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
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Man to man over a brandy

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POWER of three: the man (Andre Odendaal), his drink and his barman (Wilhelm van der Walt). Photograph by Jo Spies.

It’s a great rarity when you are privileged enough to see a play so ununtterably perfect that you feel were you to never see a play again, it would suffice. Fairly low-key, Dop is unequivocally a play of this standard. Premised on the clichéd honest friendship between a man, his drink and his barman, the work reaches into the subtleties of Beckettian nuance as it boldly celebrates the priceless legacy of Afrikaans balladeer Johannes Kerkorrel.

Indeed, Dop is a play with prescience, dealing as it does with the schism between South Africa’s white Afrikaans-speaking contemporary youth, bruised and damaged by fear and immigration,  and the previous generation. Frank Venter (André Odendaal) was born on February 29, 1960, and his father was so mean that he only ever got a birthday present every four years. And at that, it was something manly and utilitarian, like a screwdriver or a spanner. Tim (Wilhelm van der Walt), the barman is a ‘laaitie’, born in the 1990s, but he too has suffered the pain and conflict of love and bias and uncertainty, and he’s quite content to not speak of it.

The brandy nurtures an easiness between the two. And the melding of set and lighting, text and nuance as Frank gets drunker and drunker, pulls you, in the audience, into the vortex of the honesty and fragility that comes of inebriation. It’s happy inebriation in the most part, something that sees Frank’s “Puppies” – his Hushpuppy shoes – left behind, but it opens a level of unbiased brave freedom that finds both men pondering their own broken dreams, but also love, loss and humanity in a way they probably wouldn’t be brave enough to do by sober light of day.

Beautifully performed, Dop in Afrikaans with a bit of Australian English, is a polished gem, woven through intricately and intimately with the life and music of Kerkorrel and his Voëlvry movement which impacted so significantly on Afrikaans youth of the 1990s, but this is so much more than an historical account. It boasts an internal architecture which contains focal nubs that are touched upon and not laboured, woven with love and never forced. The work is also deliciously peppered with Kerkorrel’s ballads – and a bit of Tom Jones – but the segueing of music and text, socio-political reference, sexual identity and the spinning of the bar is wise and fabulous. And just right. You will laugh with a pure heart at the physical gymnastics and cry with a full one at the tale’s astonishing denouement.

  • Dop is written by Retief Scholtz and directed by Sylvaine Strike. Featuring design by Sylvaine Strike and Kosie Smit (set and lighting), Didi Kriel (music) and Madelaine Lötter (costumes), it is performed by André Odendaal and Wilhelm van der Walt in the Studio Theatre, Montecasino, Fourways, until October 23. Visit kosie.biz or www.pietertoerien.co.za

Fat and sassy

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INSULT me all you like, I still love you: Vicky (Michelle Botha) and Henry (Tobie Cronje). Photograph by Kosie Smit.

THE ‘F’ WORD’S become constrained by frowns and taboos in the last little while, particularly under the rubric of “sugar-free September”, a dietary challenge for the month. In this fast-paced world, where slang is coined overnight and things become offensive with increasing rapidity, you could fall into a trap of being deemed a body-shamer by saying things that three weeks ago were quite innocent. Enter Charles Laurence’s My Fat Friend, a hilarious bit of theatre which tears apart these levels of taboo and political correctness with abandon, but offers a twist in the plot and an astute mirror to society.

The play wouldn’t quite be the same, however, without the delicious magic that veteran performer Tobie Cronjé brings to the mix. With a physique not that different from a beanpole and an ability to have you rolling on the floor, with just a flick of his eyebrow or a folding of a leg, even before he’s opened his mouth, he is an absolute delight and lends frissons of Gary Reich’s British TV series Vicious to the work.

Henry (Tobie Cronjé), James Anderson (Jeremy Richard) and Vicky (Michelle Botha) live in a Hampstead house, which Vicky owns. She also runs a second hand bookstore which is adjoined to the property. While James is flagrantly Scottish and desperately young, Henry is outrageously gay and on the outer border of middle aged. He wears a natty little toupee, which goes awry at times, and is assigned the best and bitchiest lines. And Vicky is, you guessed it: the fat friend, who deals with her unmarried status by eating. A lot.

With headspinning costume changes that will leave you questioning the veracity of your own vision, it’s a tale of loving insults and a hungry need for love as a respite from boredom and loneliness. Almost farcical in its construction, it’s a smoothly constructed piece, elegantly filtering in some of the nastiest retorts you can imagine, and while it’s a piece with a bristly shell, it has a real heart inside it with a potent moral in its tale.

Featuring Charlie Bouguenon as Tom, the love interest, it’s a work that cocks a fond snook at the culture of weight loss as it grins naughtily at the notion of what makes a woman’s body beautiful. Completely unpredictable and satisfyingly engaging, this is more of a delight than any guilty guzzling of sugar can possibly be.

  • My Fat Friend is written by Charles Laurence and directed by André Odendaal. It is performed by Michelle Botha, Charlie Bouguenon, Tobie Cronjé and Jeremy Richard, at the Pieter Toerien  Theatre, Montecasino theatre complex in Fourways, until October 2 and at the Pieter Toerien Theatre on the Bay in Cape Town, November 9-26. Call 011 511 1988 or 082 715 0123 (Kosie Smit) or visit www.montecasinotheatre.co.za

People: A play that engenders belief in our youth

Humiliating Shortie: Anna Mart van der Merwe plays Millie, opposite Francois Jacobs as Shortie. Photograph courtesy www.artslink.co.za

Humiliating Shortie: Anna Mart van der Merwe plays Millie, opposite Francois Jacobs as Shortie. Photograph courtesy http://www.artslink.co.za

As she walks onto the stage, bent over by her smoker’s cough and her palpable despair, Anna-Mart van der Merwe, in the role of Fugard’s ‘Millie’ magnetises the audience. She portrays the squalid baseness of poverty and worthlessness in an early 1970s South Africa with a sense of such perfection, you feel your heart sink even as it sings with being in the presence of the brilliant grittiness of arguably, Athol Fugard’s best work ever.

But it is van der Merwe in collaboration with the young cast – of Carel Nel (as Don), Francois Jacobs (as Shortie) and Dania Gelderblom (as Sussie) that truly gives this production its edge. They filter the performance of this play thoroughly with all the incisive wit, bitterness, conflict and anger that bring it up there with words by Beckett, Stoppard or Sartre. While you get glimmerings of Shakespeare in the crisp and trauma-drenched language, you remain deeply aware of the helpless flaws in each persona: Each character has his or her own baseness and inadequacies yet together, the tenants and their land lady harmonise grotesquely and completely in fitting with the ethos of this play, as it carves into hopelessness and poverty.

Tossing into the air the conjoined issues of love and sex, poverty and politics and the ever elusive idea of dreams of happiness, the work is deeply poetic as it is fuelled by the ordinariness of the daily grind. Premised around a birthday party and the challenges of education and acne, cruelty and hurt, it pulls no punches, and doesn’t miss a trick, but never teeters into easy theatre.

The work is astonishingly complemented with a set which gives you a sense of not only what the night air feels like, but also of what the kitchen smells like. The pared down universe constructed here by Nadya Cohen is so carefully layered and subtly informed that as the faulty grandfather clock chimes oft hesitantly and with the prompt of a kick in its solar plexus, you can picture, the rickety staircase and the horror of the residents’ bedrooms, in your mind’s eye.

Such an extraordinarily performed production offers not only courage for the industry itself, but for the high school curricula: People Are Living There is currently a matric setwork. This cleaving together of theatre and education is not a new idea, but it is handled so astutely and with such a sense of professional collaboration, you cannot but have hope for all the matriculants who were exposed to this production: not only for the immediacy of their matric exams, but for seeds cast in their love of the medium and the thrill of being in a theatre.

The season is over and there’s scant indication on the theatre’s website as to whether the show will have legs going forward: but lots of legs it warrants. Also, whilst van der Merwe is an unequivocal stalwart who can change any production – be it on stage, screen or radio – into something mesmerising, the rest of the cast, impeccably chosen, are performers to look out for, each in his or her own right. Each fleshes out his or her character with a bold sense of competence and focus that gives them the timelessness they warrant.

  • People Are Living There by Athol Fugard is directed by Andre Odendaal and features design by Mannie Manim (lighting); Nadya Cohen (set); Nthabiseng Makone (costumes). It is performed by Anna-Mart van der Merwe, Carel Nel, Dania Gelderblom and Francois Jacobs, at the Barney Simon Theatre, Market Theatre complex in Newtown, Johannesburg. The season ended on May 24. markettheatre.co.za