An unsilencable voice: a fine tribute to a great South African

Enormity: Ralph Lawson plays Alan Paton. Photograph courtesy State Theatre, Pretoria.

Enormity: Ralph Lawson plays Alan Paton. Photograph courtesy State Theatre, Pretoria.

He sits in a beautiful space, filled with books and he contemplates the relentless enormity of loss. This simple gesture is the delicate pivot to A Voice I cannot Silence, a new South African play which gives flesh and poetry to a reflection on the life of Alan Paton (1903-1988), arguably, one of this country’s most important novelists and educators – and the writer of Cry the Beloved Country (1948).

It’s a three hander, cast with great effect around Paton’s words, paying tribute to his second marriage with a woman called Anne Hopkins – played magnificently by Clare Mortimer – who first came into his life as a secretary. Hinged on his political opinions and gestures, his life, his foibles and vulnerabilities, the play is nothing short of a masterpiece: honed with a great level of respect and dignity, the work, in the hands of lesser performers might have been text heavy, but with Lawson in the central role opposite Mortimer, with Menzi Mkhwane reflecting on the children that passed through Paton’s hands,  text is nimbly cast between performers in a way that evokes the quick give and take of shuttlecocks in badminton.

Indeed, the Englishness of Hopkins is splayed wonderfully across the work, offering an understanding of three very diverse cultures and political positions in a country rooted in racist values and suffocating its own potential with legislation. And indeed, this is a very dignified and respectful play, but the poetry of the language, the construction of the work, the presence of birds, bullfrogs and crickets and the thoughtful weaving together of diverse ideas yields a piece which is delicate and crisp, whilst it remains formal. Never boring, deeply incisive, this is a really special play.

And while Paton is given empathetic three dimensionality as a principal, a politically conscious individual and a crotchety yet lovable ageing icon, the unfathomable void that great loss brings is filtered through this work with a deft hand and an impeccable sense of delivery. If you have known loss in any capacity, these words will talk directly to your pain.

Similar in structure to Athol Fugard’s The Shadow of the Hummingbird, performed in Johannesburg last August, this work offers an even greater sense of reflection. Never stooping to hero-worship or hollow self-deprecation, the piece is a portrait of a great man, which is deeply touching in so many ways, from his sense of self to the heartbreaking tales of the youngsters Paton worked with as a reformatory warden who transmogrified into a principal, touching and enriching their brokenness.

The only issue with the set was the occasional glaring of the desk lamp into the face of the audience, which is distracting. Having said that, the production works beautifully in the generous space of the State Theatre’s Momentum theatre – that small space without wheelchair access at the end of a long corridor and a narrow flight of stairs – but the bigger context of the theatre complex is far from welcoming to the general public: there’s a crass and disturbing haphazardness in the environment which feels disrespectful. Know, however, that A Voice I Cannot Silence is so wisely made, performed with such an intense and rich understanding of the value Paton brought to the South African narrative, that if you’re travelling from Johannesburg to see the work, it will not be a 50km driven in vain.

Hopefully this play will have considerable legs nationally, in the not too distant future. It’s an important and beautiful reflection of one of South Africa’s heroes.

  • A Voice I Cannot Silence is written by Greg Homann and Ralph Lawson. It is directed by Greg Homann and features design by Nadya Cohen (set), Michael Broderick (lighting) and Evan Roberts (soundscape). It is performed by Ralph Lawson, Menzi Mkhwane and Clare Mortimer at the Momentum Theatre, State Theatre complex in Pretoria, until October 24. Visit statetheatre.co.za
Advertisements

Unmissable Epstein: celebrating a secret god

Suave but not without a backstory: Nicholas Pauling is Brian Epstein. Photograph by Pat Bromilow Downing.

Suave but not without a backstory: Nicholas Pauling is Brian Epstein. Photograph by Pat Bromilow Downing.

They controversially deemed themselves more popular than Jesus Christ. Their songs are probably better known than Shakespeare. At 21 they were immortal. But they didn’t do it alone. This absolutely beautiful play reflects on the mysterious character of Brian Epstein, the record shop assistant who became manager of the Beatles: offering a thumbnail sketch of his life and how it interfaced with the success of a boy band from Liverpool that effectively changed the world’s music culture forever. The play has sharply honed language, incredibly three-dimensional performances and an utterly impeccable set. In short, it’s completely flawless.

It begins with the Liverpudlian scruffiness of the “Nowhere Man” played by Sven Ryugrok, who comes onto the scene as a pick-up. He emerges as a freelance music journalist, and therein unleashes the whole world of the 1960s with all its drugs, sex and rock ‘n roll; all its shaggy rugs, Mies van der Rohe evocative furniture and Mondrian-like visual simplicity. It’s a world where fame is within an arm’s reach, and the gods of popular music look as fresh-faced and happy as the proverbial boy next door.

Brian Epstein was Jewish and gay. He came of a conservative family fraught with taboos. With his brylcreemed coif and his conservative suit, he retains 1950s dignity with an understated but not undeveloped 1960s savvy. Nicholas Pauling embodies this larger than life, deeply troubled, obscenely successful and tragic character with a love and a sense of intimate empathy that will make you cry because of its realness, as it will make you love the man with all his frailties and demons.

This is no gentle tribute, in any way. Think of plays like Athol Fugard’s Hello and Goodbye in terms of how the narrative and text, the characters and their predicament are teased out, cleaved together and revealed to be emotionally complex, fraught with barbs, difficult and recalcitrant, and this is roughly what you get in Epstein. The work leaves you feeling a bit battered emotionally, but deeply exhilarated, resonating with that reflection that Beatles music in its raw state had the simplicity and emotional wisdom to act as a prism to the times with its content that was clichéd by life, but affected by happiness, and could “knock you in the chest” with its directness and timelessness.

What the makers of TV series Mad Men have done in reflecting the advertising industry in 1950s Manhattan, so have director Fred Abrahamse and designer Marcel Meyer, with their slice of 1967 – the difference is obviously the time frame in which they have to do it (not to mention the budget at hand). The wisdom in balancing these two supremely skilled performers opposite one another, conjoined with the understated yet wisely constructed icons of the time, offer a sense of intrusion into Epstein’s life, which, engaging and emotional, will take you on a rollercoaster through an understanding of what success on such a fundamental level means.

Easily one of the best plays of the year staged in this province, Epstein leaves you with the impact of a man who was fallible but who turned the world on its head in opening doors for John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and George Harrison. There are frissons of Beatles’ songs informing and fleshing out elements of the story, but this is no Beatles concert. It’s a bitterly fresh portrait of the back story of one of the world’s secret gods. And it’s the kind of play that enriches you, from the first until the last, and it doesn’t let go.

  • Epstein: the man who made the Beatles is written by Andrew Sherlock and directed by Fred Abrahamse with costumes and set by Marcel Meyer. It features performances by Nicholas Pauling and Sven Ryugrok and is at the Studio Theatre, Montecasino until September 27 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

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.

Ketekang: celebrating so much, it hurts

Performers in Ketekang. Photograph by Ruphin Coudyzer.

Performers in Ketekang. Photograph by Ruphin Coudyzer.

From the moment band leader Tshepo Mngoma lets rip into his electronic violin, in the opening number Bungazani, you are convinced that this anthology of music, theatre, dance and poetry will be extraordinary. And you won’t be wrong, but Ketekang is not without decision-making flaws, which bruise its impact.

Couched in celebratory cliché, the work is not monolithic, and boasts an unusual body of song, poetry and snippets of theatre in its repertoire of 30 works. In many, though, the narrative thread holding them relevant, is disappointingly absent.

What does pin the work together is the choreographic moments. By and large, choreographed and danced by Luyanda Sidiya and dancers associated with Vuyani Dance Theatre and Moving Into Dance Mophatong, they pepper Ketekang with a bold freshness which really takes your breath away. There’s a moment commemorating Sam Nzima’s iconic photograph of Hector Pieterson on June 16, 1976 which will etch itself into your heart. Embodying a sense of the urgency and horror of the situation, it is beautifully constructed, like a piece of poetry.

Similarly, there’s a paean to “dustbin men”, important characters in the grotesque pedestrianism of apartheid. It’s danced with a brusqueness and a sense of potency that will resonate with your heart.

But after the show, as you glance through the rich song list, you might be forgiven for thinking “Really?” There are too many really important iconic works here that jostle with each other for focus. With snatches of Athol Fugard, Khayelihle Dominique Gumede, Zakes Mda and Omphile Molusi, some of them too obscure to trigger memories of the full works, songs from the likes of John Legend, Sibongile Khumalo, Simphiwe Dana and Hugh Masekela are pushed, cheek by jowl with snippets of poetry from people such as Fred Khumalo, Professor Keroopetse Kgositsile and Langston Hughes, to name a few.

There’s an unmodulated richness to this work which makes you so heady your focus sways. And while there are references to dates: there’s a ‘1940’ on the back of one dancer, and the 1976 riots are beautifully clear, the trajectory of time is not convincingly developed, and the work does feel hurriedly put together, with no time for the piece to breathe easily and come into its own.

Also, there’s a jingling and a jangling between South African and American values, accents and works: it’s not clear what this is pitched at.

While the performers, including the gorgeous Aubrey Poo, Lesedi Job and Lebo Toko are honed and articulate and smooth as can be, there’s several jarring elements of discomfort. Costumes are not always comfortable on the bodies of the singers, which troubles the act of watching the work.

The production’s set is defined by a halo of barbed wire that surrounds the piece, teetering between a strangely celebratory image and one of oppression, and a curious interplay of spaces used in the theatre, which are innovative and exploratory, but not always comfortable to the viewer.

In short, Ketekang is magnificently celebratory: it showcases some of the finest musicians, singers and dancers on our stages right now, and gives voice to songs obscure and well known. But it’s a production in which you can’t easily see the wood for the trees and you become lost in the spectacular spectacle of it all. It just tries too hard.

  • Ketekang is directed by James Ngcobo with musical direction by Tshepo Mngoma, choreography by Luyanda Sidiya, set by Nadya Cohen, costumes by Nthabiseng Makone, lighting by Nomvula Molepo and sound design by Gladman Balintulo. It is performed by Caroline Borole; Nokukhanya Dlamini; Lesedi Job; Katlego Letsholonyana; Vuyelwa Maluleke; Mahlatsi Mokgonyana; Aubrey Poo; Sonia Radebe; Dionne Song; and Lebo Toko on stage and musicians Ezbie Moilwa; Godfrey Mgcina;Ntokozo Mgcina; Johan Mthethwa;and Sakhile Nkosi. It performs at the Market Theatre’s John Kani theatre until December 14.

Hummingbird and the sum of its parts

Back on stage after an absence of 15 years, Athol Fugard as Oupa, opposite Marviantoz Baker as Boba. Photograph courtesy Market Theatre

Back on stage after an absence of 15 years, Athol Fugard as Oupa, opposite Marviantoz Baker as Boba. Photograph courtesy Market Theatre

To reach out and catch the shadow of a bird in one’s clenched fist. That childlike yet deeply philosophical desire is central to this extraordinary little play, Fugard’s latest, which celebrates life and death as it contemplates the freedom but also the indignity of growing old.

And while elements of the work suffer from a kind of rudderlessness as we watch an old man rifling through a lifetime of his own notes, there’s such beauty in the interface between the old man and the beautiful almost androgynous youngster Marviantoz Baker, who plays his grandson Boba, that it sings, and you forget and forgive the paths where the work might err.

The two share a deep and challenging bond which is capable of invoking lovely monsters as it is of drawing Plato’s cave into the mix. In spite of an erratic and difficult to recognise accent on the part of the young performer, the bond between grandfather and grandson is about feuding family as much as it is about being allies in a sea of bland, pragmatic expectation.

Audiences are flocking to see this work, less for the novelty of the work itself and more to pay homage to a great man who represents the heart of what South African theatre is. They can’t be disappointed: Fugard really does have beautiful stage presence, even now, in his 80s. He has an energy which fills the stage and overflows generously into the audience. There’s a self-deprecating tone to his presence which is as much about his genuine frailties as it is about his skill. It’s endearing but also at times searing, offering insight into the relentlessness of growing older and losing one’s grip on the things that matter.

But the strength of this work, set as it is in Fugard’s current home, Southern California, lies less in its entirety and more in its collaborative contributions. The set, by Saul Radomsky is completely real, down to its tiniest of details: from the comfortable clutter of a lifetime of creative play and work, to the way in which the light – created by Mannie Manim – shifts oh so subtly, switching through the times of day, enveloping the presence of the shadows that inform and underline the work’s repartee.

It’s a space which immediately opens up the viability of Oupa’s back story, fleshing his character out before he even appears on stage. The sound design, by James Webb, is also intricately intertwined into the work, breathing life into its more abstract nuances and lending a magic which is untouchable.

The give and take and earnestness and folly articulated by Fugard and Baker lend the work its backbone, which at times stumbles into too much wordiness, but ultimately negotiates around the concept of love with such unabashed directness it takes your breath away.

The Shadow of the Hummingbird is written by Athol Fugard, featuring direction by Fugard, and Paula Fourie; design by Saul Radomsky (set); Mannie Manim (lighting); and James Webb (sound), it is performed by Fugard and Marviantoz Baker at the Barney Simon Theatre, Market Theatre complex, Newtown, Johannesburg, until August 17.