchange of time frames, characters and mood, is crisp and engaging. In short, see it.

  • I’m playing your song: The Marvin Hamlisch Story is written by Jonathan Roxmouth and Alan Swerdlow, based on idea by Pieter Toerien. It is directed by Alan Swerdlow, features music by Marvin Hamlisch, and lyrics by Bryan Adams, Carol Bayer Sager, Alan and Marilyn Berman, Craig Carnelia, Ed Kleban, RJ Lange, Howard Liebling and Barbra Streisand. It is designed by Denis Hutchinson (lighting and set), Mark Malherbe (sound), Bryan Schimmel (musical supervision) and Colin Muir (wigs). It is performed by Jonathan Roxmouth and Sharon Spiegel-Wager, at the Pieter Toerien Theatre, Montecasino, Fourways, until January 10. Visit www.montecasinotheatre.co.za or call 011 511-1988

A splendid afternoon with the naughtiest boy in the world

justwilliam

“Cor! Blimey! Crikey!”  “You would say that, wouldn’t you?!” There is a very special place in the heart of many a former radio theatre fan, for real British radio drama; the kind that we in South Africa used to hear on the ‘A Programme’ on radio; the kind that is blithely politically incorrect, as it takes a chunk out of the preciousness of societal norms while it is gingerly yet viciously rude and has the internal doubts and give and take that make the whole discursive domestic culture so very endearing and barbed. Think Dame Margaret Rutherford. Think Maggie Smith, and indeed, think of the crisp and sarcastic, farcical and totally hilarious writing of the calibre of Agatha Christie, Edith Nesbit, and of course, Richmal Crompton, the creator of Just William.

This theatre work, drawing from the pen of Kenneth Williams and under the powerful directorial eye of Alan Swerdlow brings together a whole range of anachronisms and theatre traditions – on radio and on stage – utterly flawlessly. In the hands of Malcolm Terrey who plays Williams playing William, the naughtiest boy in the world, eternally an incorrigible 11-year-old, the three stories told here are just not enough: they come with a level of colour and detail that is at once innocent and delicious in its girl-hating mischief. And you will wish there were more – or that you could tune into the same programme tomorrow afternoon and hear some more of William’s madcap adventures with his mates.

Terrey, a man who won’t see 50 again, is completely perfect in this complex play within a play: he skips from being the six-year-old tyrant Violet Elizabeth to being Aunt Emily with her dentures, large bosom and thigh, seemingly limitless capacity for bread and jam, to say nothing of cake, and her propensity to snore, but then, Terrey bounds back as little William Brown himself, a boy who is the centre and the generator of some of the most farcical mishaps you can imagine.

Just Carry on William is a scrumptious bit of nostalgia which will enable you to laugh uproariously at the obnoxiously ridiculous without feeling the need to check in your political correctness. The character was written from the 1920s until the 1970s and spawned several generations of warm following and much theatrical and film interpretation. While this isn’t a show for children, given the complexity and honed nature of the language, it’s certainly one about children and their fierceness and foibles, their idiosyncrasies and petty yet very vicious and real brutalities. It’s an essay on social manners but it’s also a jolly good laugh and the kind of tonic that we all need after a rather stressful year.

  • Just Carry on William based on the stories by Richmal Crompton is directed by Alan Swerdlow and performed by Malcolm Terrey at The Studio theatre, Montecasino, Fourways until January 17. Visit www.montecasinotheatre.co.za or call 011-511-1818

Touching many curious bases with this Double Bass

Me and my fiddle: The Double Bass and its performer, Pieter Bosch Botha. Photograph courtesy Auto and General Theatre on the Square.

Me and my fiddle: The Double Bass and its performer, Pieter Bosch Botha. Photograph courtesy Auto and General Theatre on the Square.

Have you ever looked at an orchestra and pondered the back story behind the more monstrous and dramatic of its components? Or even the not-so-monstrous, but instruments which might be completely bizarre to the average Joe.  And I’m not talking about the ordinary violin or sedate flute.

What of the chap who plays the triangle? Do you think he had a calling to do so? Do you think the French horn player ever tires of those relentless, intestine-like coils? What about the tuba?

While American entertainer with no equal, Danny Kaye brought immortal life to the lonely persona of the tuba in the sad little sweet narrative song Tubby the Tuba written by Paul Tripp and composed by George Kleinsinger in 1945, Patrick Süskind does something similar for the double bass, in this eponymous one-hander, directed by Alan Swerdlow. Only it’s not for littlies and doesn’t necessarily have feel-good closure.

While the work is long and wordy, with Swerdlow’s nifty treatment of it, and Pieter Bosch Botha’s impeccable performance as a strictly flawed and sad double bassist, it sees a lot of bases getting touched, from sexual innuendo to the hilarity of a love-hate relationship with a really big musical instrument, and there is not one dull moment in this bizarre story.

You may be pushed a little to think of Man Ray’s extraordinary photographs reflecting on the analogy of a ‘cello and a woman’s body, but this, contrary to the image on the programme is a tale less about delicate nuances, than the extremely human act of performing music. It’s also about Brahms and Mozart, Wagner and Tchaikovsky, and noise and quietude.

Who composed seriously for the double bass in the classical tradition? What’s the sex appeal of the guy standing upright behind his huge instrument, positioned in a kind of a blind space in the natural sequence of the orchestral layout? Is it incestuous? There’s a foray into Freudian hilarity as there is a reflection on the artisanal nature of a musician who plays the work of others.

The Double Bass is a production which will not be everyone’s cup of tea – given its unashamed and unapologetic focus on European classical music traditions, but it brings together a thoughtful pared down level of style with pragmatics and humour that will make you laugh and cry, at times. We get a taste of the history of the instrument; of the history of music around it and of the socio-cultural nexus in which this hapless performer exists, but the production is never allowed to skitter into the dull terrain of a lecture.

Bosch Botha’s performance is direct, slightly crude and not a tad pretentious. You realise the pathological predicament of the poor character and cannot help but collapse into peals of empathetic laughter at the monstrosity of the thing, which, like a giant violin unrelentingly dominates the space, listening and judging everything that transpires, even with its ‘face’ turned to the wall.

  • The Double Bass is written by Patrick Süskind, translated from the German by Michael Hofmann and directed by Alan Swerdlow. It is performed by Pieter Bosch Botha, with set and lighting by Denis Hutchinson and is at the Auto and General Theatre on the Square in Sandton until March 14: 011-883-8606, http://www.theatreonthesquare.co.za

Constellations and the games people play

Janna Ramos-Violante and Ashley Dowds in Constellations. Photograph by Suzy Bernstein.

Janna Ramos-Violante and Ashley Dowds in Constellations. Photograph by Suzy Bernstein.

This play is about cosmology and bee hives; it’s also about life, loss, love and death; taking chances and letting go. It is about the games people play. But above all else, it is about celebrating the veteran directing chops of Alan Swerdlow, revealing him at his most intelligent best.

In Constellations, he directs two of this country’s arguably more underrated performers: Ashley Dowds, who never seems to age and who has recently served as an eminently watchable foil opposite the ilk of Brenda Sakellarides and Keren Tahor; and the charming Janna Ramos-Violante, who we’ve oft fallen in love with in her capacity as director and performer over the years.

Honoured as the London Standard Weekly newspaper’s play of the year in 2012, this quiet, wisely pared down work grapples with relationships with a rapier-like pen that casts its words in a curiously unusual rhythm, which quickly disabuses you of the promise of a soppy love story. It has that illusion of cynical lightness that director Sylvaine Strike achieved with Pregnant Pause in 2009, but also that touch of magic conveyed by Athena Mazarakis and Craig Morris in Attachments (1-6), a danced essay about love.

Neither dance piece nor pregnancy romp, Constellations is about the brain’s frontal lobe as the seat of language. It touches the terror of genetic inheritance. It is constructed through a series of exchanges, which in the vein of the technique of Irish playwright Samuel Beckett are repeated and re-used as a metaphor for the kinds of games people play in conversation and the things they say and say and say again, without ever saying what they mean.

The medical curve ball in the work’s denouement will grab you by your humanity. The tentative conversational choreography around marriage and life and death and communication are handled with a devastatingly subtle hand. Suddenly, you are forced to look at both Mary Ann (Ramos-Violante) and Roland (Dowds) in new and increasingly more sophisticated if not tragic lights. It’s not very different from watching a cast pebble make rings in a puddle.

But it is the light directorial hand, the presence of an off-pink cardigan, a bench and a trellis and the gentle diversion from logical chronology that doesn’t let any aspect of this tight work run away with you. It’s almost farcical in its repetition of lines, almost annoying in how the give and take rests on a few words re-articulated, but it never reaches farcical proportions, nor annoying ones. It holds fast onto the issues at hand. It contains all the elements: happiness, cruelty, confusion, pain and horror, but it enfolds its contents with a sympathetic yet acerbically sophisticated knowledge of the interface of humour with tragedy, leaving you at peace and sated. A beautiful, beautiful work.

  • Constellations by Nick Payne is directed by Alan Swerdlow and performed by Ashley Dowds and Janna Ramos-Violante, at The Studio, Montecasino Theatre, Fourways, until September 28.