Fiona gives Poison wings

blondepoison

REGRETS, I’ve had a few: Fiona Ramsay plays Stella Goldschlag. Photograph courtesy http://www.artslink.co.za

CAN SOMETHING AS thoroughly written about as the European Holocaust still engage a contemporary audience with a modicum of freshness? Or are we, as a society so limp with Holocaust fatigue in our histories and fictional accounts that another Holocaust play trotting out narratives we know well, has scant impact? This is a question you might ponder, with Blonde Poison. But unequivocally, as you watch the work, the authority Fiona Ramsay exudes across this tale of betrayal and hate, beauty and ugliness, is the ingredient that makes the work tick.

As it opens with the ripe and gravelly German accent of Stella Goldschlag and the story begins to elegantly unfurl, taking us back to Berlin in the 1930s under Janna Ramos-Violante’s expert direction and Ramsay’s utterly tight and masterful portrayal, you’re not quite sure of Stella’s identity. She’s blonde. She’s very German, but she’s too blasé in her condemnation of Jews and her knowledge of Jewish cuisine not to be a Jew herself. This self-assurance, this element of jazzy pizzazz gives her the edge and forces her over it, in the name of self-preservation.

The interface of sound and voice overs and the elements of the set, are tightly woven into the narrative, which casts an understanding of context that is sophisticated as it is descriptive and evocative, never leaning toward gimmick. The texture of the play is strong and the language powerful, but still, as the text teeters around that “parachute moment” in war when morals have to be cast aside in the name of saving your own life, you’re left feeling that you know this story. You know how it will end.

You know there will be a tremendous amount of loss and death on the way. And you know that you’ll feel your emotions pushed and pulled in different directions as anti-Semitism and the murder of Jews comes under the proverbial loupe. And in having this sense of knowledge, you lose an aspect of horror. You’ve been down these paths before. You’ve shouted and cried before. You might not do it again.

In short, the play casts a cardboard cut-out reflection on the morality of history. Ramsay is too sophisticated a performer to slip into this kind of one-dimensionality and she lifts and stretches the work, through her presence in it, way beyond its potential. So, what you get is an extraordinary theatre experience, premised on a fairly ordinary play, but populated with such astute performance and design skill, that any flaws in the predictability of the work become forgivable.

  • Blonde Poison is written by Gail Louw and directed by Janna Ramos-Violante. Featuring design by Alex Farmer (lighting) and Stan Knight (set construction), it is performed by Fiona Ramsay with voice overs by James Alexander, Janna Ramos-Violante and Tim Wells at the Auto and General Theatre on the Square in Sandton until February 4. Call 011 883-8606 or visit theatreonthesquare.co.za
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Tobacco: worth driving to KwaZulu Natal for

Deliciously Buckland, replete with nose and necktie. Photograph by Michelle Avenant.

Deliciously Buckland, replete with nose and necktie. Photograph by Michelle Avenant.

If you’re looking for a splinteringly fine reason to attend this year’s Hilton Arts Festival in KwaZulu Natal, in September, look no further. Arguably the pick of this year’s National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, On the Harmful Effects of Tobacco penned by William Harding is one of those theatrical productions which is so good, it has the power of holding a festival’s momentum, almost single-handedly.

When a seriously seasoned performer raises his own bar in terms of quality, you have to sit up and take notice. Andrew Buckland has been shaping and reshaping his onstage persona for decades. He’s stood at the helm of physical theatre in South Africa fearlessly and has grown a genre that melds an understanding of clowning with that of contemporary choreography.

It’s a supremely well-developed piece of theatre directed by Sylvaine Strike, which intelligently and movingly, is supported with the rich array of emotional wisdom in the skill of clowning. Based on a tale by the same name by Anton Chekhov, it brings in a range of literary and cultural references, from the ballad of the Owl and the Pussycat by Edward Lear, to very clear and beautiful Beckettian references, to bits and pieces of Kafka, American Indian mythology.

Ivan (played by Buckland) is the central character. He’s been called upon by his do-gooder and socially conscious wife (played in haunting and hilarious cameo appearances by Toni Morkel) to give a community talk on the harmful effects of tobacco, for a fundraising initiative. And from this deliciously hypocritical moment and throughout the play, Buckland ably tosses the notion around, bringing in love, life and everything else into the mix, which is juxtaposed with not only sheer poetry, but utter madness as well. In terms of clowning principles, clear gems of a melding of pathos with hilarity make you sit up and weep, it is so beautiful.

Perhaps in the hands of a lesser performer, this work would not have the astonishing sense of poignancy and wit or be able to hold the focus as touchingly and convincingly as it does. But the writing itself has levity and wit, wisdom and savvy that reach far beyond young Harding’s years, heftily reinforcing the understanding that he is someone to watch.

Distinctive of Strike’s works is a set, so simple that it is wild in its possibilities. Designed by Chen Nakar, this set comprises basically a hollowed out semi-circular plinth, which doubles and trebles in almost literally hundreds of different possibilities. A simple ingenious device, it holds the stage in a handful of magic.

This beautiful production, armed with fine and whimsical caveats is a tonic to the emotions and a celebration of the senses.

  • On the Harmful Effects of Tobacco is written by William Harding and directed by Sylvaine Strike. It features design by Strike (costumes); Chen Nakar (set); and Alex Farmer (lighting) and performances by Andrew Buckland and Toni Morkel and performs at the Hilton Arts Festival, near Pietermaritzburg, which takes place between September 18 and 21.