Big fish, conjured

OldMan

MAN of war ahoy! Manolin (Taryn Bennett) and crew (James Cairns and Jaques de Silva) cast out to sea. Photograph courtesy Auto & General Theatre on the Square.

THERE ARE FEW things as gratifying as a spot of Hemingway to pepper up a dull Johannesburg evening with a bit of culture, but this is Hemingway as you could never have anticipated him. One of this country’s most exciting repertory theatre groups, under the pens of Nick Warren and Jenine Collocott have created a gem of a work that will make you laugh and cry, sailing gloriously and with great skill on the coattails of Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea. Even if you don’t like – or know – modernist literature.

Like their production of the Snow Goose, a few seasons ago, the work hinges more on accounts of the incident rather than the incident itself, but in doing so, not one iota of the texture and the fabric of the tale is compromised, and a whole sea replete with the greatest challenge of an old fisherman’s lifetime, and a humble village of loyal friends, is cast in a simple framework with a turning set, put together with a couple of planks, a log and a table, and some incredibly fine masks and very simple puppets.

It’s a curious novel. On the one hand, celebrated as arguably among the most important novels of the modern era, The Old Man and the Sea (1951) is an example of short, tight writing at its peak. You can read it in a few hours, but still the monumental struggle between big fish and small man becomes almost biblical in its largeness. It contains a parable similar to tales such as Moby Dick, which gives you something to take home with you – about old age, mortality and the challenges of being in the world.

And you might wonder what a group of contemporary South African theatre makers can do with a work of such historical gravitas and serious reputation. Rest assured that you’re safe in the hands of Jaques de Silva, Taryn Bennett and James Cairns, who take apart this great classic with immense bravery and chutzpah, but also an incredible amount of intelligence and skill. The gravitas remains, but is woven into a texture of village life that is rich with humour and tall stories, earnestness and dominoes.

The story is fleshed out with characters such as Manolin, the young boy who Santiago, the old man in question has been training in his boat, but also the village fishermen who tell the incredible tale of a man who went out for the biggest fish of his life, and came back with a story. Indeed, this production reinvents the textures and love affairs, the humour and the pathos of this unnamed fishing village.

Flavoured with songs of the ocean, and sutured together with mime that harnesses a very real sense of magic, the work is truly a brilliant experience: it is beautifully honed and tells a clear story with a very big fish (and an even bigger heart).

  • The Old Man and the Sea is adapted for stage by Nick Warren, based on the eponymous novel by Ernest Hemingway. It is directed by Jenine Collocott and features creative input by Jenine Collocott (production design), Sue Grealy (music), Alida van Deventer (puppetry), Alistair Findlay (set) and Steve Clarke (sound). It is performed by Taryn Bennett, James Cairns and Jaques de Silva at the Auto and General Theatre on the Square in Sandton until October 7. Call 011 883 8606 or visit www.theatreonthesquare.co.za
Advertisements

The man who could fly

vaslav

MADNESS of reason: Godfrey Johnson is Vaslav Nijinsky. Photograph courtesy http://www.artslink.co.za

HE SITS AT the piano and caresses it into life, like a god. Like a demon. Like a godly demon or a demonic god. Sometimes he looks maniacal and deformed at other times, like a sprite, who could at any moment leap the constraints of gravity and fly away. This is Godfrey Johnson in his utterly magnificent portrayal of Vaslav Nijinsky, in a piece of theatre that is aflame with energy from the moment he touches the piano keys.

But more than a focus on the biographical complexities of a Polish dancer in Russia who effectively broke and reconstituted what ballet means by the electricity of his movements and his uncanny ability to pause mid-leap, this extraordinary work paints a portrait of an era. It was the Fin de Siècle. The end of the nineteenth century and boundaries were being tested by creative people across the spectrum – and the text is encrusted with musical quotes from Debussy and Ravel, Stravinsky and Diaghilev, from Schoenberg and Berg and more. You get to taste the elegance and the wildness, the conventions and how fragile they were, in the splay of language which reaches and stretches into infinity as it blurs boundaries  and casts choreographic sequences into the ether.

And once you are firmly within the period and its frissons of possibility in a world that was a whirligig of newness and change, you realise something more. More than a celebration of Nijinsky only, this is an essay about the values of the society of the time, where critics held sway and literature had meaning. Proust is present. As is the bitchery between Nijinsky and Anna Pavlova. But more than all of this, it’s an astute and sharply honed exploration of madness and growing old. And in this capacity, it is handled with such a sophisticated understanding of poetry and humour, sadness and cruelty that it leaves you breathless, your pulse racing, wishing for more and more… alas, too quickly it is over.

Godfrey Johnson is not a performer who we see often getting the chance to embrace the whole stage and to stretch his skills in a diversity of mad directions. Most recently in Johannesburg he was the accompanist in Pieter Dirk Uys’s Fifty Shades of Bambi. His immense ability to infuse this wild and impassioned script and so movingly interject the music and the dance, by association, into it, brings an ethos of fire and feathers, of unbottled energy that describes the way in which art can beget madness, and which renders this work utterly haunting and uncannily beautiful.

Vaslav is an imminently pristine piece successfully backed with an audio-visual track and effective and simple lighting choices but the stage does tend to be a little cluttered with wire cords connected to microphones and light, which slightly, but not pervasively, tend to bruise the magic that is cast.

The work is not quite a monodrama – the piano, similarly to how it is handled in Zakes Mda’s The Mother of All Eating – becomes a character in its own right. Not in a literal sense, but in the gritty gorgeousness of the musical puns and drama, sequences and masturbatory musical phrases that populate the work. In giving Debussy’s L’après-midi d’un faune jewel-like haunting prominence, it conjures up associations with the work of South African choreographer Elu, who, too was mesmerised in celebrating the atavistic values where artist meets beast, meets god all in the same intellectual conversation.

  • Vaslav is directed by Lara Bye and written by Karen Jeynes, Godfrey Johnson and Lara Bye, based on the diaries of Vaslav Nijinsky. It features design by Jon Keevy (lighting) and Joanna Evans (set and costume co-ordination) and is performed by Godfrey Johnson at the Auto and General Theatre on the Square in Sandton until February 25. Call 011 883 8606 or visit theatreonthesquare.co.za

Love and trust in a time of ghastliness

cheerssarajevo

TOUGH woman alone: Aimee Goldsmith is Mirela. Photograph courtesy http://www.egg.news.at

ARGUABLY THE CENTRAL horror of clash between Serbians and Bosnians in the early 1990s was the conflation of neighbour against neighbour and the ugly brutality which saw women and children mauled in the mix of war that had been a suppurating tribal boil for centuries. Aimée Goldsmith and Lidija Marelic have taken on the monster challenge of representing the insanity of love in a time of internecine ghastliness, and their success is unequivocal.

Mirela (Goldsmith) is a young woman, native to Sarajevo whose heart and soul is invested in the texture and the current ugliness of her city. She is Bosnian. Her lover, Aleksander (Duane Behrens) is Serbian and thus unfolds a love story abounding in rich war story cliché – but this is not to its discredit. The clichéd nature of the work is the glue that binds its fabric and while it is by and large predictable, you’re immediately invested in its energies and you remain deeply focused through its tightly choreographed duration.

Enter Peter (Chris van Rensburg). A young gung-ho South African photojournalist, with a Bang-Bang Club dream in his heart and a sense of bravado in his spirit, he loses contact with his team and needs to get to Dubrovnik. Mirela becomes his guide, and she opens up a world that is tearing itself to bloody shreds, as they pass through atrocity-ravished Sarajevo on the way.

But the Serbian military put the screws on Aleksander’s sense of self, they rest a gun and a uniform on his sense of machismo, and the world becomes a place crumpled and smashed to pieces by the monster of fraught loyalties.

It’s a hard hitting play featuring an incredibly fine set that, made of disused cardboard boxes is remarkably evocative of the quirky ceramic work of Carolyn Heydenrych in its scratchy sense of vulnerable boxy architecture. Designed by Kayli Elit Smith, it projects an irrevocable sense of the universal insanity of war which defines Sarajevo as its root by dint of the graffiti it bears. Curiously, the play has scant historical contextual references, which enhances its sense of universality, as it blurs the specifics of the Bosnian war. Change the place names and the accents, and the story could be articulated about a slice of virtually any other war this world has seen.

That sense of moral wretchedness and hysteria in the face of a world with no more values is articulated with a fine sense of directness. Featuring strong sound design, the work is raw and polished in all the right places. There’s terror and filth and blood and rape. And yet there are moments of levity. A dance. An imaginary foray onto the sidewalks of Paris, where champagne is drunk. A last grasp at beauty.

Excellently cast and superbly constructed, Cheers to Sarajevo is an important work which fuses together the complex array of ideologies that enable men to be soldiers and women to be victims, which witnesses love between conflicting powers and see death as the only possible solution. It’s a play that’s both simple and complex in its clear confrontation with the universal madness of war. And it won’t leave you untouched.

  • Cheers to Sarajevo is co-written by Lidija Marelic and Aimée Goldsmith and directed by Lidija Marelic assisted by Lareece Kelly. It features design by Kayli Elit Smith and is performed by Duane Behrens, Aimée Goldmsith, Julian Kruger, Yiorgo Sotoropolis and Chris van Rensburg at the Auto & General Theatre on the Square in Sandton until October 8. Call 011 883 8606 or visit theatreonthesquare.co.za

And now for something completely shapely

shape

MUSCULAR MAYHEM: Stuart (Craig Hawks), Stella (Camilla Waldman) and Vusi (Nyaniso Dzedze) test their steel. Photograph courtesy artslink.co.za

Whatever else we may be, South African society has become virtually paralysed by the godalmighty demon of political correctness. Enter writers Steven Sidley and Kate Sidley. Not playwrights, but highly skilled and creative professionals, they have put all the mumbo jumbo of new fitness lingo and a whole gamut of potentially derogatory terminology into a splinteringly fine theatrical mix which braces like a tonic.

Featuring scalpel-like retorts which tear into the South African context with utter hilarity and scant mercy, the text ripples with wisdom and poetry, but more than just that, it’s a well-developed, satisfyingly structured piece of brand new theatre that should not be missed.

The context is an upmarket gym in Johannesburg. The characters, Stella (Camilla Waldman), Stuart (Craig Hawks) and Vusi (Nyaniso Dzedze) are carefully fleshed out stereotypes that reflect astutely on a viable cross-section of South African society. Well-crafted, they’re characters you would recognise in any gym: The do-gooder human rights worker, in her late 40s, Stella is trying to bounce back from a divorce. Stuart is an advertising executive labelled ‘sensitive’ by his parents when he was a child, who is vehemently still fighting to win back his masculinity and as much casual sex (with girls) as he can get. Vusi is a young maverick, with a privileged education and a street savvy that will make your head spin.

The gym, premised physically and contextually between the universal emblems for male and female lavatories, fits into the core of this niftily constructed and delicious work. It’s the context for not only an utterly hilarious extrapolation of the bleak and grotesque mysteries of the male or female cloakrooms, but it’s also the repository for some astonishingly blunt and fabulous political incorrectness, in the field of everything from fat-shaming to homophobic jibes and crude racism. Armed with all the tools of our confused society, this play never teeters into abject silliness or even offensiveness: the writing is crisp, the performances convincing and tight, and the whole narrative completely compelling.

The work features a “disembodied voice” played by Zimkitha Kumbaca, which does lend a small red herring to it, however: Kumbaca sits in the audience; the stage presence of her voice begins as a public address system, but slips into the folds of the characters’ conversation. While it is scripted to say some really pertinent things, its existence is not meaningfully developed. Is this an inner dialogue that the audience is privy to? Is it the voice of conscience? You don’t get to find out.

While Shape won’t have the longevity of a classic, or the universality to travel the world, it goes admirably head to head with a refreshing boldness for any curious South African, grappling sensibly and wittily with the verbiage and garbage and potholes in which we find ourselves today. And it will make you laugh. A lot. In spite of – or because of – the morass into which South Africa has tumbled.

  • Read this piece on Shape as well, here.
  • Shape is written by Steven Boykey Sidley and Kate Sidley and directed by Greg Homann. Featuring design by Denis Hutchinson, it is performed by Nyaniso Dzedze, Craig Hawks, Zimkitha Kumbaca and Camilla Waldman at the Auto & General Theatre on the Square in Sandton until April 16. Call 011 883 8606 or visit theatreonthesquare.co.za

How to garrotte a sacred Jewish cow

BadJews

I WANT IT ALL AND I WANT IT NOW: Lara Lipschitz plays the indefatigable Dapha in Joshua Harmon’s Bad Jews. Photograph by Jesse Kramer.

Jewish identity is one of those things so thick with potholes and heavy humourless traps that you know you will be standing on toes, whatever you say. From Israeli politics to Holocaust history, levels of ritual observance to over protective mothers, it’s also a modern day culture totally fraught with psychoses and whole histories of emotional dysfunctionality, which in so many contexts is basically untouchable. You laugh unwittingly at some of this stuff, and you will have the Anti-Defamation League at your door forthwith. Enter New York Jew, Joshua Harmon. His work Bad Jews (2013) cocks a snook at everything, as it intelligently and ruthlessly splits open the whole range of taboos in Jewish culture, behaviour and context, and what you get is a sophisticated and easy to watch play which boasts beautiful and satisfying structure, and leaves you reeling with splayed values.

It will offend people, of that you can be sure. Be that as it may, under the direction of Greg Karvellas and with production design crafted by Saul Radomsky this play is very close to flawless. But arguably, its magic ingredient is Lara Lipschitz who plays the central role of Daphna.

We’ve seen her as a swing in big musicals, she’s had small roles in television soapies, she started her career with an experimental one-woman show based on a story by Roald Dahl and created her own web series called Chin Up, but in this role Lipschitz truly comes into her own. Armed with a classic “jewfro”, which is almost like a separate character in the cast, and a pair of seriously unplucked eyebrows, Lipschitz’s Daphna is spunky and articulate, tactless and passionate as any enlightened young lass conflicted with all the opposing values of what it takes to be Jewish upon her. She’s gung ho about Israel and plans to be a woman rabbi. She knows the whole complicated shtick of feminist Judaism and Jewish feminism, she understands the role of privilege and is not afraid to call anything by its name. She’s rather terrifying, but she’s very real and it’s a mix of bluster and bravado and passion that makes her utterly magnetic as a character and the fabulous vortex of this work.

And when she comes eyebrow to eyebrow with her two boy cousins, Jonah (Oli Booth) and his older brother Liam (Glen Biderman-Pam), who brings along a non-Jewish girlfriend Melody (Ashley Carine de Lange) just after their grandfather’s funeral, the sparks fly with acerbic abandon and well-aimed barbs. It’s a barrage of intelligent and hugely spiteful insults aimed to damage like only Jewish internal politics can, with doubling-back, transparent bravado and hefty dollops of emotional guilt wherever you dare to look.

While it’s hard to look beyond Lipschitz’s enormous stage presence, it’s an instructive exercise. The whole work is immensely well cast. Biderman-Pam as the stressed older cousin speaks repressed Jewish identity with his very posture. He embraces the muscular role with verve and finesse, malice and vulnerability which is hastily shut up with knee-jerk response aggression. In the role of his seemingly detached brother, Booth too is superb. Jonah is a role which touts its own level of bravado, but also its own level of gut-wrenching sincerity with simple gestures that create important emotional turnarounds in the work. And young De Lange embraces her role as the non-Jewish blond girl which spins the whole marrying out yarn with hilarity and delicacy, with mature aplomb. She is exactly right in her presence and interpretation for this role.

Having said all of that, the play teeters around the edge of cringeworthiness, but Lipschitz’s authoritative and frankly beautiful performance never allows it to become pathetically stereotypical. There’s a taut spine throughout this work which enables you – whether you’re Jewish or not – to see both sides of the myriads of issues. The play is funny, but it’s not laugh-a-second funny or foolishly self-deprecating like much hackneyed Jewish theatre is. It’s about heritage and culture, the complicated idea of marriage and ghastly operatic song. It’s about white privilege and the pathos of Holocaust history. And above all, it’s about life – and a trinket bearing the traditional ‘chai’, a combination of Hebrew letters which represents the number 18, and connotes life.

In short, Bad Jews is brilliant, but it’s not forgettable or flimsy entertainment. Don’t miss it.

  • Bad Jews is written by Joshua Harmon and directed by Greg Karvellas. It features design by Saul Radomsky (set and costumes), Daniel Galloway and Benjamin du Plessis (lighting), Gerhard Morkel (construction) and Ash Zamisa (painting) and is performed by Glen Biderman-Pam, Oli Booth, Ashley Carine de Lange and Lara Lipschitz, at the Auto and General Theatre on the Square in Sandton until February 14. 011883-8606 or visit theatreonthesquare.co.za
  • Read about Lipschitz’s web series Chin Up here.
  • For a broader reflection on how Bad Jews touches our contemporary society, read this.

Touching many curious bases with this Double Bass

Me and my fiddle: The Double Bass and its performer, Pieter Bosch Botha. Photograph courtesy Auto and General Theatre on the Square.

Me and my fiddle: The Double Bass and its performer, Pieter Bosch Botha. Photograph courtesy Auto and General Theatre on the Square.

Have you ever looked at an orchestra and pondered the back story behind the more monstrous and dramatic of its components? Or even the not-so-monstrous, but instruments which might be completely bizarre to the average Joe.  And I’m not talking about the ordinary violin or sedate flute.

What of the chap who plays the triangle? Do you think he had a calling to do so? Do you think the French horn player ever tires of those relentless, intestine-like coils? What about the tuba?

While American entertainer with no equal, Danny Kaye brought immortal life to the lonely persona of the tuba in the sad little sweet narrative song Tubby the Tuba written by Paul Tripp and composed by George Kleinsinger in 1945, Patrick Süskind does something similar for the double bass, in this eponymous one-hander, directed by Alan Swerdlow. Only it’s not for littlies and doesn’t necessarily have feel-good closure.

While the work is long and wordy, with Swerdlow’s nifty treatment of it, and Pieter Bosch Botha’s impeccable performance as a strictly flawed and sad double bassist, it sees a lot of bases getting touched, from sexual innuendo to the hilarity of a love-hate relationship with a really big musical instrument, and there is not one dull moment in this bizarre story.

You may be pushed a little to think of Man Ray’s extraordinary photographs reflecting on the analogy of a ‘cello and a woman’s body, but this, contrary to the image on the programme is a tale less about delicate nuances, than the extremely human act of performing music. It’s also about Brahms and Mozart, Wagner and Tchaikovsky, and noise and quietude.

Who composed seriously for the double bass in the classical tradition? What’s the sex appeal of the guy standing upright behind his huge instrument, positioned in a kind of a blind space in the natural sequence of the orchestral layout? Is it incestuous? There’s a foray into Freudian hilarity as there is a reflection on the artisanal nature of a musician who plays the work of others.

The Double Bass is a production which will not be everyone’s cup of tea – given its unashamed and unapologetic focus on European classical music traditions, but it brings together a thoughtful pared down level of style with pragmatics and humour that will make you laugh and cry, at times. We get a taste of the history of the instrument; of the history of music around it and of the socio-cultural nexus in which this hapless performer exists, but the production is never allowed to skitter into the dull terrain of a lecture.

Bosch Botha’s performance is direct, slightly crude and not a tad pretentious. You realise the pathological predicament of the poor character and cannot help but collapse into peals of empathetic laughter at the monstrosity of the thing, which, like a giant violin unrelentingly dominates the space, listening and judging everything that transpires, even with its ‘face’ turned to the wall.

  • The Double Bass is written by Patrick Süskind, translated from the German by Michael Hofmann and directed by Alan Swerdlow. It is performed by Pieter Bosch Botha, with set and lighting by Denis Hutchinson and is at the Auto and General Theatre on the Square in Sandton until March 14: 011-883-8606, http://www.theatreonthesquare.co.za

Doo Bee Boobies comes of age deliciously

Robert Whitehead heads up Doo Bee Boobies. Photograph by John Hogg, courtesy Auto & General Theatre on the Square .

Robert Whitehead heads up Doo Bee Boobies. Photograph by John Hogg, courtesy Auto & General Theatre on the Square .

Even before the lights go down, in anticipation of the start of this, the 21st season of Doo Bee Boobies, Eartha Kitt’s 1953 number I want to be evil filters through the bordello-like redness of the theatre, lending a lush and earnestly hilarious tone to something so extraordinary, skilful and delicious, it will lift and move you and make you laugh with sheer abandon, no matter how dreadful your day was. And as the lights go down, and the mascara brushes are raised, that lushness is taken and stretched in every conceivable definition of the term. There are even a couple of sisters bearing it as a surname as they shakily emerge from the confines of the Betsy Verwoerd Rehab Centre.

On and off stage since the early 1990s, this fantastic slice of men only burlesque would make Fanny Brice, a queen of the discipline, proud. The ‘horrible prettiness’ we see on stage in Doo Bee Boobies is about the very nub of what entertainment means. In stripping down the petty vanities informing stage divas, in taking apart the notion of ageing bodies and in celebrating seriously mature stage presence, it will make you laugh till you sob.

There isn’t a moment in this lipstick-smeared revue where you catch yourself thinking deeper into the shenanigans you see on stage, but as you wend your way home, drunk as you are with having laughed too much, the reality of the show having reached the milestone of 21 years is a sobering thought. This all male revue is not a drag show. But it is a show which celebrates sex as frankly and directly as it can. It’s gay, it’s crude, it’s direct and it’s most certainly not for the easily offended. Embracing a contemporary world that would have done more than frown at the gay abandon of the piece 21 years ago, it is about a level of freedom of expression that we have imbibed in this internet-riddled generation.

The production wasn’t banned in the 1990s when it first debuted, but it might have been less gritty in its hilarity: the stalwarts of the piece, Robert Whitehead, Mark Hawkins and Tony Bentel may have been more svelte and beautiful than they are now, on one level, but as they become longer and longer in the tooth, their performance becomes more and more delicious in its wise, fond and developed celebration of life, the idea of ageing and our irrevocable ownership of this moment.

Stephen van Niekerk, who has been with the production since 2010, has one of the finest voices we’ve seen on stage for a while, reaching across registers. Kingsley Beukes, formerly of Kelsey Middleton’s KMad is a beautiful young dancer and reprises the role of The Baby. Both of these performers touch classical beauty in their approach. Their solo works are curious: when they happen, your mouth is already so strained from laughing, you’re not always sure how to respond to their pieces: are they too pretty to pump up the laughter stakes? Ultimately, their presence lends the piece balance, even in the presence of dancers armed with cigarettes and supported by aluminium walkers and extremely high heeled shoes.

With a thin storyline of mayhem and badness that reaches from Madrid to India, the work comprises a range of music – from Saint-Saëns’ Swan to Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake; from a celebration of James Bond and Pussy Galore to a hilarious lip sync of Tammy Wynette’s (1968) Stand by your Man. Some of it is spoofed lyrically. Some of it is spoofed through movement. With a bit of Afrikaans poetry tossed in here and the excruciatingly funny Bulgarian Balloon Dance there, it’s a rollicking tribute to the tawdry, the tempered and the tiresome; it’s a context in which you might get to see more of Robert Whitehead than you’ve ever wished for, but one in which you might well be tempted, unsolicited, to rush onstage and dance.

  • Doo Bee Boobies, the 21st Anniversary Season is conceived and directed by Mark Hawkins with lighting by Nicholas Michaletos, choreography, set design, costume and jewellery design, staging and musical arrangements by Mark Hawkins. It is performed by Tony Bentel; Kingsley Beukes; Mark Hawkins; Robert Whitehead; and Stephen van Niekerk, with guest appearances at Saturday shows by Mark Banks, Bruce Little and Robert Coleman, until November 15 at the Auto and General Theatre on the Square in Sandton.