Soil tilled to a new level

ankobia

PRAISE the lord and pay your dues! The press (Billy Langa, Momo Matsunyane, Lillian Tshabalala, Alfred Motlhapi and Katlego Letsholonyana) interview the messianic Mgnae (Omphile Molusi). Photograph by Thandile Zwelibanzi.

EVERY SO OFTEN in any artistic community, there’s an upsurge of aesthetic do’s and don’ts. It has as much to do with intellectual fashions of the day as it does with the personalities and egos in the industry. But it gives vent and platform to new voices, headlined by virtue of what they are doing with their words and ideas on stage. Monageng ‘Vice’ Motshabi and Omphile Molusi have created a theatrical statement in Ankobia which mashes together the values of Bertolt Brecht with those of George Orwell, in a thunderingly direct South African context. Breathtakingly.

These values are spliced and tossed together in a science-fictionised, sophisticated yet simple context of savagery and corruption which we all know, in this country – indeed, in this world. But this is no easy or direct spoof of contemporary local politics. Wrapping levels of corruption and reflections of religious hypocrisy together, it is a fantasy tale which takes place in 2041. It cuts close to the bone yet is couched in an understanding of biblical narrative and the complexities of acting. A fruit salad, you may think. You’d be wrong: the piece is tautly written and beautifully performed, condensed down to a tale that is easy to follow, even if you only speak English.

In short, Ankobia, featuring sterling performances from the whole cast, in terms of the muscularity and the malleability of their characters, is not only an important bit of theatre heritage for this society, it’s a play for the people in a way that looks to the future of culture. It’s an angry work, which takes pejorative notions, such as racist values, to the hilt and redefines them with an ironic spin. Land issues are transmogrified into a reflection on the magic potency of soil, and the son of God is but an actor on contract (Molusi).

The sinister morality of this work is embraced with visual humour and strong techno-vibes which see an amalgamation of traditional references and a spattering of LED lights. The one flaw in the work is the plasticity of the set which seems to stultify its energy and is not dealt with directly. Having said that, the choreography and dispersal of song gestures and asides lends the work a Brechtian texture, as does the presence of a faux messianic narrator, in all his bravado and flawed values.

It’s a team energy that seethes and bursts with both dexterity and wisdom, and is driven to an even higher level with the use of a musician – Volley Nchabeleng – onstage, lending the piece traditional authenticity and subtlety that is completely appropriate. Similarly, Jurgen Meekel’s audiovisual interjections are positioned with acuteness and fit properly into the material.

But this is no soft or easy story. Ankobia is about twisted values and coerced behaviour. It’s about the purging of brainwashing tools and witches and savages who are the real custodians of a land gone beserk. It’s easily one of the highlights of this city’s theatre picking in a long while.

  • Ankobia is written by Monageng ‘Vice’ Motshabi and Omphile Molusi and directed by Monageng ‘Vice’ Motshabi. It features creative input by Amos Kgaugelo Phala (costumes), Teresa Phuti Mojela (choreography), Thapelo Mokgosi (lighting), Thando Lobese (set) and Jurgen Meekel (audiovisual) and is performed by Billy Langa, Katlego ‘Kaygee’ Letsholonyana, Momo Matsunyane and Omphile Molusi with Volley Nchabeleng playing a wide range of indigenous musical instruments and creating sound effects. It is at the Mannie Manim Theatre, Market Theatre complex in Newtown, Johannesburg, until August 13. Call 011 832 1641 or visit markettheatre.co.za
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Baby in a pickle

caucasianchalk

BIG issues: (from left) Koketso Motlhabane, Aubrey Poo and Izak Davel. Photograph courtesy Joburg Theatre.

THE DELICIOUS PRESCIENCE of a bit of Brecht in Johannesburg this month, in the wake of the start of the #ZumaMustFall movement cannot be understated, and this complex, political, thoughtful and challenging extrapolation on the surreal humour of injustice and Solomonic solutions in The Caucasian Chalk Circle hits the mark with accuracy, insanity and abandon. It’s a fabulously layered work which brings in great dollops of Brechtian principles, spiced up with a frisson of Alfred Jarry resonance and lots of rudeness, a peppering of contemporary freedom issues and generous sprinklings of slapstick physicality.

It’s a work which allows each one of its large cast to shimmer, with wit and seriously quirky characterisation, but it’s not flawless. This is a problem in the original work, but it’s one that proves unresolvable by this director and cast.

Framed in contemporary times – which would have been roughly the 1940s – it’s a very shoutily performed prologue and is punctuated with service delivery issues and a land grab, that lends it the lingo in contemporary parlance in South Africa. There are two arguments: a business of self-sustainable farming goes head to head with one of farming for profit. It’s goats against potatoes. And the issue gets explored and developed with the tool of a play within a play. Or rather two plays – the first deals with a young woman with noble values and the second with a corrupt judge.

This is all well and good, but this land issue is not revisited at the end of the play. Yes, there’s a metaphorical sewing of associations between the situation of the child in the one tale, and that of the land in the other, but the dots are not connected for clarity’s sake, and you’re left hooting and clapping at the end of the work, but still anticipating a bit more.

Narrative flaws aside, the work does feel long and over acted in parts, and while you can doff your hat to Brechtian values, and wow in admiration of Aubrey Poo’s delightful sense of authority as he sings and embraces the whole stage, sometimes the diction is so loud that it is incomprehensible. Having said that, it’s a rollicking historical essay featuring ingenious set design decisions which comprise a miscellany of wooden crates and some beautiful stark landscape drawings in white chalk on a black ground.

Further, the work is very articulately choreographed and there is an astonishing sense of visual balance in the onstage bizarreness. Koketso Motlhabane plays Grusha, the young woman central to the first tale who by happenstance feels pity for the abandoned baby of the Governor. She manifests an utterly lovely stage presence, an admirable counterfoil to Neka da Costa’s interpretation of the governor’s wife, and her beautiful singing voice lends her role the kind of cohesion which makes you sit up and focus.

Humour and catastrophe segue together in this messy and unsettling tale of intrigue, lifelong promises and justice, compassion and money, which above all, is about the craft of performing.

  • The Caucasian Chalk Circle is written by Bertolt Brecht, translated by Alistair Beaton and directed by Lebohang Motaung. It features design by David Sizwe Arends (set), Allan Kolski Horwitz (costumes) and Timothy Le Roux (choreography). It is performed by Neka da Costa, Izak Davel, Marcus Mabusela, Mimi Mahlasela, Koketso Motlhabane, Nyeleti Ndubane, Aubrey Poo and Jacques Wolmarans, and performs at the Fringe, Joburg Theatre complex in Braamfontein until April 23. Call 0861 670 670 or visit www.joburgtheatre.com