Molly’s story: not just any card game

MOLLY'S GAME

TAKING the world on with integrity: Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain) and Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba), her lawyer. Photograph courtesy http://www.theverge.com

THE CHALLENGE OF telling a complicated story in bold brush strokes in such a way that detail and nuance are not part of the casualties is a stiff one. The creative team behind Molly’s Game has achieved almost the impossible with this finely honed piece of filmography that is at once beautiful and sexy, intelligent and thought-provoking. It is informative and has a moral core; it’s magnificent to look at and will keep your conversations for weeks after you’ve seen it, peppered with suppositions and reminiscences.

On one level, it’s a poker movie. But if you’re not a poker buff, it doesn’t matter. The game and its morality, the energy behind its allure, are portrayed with a slick suaveness that never becomes self-indulgent. Indeed, there are explanatory overlays that speak of the potency of different hands, and it’s a directorial feat achieved with balance.

Similarly, the story is told on an almost documentary level. There’s a narrator to the work which fills in the narrative interstices and lends the story historical flow without dumbing down the performances or making them illustrative.

And then, there is Jessica Chastain in the leading role. She’s beautiful in the sense that LA-film critic Mick La Salle describes French actresses: there’s a realness, an almost harshness, to her which lifts her stature beyond that of bimbo and into the messy realm of high-end gambling behind closed doors. She really looks at the characters she interfaces with, and she embodies her character with a wrenching earnestness that never feels forced.

As the trailer will show you, there’s lots of high velocity gambling, with the lights, the bling, the revealing dresses and the dodgy rich men. But what the trailer doesn’t show you is the deeply intellectual soul of the story.

It’s the true tale of Olympic skier Molly Bloom, who is shaped by the urge to conquer the most difficult challenges, an urge which takes her in a completely different direction to what any of her fans or enemies might have imagined. It’s a tale with heart and soul, blending and twisting James Joyce’s Ulysses and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible deliciously into its narrative and its screenplay.

With honed and strong performances by Idris Elba and Kevin Costner, it’s a work that foregrounds a young woman’s relationship to men in power, and there are psychological themes and intellectual choruses in the work which are allowed to develop in strata.

In short, this yarn, which touches all mythologist Joseph Campbell’s values about the way in which a hero’s life story is constructed, is tight and intelligently made. There are simply no flaws in it. And you will not be satisfied with a single watching of it. This is one of those films that slides into classic status automatically.

  • Molly’s Game is directed by Aaron Sorkin and features a cast headed by Gurdeep Ahluwalla, Mary Ashton, Nicholas Banks, Jon Bass, Tom Black, Jacob Blair, Chris Boyle, Steve Brandes, Gary Brennan, Joey Brooks, Catherine Burdon, Bill Camp, Jessica Chastain, Michael Cera, Laura Cilevitz, Ari Cohen, Michael Cohen, Kevin Costner, Brian d’Arcy James, Karl Danhoffer, Todd Thomas Dark, Lizzy DeClement, Linette Doherty, Dennis Drummond, Dan Duran, Idris Elba, Frank Falcone, David Gingrich, Jake Goldsbie, Zachary Goodbaum, Angela Gots, Graham Greene, Shane Harbinson, Thomas Hauff, Daoud Heidami, Stephanie Herfield, Kjartan Hewitt, Chris Hoffman, Piper Howell, James Hurlburg, Samantha Isler, Morgan David Jones, Tommy Julien, Jeff Kassel, Joe Keery, Robert B Kennedy, Justine Kirk, Khalid Klein, Michael Kostroff, Natalie Krill, John Krpan, David Lafontaine, Maria Lerinman, Dan Lett, Ken Linton, Alanna Macaulay, JC MacKenzie, Bo Martyn, Matthew D Matteo, Madison McKinley, Elisa Moolecherry, Timothy Mooney, Duane Murray, John Nelles, Randy Noojin, Chris O’Dowd, Chris Owens, Vasilios Pappas, Jeffrey Parazzo, Whitney Peak, AC Peterson, Jason Pithawalla, Phil Primmer, Jonathan Purdon, Claire Rankin, Robin Read, David Reale, Amy Rutherford, Victor Serfaty, Chris Siddiqi, Rachel Skartsten, Tony Stellisano, Amy Stewart, Rae Anne Stroeder, Jeremy Strong, George Tchortov, Dov Tiefenbach, Vladimir Tsyglian, Rico Tudico, Alyssa Veniece, Bruno Verdoni, Leo Vernik, Jason Weinberg and Moti Yona. It is written by Aaron Sorkin, based on Molly Bloom’s autobiography. Produced by Mark Gordon, Matt Jackson and Amy Pascal, it features creative input by Daniel Pemberton (music), Charlotte Bruus Christensen (cinematography), Alan Baumgarten, Elliot Graham and Josh Schaeffer (editing), Francine Maisler (casting), David Wasco (production design) and Susan Lyall (costume design). Release date: January 12 2018.

 

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Five little girls and Mamiwata

Crucifixion

THERE’S SOMETHING INESTIMABLY exciting about a new production that is conceived of, written and brought to life by a group of practitioners that is fast becoming recognised as a repertory group in the classical tradition. Why? Simply because you have seen their work in the past, and know that you’re in safe hands when it comes to exceptionally fine theatre that tweaks the edges just that little bit to keep your focus riveted.

Think of British director Alan Bleasdale and the performers of the ilk of Julie Walters, Robert Lindsay, Lindsay Duncan and David Ross from the mid-1990s, who put together an unrivalled level of collaboration with classics and new work that even made it to South African tv screens, in the form of miniseries Melissa and Jake’s Progress. While you’re thinking of this splendid work, think of this very ensemble, headed in this production by Jovan Muthray and Mlindeli Zondi, who are quietly redefining theatre making in this country, one production at a time: their relentless energy promises the Bleasedale equivalent in South Africa.

But let’s not digress. The Crucifixion of Amagqwirha is a tale woven around the values espoused in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (1953). But it is moored in contemporary South Africa, and amidst a rich concatenation of superstition and self-belief, members of a community who are young and ambitious and others who are old and hold onto tradition, and little girls who are vanishing with no explanation. And there’s also speak of the ghostly presence of Mamiwata, a creature, believed to be half woman, half snake, who patrols deep and quiet waters.

Blending shadow puppetry that engages the sinister in a manner so much more direct and fearsome than actors on a stage can project, the work is beautifully balanced and hard hitting in terms of social foibles and mob mentality.

But it is the performance of Nyakallo Motloung, Sanelisiwe Jobodwana, Campbell Meas and Star Anka that unequivocally capture the fierce yet tender bravado of little girls, while they embrace the elderly and punctuate the broader, scary tale with home truths and real South Africanisms. The work will take you from laughing out loud to shivering in your shoes, at the eerie prospect of the things out there that we cannot fathom.

The energy of the entire ensemble in creating this piece is palpable; there’s a give and take in dialogue and thinking which brings to mind the feisty dynamism in their work, Just Antigone, performed last year. When the four little girls are debating issues, it’s there. When the elders of the community are calling for a witch hunt, it’s there too.

The only downside of this extraordinarily beautifully crafted work is that it enjoyed but one performance at this festival. It deserves legs in many more contexts.

  • The Crucifixion of Amagqwirha is written and designed by the ensemble. It is directed by Jovan Muthray and Mlindeli Zondi and features creative input by Jovan Muthray and Mlindeli Zondi (lighting) and Binnie Christie (puppets and set). It was performed by Star Anka, Sanelisiwe Jobodwana, Campbell Meas and Nyakallo Motloung at the Downstairs Theatre on July 21, as part of the Wits 969 Festival. Visit webtickets.co.za or visit Wits 969 on facebook.

Kitchen sink provocation

Raisin-in-the-sun-PosterA1_thumb

WAITING FOR DREAMS TO HAPPEN: The programme cover for James Ngcobo’s production of A Raisin in the Sun

FEBRUARY IS BLACK History month and the Market Theatre proudly touts this international commemorative energy with arguably one of black America’s most poignant hard-hitting plays. Written in 1959 at the height of racist issues of the time, A Raisin in the Sun compares unequivocally with Arthur Miller’s inestimable Death of a Salesman (1949), in its reflection on success, the fallibility of dreams and the power of money.

It’s an almost flawless production, featuring design that will take your breath away in its simple brilliance. Essentially, this is a kitchen sink drama that takes place in poor tenement housing. With some down-at-heel kitchen cupboards and furniture, and an enormous fabric backdrop, designer Nadya Cohen has constructed everything that apartment life in suburban poverty could mean. The set is gestural, the nuances it contains are rich with the evoked stink of oppression and making do.

Enter Ruth (Lesedi Job). Wife to Walter (Paka Zwedala), mother to Travis (Hungani Ndlovu), daughter-in-law to Lena (Trena Bolden Fields) and sister-in-law to Beneatha (Gaosi Raditholo), she’s a tragic character by definition. Job embraces the role with such a sense of potent energy, her Ruth recalls the mute sense of the tragic conveyed by British actress Julie Walters in so many of her roles. This is no blood and guts emotion, but rather a more subtle and sophisticated reflection of utter disappointment and impotent rage. Job embraces the stage with a tenderness and a sense of resolution, which resounds across the auditorium even when she is silent, her back turned to the audience, as she weeps whilst washing dishes or ironing.

The work’s narrative surrounds the maturing of a policy in the wake of a death that could lift the oppression from this hapless family, but it is structured in such a way that you realise it is a lot more than money that is necessary to alleviate their indignity, which is bruised by poverty but deeply scarred by blind racism and the senseless repositioning of goal posts.

Zwedala admirably offers a deeply emotional Walter: A man who is not afraid to dream or to weep at his mother’s feet, but one who is stunted in his potential to fly or actualise those dreams. It is not through faults of his own that he’s the brunt of his family’s mockery and his friends’ betrayal, but ultimately, he’s the character that shoulders the emptiness of loss in weathering and patching broken dreams.

As Trena Bolden Fields comes on stage in the role of the family’s matriarch, Walter’s mother, your knee-jerk reaction might be to disbelieve her in this role because she seems too young and her smooth skin and beautiful physique belie the white-powdered hair, but as the role unfolds, this American performer sways and surges with the rhythms and nuances in this text so well that she becomes Lena, unforgettably – feisty and hard working to a fault, a woman with adult children who understands the passage of time and the shifting of generations but also one who knows her children and their dreams and flaws, better than they think.

Lena’s daughter Beneatha is the most conflicted and complex role in the work. She’s beautifully cast and feels completely appropriate as Walter’s fiery younger sister also all wrapped up in the family’s circumstances. Swept off her feet by completely different suitors – the wealthy young George (Lebo Toko) with his poncy accent and white shoes; and the politically astute young Asegai (Khathu Ramabulana) with his Africanness and exoticism – she has a fire in her belly that she will not assuage.

The child, played by Hungani Ndlovu, is, like all the other roles in this work, effectively a cameo. Ndlovu does seem too old for the role, given that he’s meant to be a mere 11 years, but this doesn’t seriously hurt the plot.

The curious thing about this work is both its staging and the choice to choreograph dancers around it. The stage in the John Kani Theatre is three-quarters in the round. The production is streamlined to face in a certain direction. While this doesn’t hurt the work, you may have a completely different experience depending on where you are seated in the auditorium.

Dancers are choreographed to give a sense of life in the tenement housing around the Younger family and from the back seats of the theatre, you cannot see them with clarity, but rather the poetic play of shadows of limbs and beautiful movement offer that light sense of energy that is completely and deliciously sufficient. Whether their more full-bodied presence would hurt a reading of the play remains moot. Instinctively, it does seem, however, that the introduction of dancers on top of all the other dynamics that the play presents, is just too much, which effectively would overwhelm rather than hone your view.

All things considered, the eagle-eye view from the back of the theatre allowed for an experience that was not only deeply moving but also sophisticated and provocative in its focus. This is an important work; beautifully crafted, it reaches into the nub of ugliness in black-white dialogue. Don’t miss it.

  • A Raisin in the Sun is written by Lorraine Hansberry and directed by James Ngcobo. It features design by Nadya Cohen (set), Mandla Mtshali (lighting), Lesego Moripe (costumes), Fana Tshabalala (choreographer) and Jurgen Meekel (audio-visual). It is performed by Trena Bolden Fields, Charlie Bouguenon, Lesedi Job, Hungani Ndlovu, Gaosi Raditholo, Khathu Ramabulana, Khulu Skenjana, Lebo Toko and Paka Zwedala and dancers Tshepang Maphate and Teresa Mojela, in the John Kani Theatre, Market Theatre complex, Newtown, until February 28. Call 011 832 1641 or visit http://www.markettheatre.co.za
  • For a broader overview on how A Raisin in the Sun touches contemporary South African communal values, read this.