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
Advertisements

Oh, the things you can do with humble tools!

heartshotel

The world in a swath of brown paper: Liezl de Kock in Heart’s Hotel. Photo by Gemma Middleton, courtesy CuePix.

DO YOU REMEMBER casting shadows of animals made of your own little fingers and hands, on the wall, when you were a small child? The thrill of that level of interpretative magic which makes something unexpected happen in the context of ordinariness is something we as human beings should never allow ourselves to forget. And thanks to utterly remarkable theatre practitioners such as Toni Morkel, Liezl de Kock and James Cuningham, we won’t.

It is always such a splendid privilege and treat to get to see Morkel perform. She lends a blend of sinister humour which is unique and completely magnetic. Ditto for Liezl de Kock, who Johannesburg audiences last saw opposite Andrew Buckland in the wonderful Crazy in Love. When you hear that these two inimitable physical theatre giants are collaborating in a work, your only real questions should be where? And when? Hearts Hotel featured as one of the pickings of this year’s Wits 969 Festival, and hopefully it will enjoy legs, further down the line.

And while all the names on paper shine and sparkle in your mind’s eye, they certainly don’t disappoint in their performances in this quirky apocalyptic tale of motherly love, new beginnings, terrors in the night and a very poisonous scorpion. It’s a work that brings together the rich and simple idea of play in such provocative ways it will singe your heart and leave you aching for more.

When you weep at a death that is evoked with the smoothing out of wrinkled paper, or gasp at the way in which distance and nearness are conveyed by shadows alone, you become susceptible to an easy melding of different realities, and you get sucked into a work of such creative magnitude that it will shift your values. Hearts Hotel comprises a whole range of low-tech theatre crafts, from shadow puppetry to mime. It reflects ideas such as destruction by fire, great distances travelled on foot, big waves in the ocean and the playfulness of a baby with succinct gesture and great wisdom, that will make you laugh with glee and surprise.

Such a range of richness is carried by an economy of tools but a generosity of creative energies that you will feel like a child being exposed to great classics for the very first time.

The language in the work smacks of something East-European in its flavour and sense of tradition, but nothing is pinned down. The devilish horned hats also fit into something which you might not know, but will recognise as a time worn custom, replete with its own rituals and choreography.

Perhaps the only casualty in this work is the looseness of the grand narrative, which holds it all together and is not consistently easy to follow. But in the bigger picture of the work, it’s not a catastrophe – even if you’re not savvy of the apocalyptic nature of the piece, or the madness of the situation in the empty abandoned hotel, even if you do not understand where the curious stranger fits in, or where there be scorpions in this hostile landscape, you will still be swept away by the humble and soaring texture of its unequivocal generosity of magic.

  • Hearts Hotel is directed by James Cuningham assisted by Binnie Christie. It is performed by Liezl de Kock, Toni Morkel and Christelle van Graan as part of the Wits 969 festival for 2016, in the Wits Downstairs Theatre, which ended on July 24.

A play that makes the world turn on an avocado

Fruit

Lucy and me: Matshediso Mokoteli embraces the harrowing tale of Paul Noko’s ‘Fruit’ with wisdom and depth. Photograph by Andrew Brown.

A YOUNG girl quietly talks of life, the universe and everything to her plastic doll, with the kind of illogical quietude and gentle give-and-take that little children adopt when in conversation with their toys. Thus opens arguably one of the most powerful, well defined and  ingenious plays that we in this city have been privileged to see, in a long time. Paul Noko’s Fruit brings together all the central principles of grand theatre in this low-budget, taut work, where the main grown-up protagonists are stones with faces drawn onto them, and an urban geography is cast by small cartons and pieces of community detritus.

But avocados will never be the same again. In a tour de force performance which recalls what Lara Foot did to the understanding of a cabbage leaf in Karoo Moose and what Lionel Newton and Andrew Buckland did to the understanding of a watermelon in The Well Being, 19-year-old performer Matshediso Mokoteli renders the humble avocado a repository of hope and violence, terrible cruelty and great loss.

As you take your seat in the audience, you are immediately and irrevocably plunged into the quirky chilling blend of fantasy and reality that unfolds in the whimsical portrayal of a community in an informal settlement. The characters are well developed and curious. Their interface is about the camaraderie that comes of living with scant resources, but also of being in the proverbial same boat as your neighbour. And the trajectory is an unstoppable one which you know will end with tears and horror, but you can’t look away.

There’s ugliness and drunkenness and loss and brokenness, but there’s also beauty and felicitation. And there’s a baby, who suffers the horrors of neglect, abandonment and abuse in the most harrowing context. But the whole trajectory of this baby’s life is relayed in a sing-song frankness, which not only embraces it with the kind of sophistication that doesn’t allow you to turn away even through accounts of incest and arson, but rather it mesmerises you to your moral core.

This is the kind of play which defines powerful storytelling in the least sensationalist and wisest way possible. In so doing, it soars above and beyond the notion of artifice, as it conveys the nub and texture of the horror yet joy of life in an indigent society. There is no romanticising of poverty here, no political grandstanding. The story is told as it happens, and this frank splaying of happenings makes it sing.

  • Fruit is written and directed by Paul Noko. It is performed by Matshediso Mokoteli and was the winner of the Zabalaza Theatre Festival in Cape Town in 2015. It enjoyed a short season earlier this month at the Pop Arts Theatre, in Maboneng, downtown Johannesburg.

The perfect pleasure of Tobacco

Tobacco

TAKING YOUR BREATH AWAY: Andrew Buckland is the hapless yet powerful Ivan. Photograph courtesy http://www.netwerk24.com

AS HE WALKS onstage, you know you are in safe hands, and that the evening will not only be completely impeccable, but that it will take your heart and wring it out in a way that you won’t readily forget. Arguably the single play that defined the Grahamstown National Arts Festival in 2014, Tobacco, and the harmful effects thereof is finally at the Market Theatre, and it’s no less of an utterly perfect theatre experience than it was two years ago.

Ivan (Andrew Buckland) is a nervous man who has been asked by his Wife (Toni Morkel) to do a public talk for charity. And premised on this simple do-gooder idea, there evolves a most extraordinary tale of love and hate, claustrophobia and the feathers of a golden eagle, the discomfort of a picnic with 20 children and the tenderness of a couple who know each other well – and everything in between.

A fine and wild monster of a text crafted by William Harding, Tobacco rests on the almost eponymous Anton Chekhov play of 1886 – or, rather than resting on it, it uses the Chekhov as a quirky starting point. With the aid of an incredibly clever set, comprising a very special purpose-made lectern, a wooden box and an old record player, as well as a pair of plastic noses, the work takes astonishing and brave leaps into the terrain of owls and pussy cats, Mozart and bizarre metaphors that smash grammar and logic aside, yielding an experience which takes you on a surreal and bizarre journey through not only tobacco and its harmful effects, but a whole life of complicated domesticity that is haunting in its brilliance.

Buckland and Morkel together articulate a level of clowning sophistication which makes you remember what perfect theatre is all about. With authoritative focus, they make you laugh at something tragic, and cry at something ridiculous: armed only with their bodies and their skill they invest poignancy into clumsiness and incredible poetry into a hen-pecked middle-aged man in his underpants with a necktie around his sweaty head.

But more than all of this Tobacco boasts a structure that evokes a scored piece of choral music. Tobacco is present everywhere, but it appears like a refrain in a text that is about anything but tobacco. The language has a musicality to it and a flow which is unstoppable, building physical theatre into a momentum that will keep you at the edge of your emotion, throughout.

Under the directorial hand of Sylvaine Strike, this is a remarkable play, beautifully cast and put together with such love and laughter that it sings. If you choose to have one theatre experience in your whole life, make it this one.

  • Tobacco, and the harmful effects thereof based on Anton Chekhov’s one act play, On the Harmful Effects of Tobacco is adapted by William Harding and directed by Sylvaine Strike. It features design by Chen Nakar (set) and Sylvaine Strike assisted by Ali Madiga (lighting) and is performed by Andrew Buckland and Toni Morkel, in the Barney Simon Theatre, Market Theatre complex in Newtown until March 6. Call 011 832 1641 or visit http://www.markettheate.co.za
  • See my review of this play from the Grahamstown Festival in 2014 here.

Buckland and De Kock tell of life, the universe and everything with a mop in a veil

Like father, like daughter: Leon (Andrew Buckland) and Ginny (Liezl de Kock) share a guffaw. Photograph by Bazil Raubach

Like father, like daughter: Leon (Andrew Buckland) and Ginny (Liezl de Kock) share a guffaw. Photograph by Bazil Raubach

With a hefty dollop of Beckett, some irrepressible clowning and a simple bittersweet tale peppered with absurdities, kangaroos and chameleons, not to mention an extraordinary set that comprises the skull of a gnu, a plastic shopping trolley and doodads that will make you laugh and cry, Andrew Buckland and Liezl de Kock have woven an intricate story of fatherhood with an insane backstory and context that makes tragedy comical and vice versa. If you’ve ever loved someone to the point of distraction, you will empathise with this niftily written and magically performed production.

Leon (Buckland) is a man who doesn’t commit well. He sidles out of relationships on the pretext of going shopping and from the first vignette, you love him and hate him for being so charming and delicious and yet so unreliable as a partner. In the first couple of sequences, Buckland makes you remember why for decades he had Johannesburg audiences in thrall: he’s an incredibly sophisticated clown who with his face, body and words, pushes the boundaries between tragedy and comedy to a point that is almost unbearable. And then, when you cannot laugh or cry one sob more, he relents, unwinds and starts all over again. Language and gesture are his playground and his tools and he gives life to nonsense, obscenity and blasphemy which in turn make it sophisticated, untouchably hilarious and profound.

De Kock – who plays Leon’s daughter Ginny – is grist for Buckland’s mill: the give and take between the two performers is generous and trusting yet brutal and direct. Where he ends, she takes up. Where he trips, she falls. It’s like watching a complicated game of tennis, but one that involves a mop and rake, lipstick and an absent mother.  They face a nothingness as do Fugard’s Boesman and Lena. They confront dreams in impossibility as do Beckett’s Estragon and Vladimir. Knotted together with one of the most well loved musical standards of all time, Somewhere Over the Rainbow as a theme that runs surreptitiously and delicately through the work, this production has undergone wise and resolute tweaks since last it was staged in Grahamstown.

Crazy in Love is a balm to South African theatre: In its short duration, it demonstrates how many stories can be told in a single burst of creative fire, how the sky is the limit, and how performers can take a basic and simple idea and let it run into a forest of possibilities that touch life and death, tragedy and hilarity, disappointment and freedom with unrelenting quirkiness. It’s an essay on life, love and madness and in the telling it is coupled with some of the most outlandish creativity you could dream up.  By the same token, it gives credence to building a shrine of nonentity as it describes the need for a young person to leave home and strike out on her own.

In touching all these values, the work offers sometimes harsh, sometimes poetic insight into the challenges of loss, of raising a child alone, of alcoholism and numbing poverty. Metaphors aplenty encrust this stage, but the bottom line is the pathos-littered tale of searching for a somebody that can make one’s life feel complete – even if that somebody and that search are exercises for their own sake.

  • Crazy in Love is co-created by Andrew Buckland and Liezl de Kock and directed by Rob Murray. It is performed by Andrew Buckland and Liezl de Kock and features set, costume and prop design by Jayne Batzofin and lighting design by Rob Murray. It is at the Barney Simon Theatre, Market Theatre complex in Newtown, Johannesburg, until April 12. 011 832 1641.

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.