Mind the gap: an essay on elegant dishonesty

betrayal

AWKWARD reminiscences: Jerry (Tom Fairfoot) and Emma (Carly Graeme) meet in a pub. Photograph by Philip Kuhn.

IT’S THE SILENCES and gaps between words and the construction of the unspoken beat in this intriguing Pinter work, that lends it its potency and dramatic verve, but it is this potency mixed with extremely classy performances, an understated set and an unequivocal elegance that gives it the edge that keeps you focused. However, as the play reaches closure, you might question yourself as to whether there can be such a thing as just too much elegance and too many manners.

And as the name dictates, Betrayal is a tale of complicity and untruths. Of secrets and lies. And of revelations.  Emma (Carly Graeme) is married to Robert (Antony Coleman). She’s a gallerist. He’s an editor of a poetry journal. They have two small children.

And for a period of seven years, Emma has had a lover. He knows. Her husband, that is. She knows he knows. But does the lover know she knows he knows? Without the classic English understatedness, this narrative could descend into farcical humour, but it’s kept tight and succinct, demure and hilarious in its own capacity.

We meet Emma and Jerry (Tom Fairfoot) in a pub. They’re excruciatingly awkward with one another, but as they hem and haw and blurt out long sentences of memories of their friendship, and then retract them, you quickly realise this was no ordinary association. Love came into the mix.

But then it left.

This is a tale of how men and women dialogue over the deed of love, sex and relationships. It’s beautiful in its elegance, somewhat anachronistic in its costume choices – this is, after all, a period between 1968 and 1977 as the projection tells us – and the clothes the characters wear are a lot more refined than the period dictated. That said, the Bauhaus-style furnishings that quietly comprise the set are as fitting and as versatile as necessary: they’re just right.

One of the biggest challenges of a play of this nature is the danger of the work descending into blandness. Indeed, once you’ve figured out all the different levels of betrayal articulated from scene to scene, there seems little else, and the plot is exactly that – an unravelling of several intrigues. Looking at it in this capacity, the conclusion of the piece seems unsatisfying: but this is less a criticism of the work invested in it than a reflection of the original.

What happens next after the philandering partners have owned up? Why, that’s another whole story, you might suggest. Betrayal is an elegant, eminently watchable and utterly competent work to watch.

  • Betrayal is written by Harold Pinter and directed by Greg Homann. It features design by Homann (set) and Oliver Hauser (lighting), is performed by Antony Coleman, Jose Domingos, Tom Fairfoot and Carly Graeme until July 1 at the Auto and General Theatre on the Square in Sandton. Call 011 883-8606 or visit http://www.theatreonthesquare.co.za
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Fiona gives Poison wings

blondepoison

REGRETS, I’ve had a few: Fiona Ramsay plays Stella Goldschlag. Photograph courtesy http://www.artslink.co.za

CAN SOMETHING AS thoroughly written about as the European Holocaust still engage a contemporary audience with a modicum of freshness? Or are we, as a society so limp with Holocaust fatigue in our histories and fictional accounts that another Holocaust play trotting out narratives we know well, has scant impact? This is a question you might ponder, with Blonde Poison. But unequivocally, as you watch the work, the authority Fiona Ramsay exudes across this tale of betrayal and hate, beauty and ugliness, is the ingredient that makes the work tick.

As it opens with the ripe and gravelly German accent of Stella Goldschlag and the story begins to elegantly unfurl, taking us back to Berlin in the 1930s under Janna Ramos-Violante’s expert direction and Ramsay’s utterly tight and masterful portrayal, you’re not quite sure of Stella’s identity. She’s blonde. She’s very German, but she’s too blasé in her condemnation of Jews and her knowledge of Jewish cuisine not to be a Jew herself. This self-assurance, this element of jazzy pizzazz gives her the edge and forces her over it, in the name of self-preservation.

The interface of sound and voice overs and the elements of the set, are tightly woven into the narrative, which casts an understanding of context that is sophisticated as it is descriptive and evocative, never leaning toward gimmick. The texture of the play is strong and the language powerful, but still, as the text teeters around that “parachute moment” in war when morals have to be cast aside in the name of saving your own life, you’re left feeling that you know this story. You know how it will end.

You know there will be a tremendous amount of loss and death on the way. And you know that you’ll feel your emotions pushed and pulled in different directions as anti-Semitism and the murder of Jews comes under the proverbial loupe. And in having this sense of knowledge, you lose an aspect of horror. You’ve been down these paths before. You’ve shouted and cried before. You might not do it again.

In short, the play casts a cardboard cut-out reflection on the morality of history. Ramsay is too sophisticated a performer to slip into this kind of one-dimensionality and she lifts and stretches the work, through her presence in it, way beyond its potential. So, what you get is an extraordinary theatre experience, premised on a fairly ordinary play, but populated with such astute performance and design skill, that any flaws in the predictability of the work become forgivable.

  • Blonde Poison is written by Gail Louw and directed by Janna Ramos-Violante. Featuring design by Alex Farmer (lighting) and Stan Knight (set construction), it is performed by Fiona Ramsay with voice overs by James Alexander, Janna Ramos-Violante and Tim Wells at the Auto and General Theatre on the Square in Sandton until February 4. Call 011 883-8606 or visit theatreonthesquare.co.za

Back to the future with a pot of kak at the end of the rainbow

paybackcurry

WHAT happened to our dreams? Daniel Mpilo Richards will blow you away.

YOU MIGHT THINK the political repartee through which we have collectively been wading for the last little while has been so overused by local comics that nothing’s very funny anymore. You’d be wrong. Mike van Graan’s Pay Back the Curry will dispossess you of any of those ideas, within its first few moments. Tautly cast, beautifully written in tune with the shenaginans in our country and seamlessly performed by the immensely talented Daniel Mpilo Richards, this is South African satire at its most ruthlessly scathing best.

But humour is complex, as director Rob van Vuuren indicates with this highly polished piece of work. Many Van Vuuren fans may know him for his work on Corné and Twakkie and the Most Amazing Show – or as a stand up comic. But there’s another side to this talented theatre personality, which saw plays of the ilk of Brother Number and The Three Little Pigs, really sinister works that meld well-established ideas with their utter corollaries: his successful appearance in serious theatre as well as comic roles makes him the perfect man to direct this piece.

Part stand up comedy, part revue, this one-man-play takes everything from Shakespeare to Sinatra, Somewhere Over the Rainbow to Born Free and casts it relentlessly against the besmirched mirror of our times. The writing is nimble and supremely sophisticated. You might laugh out loud several times, but the repartee will also have you squirming uncomfortably in your seat – and there, indeed, is the rub: occasionally in this intensely focused work you will find your grin frozen on your face in horror, as the focus digresses from the foolishness of Zuma and into the terror of being an African in a context where lesbians are raped, poverty pervades and corruption rules.

Pay Back the Curry doesn’t tell a story in the conventional way, but Richards so smoothly embraces myriad persona changes while he seduces the audience to looking at things they would normally shy from, that the sorry tale of contemporary South Africa gets splayed and flayed for all to see. From Penny Sparrow to Oscar Pistorius, the Guptas to Malema, nothing dodgy, contradictory, shameful or blatantly foolish escapes Van Graan’s intimate and bold speculum.

This play is an important one for this moment – it’s the kind of work that will date because its references are so very specific. Richards’s performance however, won’t: this is an actor who embraces major challenges with acumen and integrity. You can’t draw your eyes from him as he embodies every kind of political voice you can imagine, with all the colour, intelligence and flair necessary. See this play, now, while it’s ripe.

  • Pay Back the Curry is written by Mike van Graan and directed by Rob van Vuuren. It features design by Gantane Kusch (lighting) and is performed by Daniel Mpilo Richards at the Auto & General Theatre on the Square in Sandton until December 15. Call 011 883 8606 or visit theatreonthesquare.co.za

Cooke, Hopkins and Vigil: an electric mix to touch your heart

Kemp (Hopkins) and Grace (Cooke) gazing at the world through skew windows. Photograph by Phillip Kuhn.

Kemp (Hopkins) and Grace (Cooke) gazing at the world through skew windows. Photograph by Phillip Kuhn.

Think of a solid mix of the myriad hairpin bends in Roald Dahl’s famous unexpected tales, mixed with a touch of Beckettian bizarreness and a perfect sense of surrealism, performed by veteran performers with an empathetic and generous understanding of the universe and many of its quirks and you will appreciate the magic and wisdom in this theatrical fable called Vigil.

Rather than just an essay on death, as the concept seems to imply, it’s one about life and beautifully couples a frank understanding of love – self-love and love of another – with an unflinching sense of black humour and incredibly well crafted succinct prose.

Kemp (Graham Hopkins) is a nephew to a woman he has not seen in over 30 years. He’s a bank clerk. Asexual by his own admission, and clearly lonely to the core, he’s spent his life on the outside of the world looking in.

Grace (Vanessa Cooke) is an elderly woman, on the cusp of death. She knits, she smokes; everything about her seems to be the same dingy shade of beige, with overtures of pinks and greens in between. She likes the good old standards of popular music from the 1940s – Mac the Knife and How Much is that Doggy in the Window, and she’s bedridden.

Enter the spectre of death – metaphorically speaking – and Kemp arrives to see Grace off, in the bluntest of fashions. But one neck-jamming turn in the tale after another leaves you breathless with side-splitting laughter at the foibles and decisions of this unlikely couple.

The play, with its topsy turvy set all strung together, in cohesion, is as funny and heartfelt and developed as the narrative in Hal Ashby’s 1971 tour-de-force Harold and Maude, and it offers deep and bittersweet reflections on the idea of growing old.

Impeccably performed by Cooke and Hopkins, it’s an easy to watch play, but not that easy that it cannot serve as a supremely fine container for some profound truths about life, loneliness and the value of Christmas. In short, it’s a ten out of ten production, not to be missed.

  • Vigil by Morris Panych is directed by Christopher Weare and produced by Susan Danford and Stephen Jennings. With production design by Julia Anastaspoulos, it is performed by Vanessa Cooke and Graham Hopkins and it performs at Auto & General Theatre on the Square in Sandton, until June 21. (011)883-8606.