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
Advertisements

Electric mix of frisky youth, ancient tragedy

Antigone

FOR THE LOVE OF A BROTHER: Nyakallo Motloung is a feisty unforgettable Antigone. Photograph by Sabelo Ndumo

Taking on Sophocles with electric abandon might not be the dream of just any drama graduate. The material is difficult, linguistically, morally and chronologically. The language is complex and bloody and some of the issues it embraces are impossible to get your head around without your heart (or belly) wanting to explode. But clearly none of this has daunted the young cast of seven – some of them in their professional debuts – in this absolutely astonishing work, which immediately raises the bar for theatre of this nature.

Just Antigone clocks in at under an hour, but the mesmerising focus and the sophisticated balance between contemporary gestures, asides to the audience and the horror of the moral double crossing of the original  plunges you into not only the internecine and devilish politics of ancient Greece, but also the tragedy of human frailty in the sight of ambition, power and one-upmanship.

The cast switch and change roles and genders as the generational tale, replete with the interjections of a chorus, unfurls, and the context of Oedipus, the father of Antigone, who tragically lands up killing his father and marrying his mother, is described with clarity, levity and wit, which never teeters into disrespect for the tradition or the circumstances. There is a resonance in this work with the meshed cultural texture that Neil Coppen achieved in his recent production of Animal Farm, blending time and idiosyncrasy in a way that hones the legibility of difficult material, but Just Antigone slips in and out of contemporary political phraseology and reference. It doesn’t hurt the work. It keeps you engaged.

Antigone (Nyakallo Motloung) is a loyal sister and a feisty challenge to her egotist uncle King Creon (Jóvan Muthray), who is at times so wrapped up in his own sense of authority that he becomes emotionally blind and quite frightening. Muthray’s delivery of this role is polished and convincing. And opposite him, Motloung is articulate and passionate. There’s a balance achieved here which is so fine and so much about trust and a sense of artistic authority that it takes your breath away.

In many respects, the unequivocal star of this work is Mlindeli Zondi – who you may have seen in Making Mandela – as the hapless Haemon, son of Creon and lover of Antigone. Torn between loyalty to his father and an understanding of his father’s deep moral flaws, not to mention his love for his girl who has dared to challenge Creon, he is left no alternative but to die at his own hand. The emotional and spiritual torsion central to this character is articulated with a great sense of finesse, never overacting, but oft overarching as a profound and intelligent catalyst to the tale.

But it hardly seems fair to isolate only three performers. The full ensemble feels dangerously beautiful in its concatenation of text, gesture and sinister nuance. Individually and collectively, they rise and soar with one another, dancing on the edge of the scripted text and expressing horror and catastrophe as they intermingle and dovetail. It’s a beautifully directed piece of work, and while the screaming which is necessary in the tale fills POPArts’s smallish tight space with harsh metallic fierceness, that might make you want to flee, the cast engages with the monumental reality of performing something as old as Sophocles with thoughtful wisdom.

Neither paralysed with respect, nor awash with hipness, under the directorial hand of Mahlatsi Mongonyana and Billy Langa, the cast offer Sophocles’s words, thoughts and reflections – and his indictments cast on the immorality and filth of society – in a palatable and fine context that is accessible and provocative, making you realise there is nothing quite as fine as a spot of Greek tragedy in central Johannesburg on a week night.

Arguably, this company of performers has what it takes to develop into the kind of repertory theatre that is capable of defining the industry. Watch each of these names: they have a great future ahead of them.

  • Just Antigone is adapted from Sophocles’s Antigone by Mahlatsi Mokgonyana and directed by Mokgonyana and Billy Langa. It is performed by Binnie Christie, Sanelisiwe Jobodwana, Campbell Jessica Meas, Nyakallo Motloung, Jovan Muthray, Star Tlali and Mlindeli Zoni at POP Arts Theatre in central Johannesburg until February 21. Visit popartcentre.co.za
  • See my review of Mlindeli Zondi’s previous performance in Gauteng here.

Hard to stomach, Egoli seems to have too many cooks

Egoli-Poster-A1_thumb

What is it that makes a theatre director muddy his own clarity of thought and compromise something utterly wise and moving, with quick and nasty literal gimmicks? Matsemela Manaka’s Egoli, first published in 1980, is a powerful paean to manhood and the collective challenges it faces, but this production of it has mixed success in the rash of grotesque horrors it thrusts at its audience.

More than that, it’s a play that so flagrantly ignores basic precepts of audience comfort that it can be a really frightening experience that reaches beyond the performances, the narrative or the context. It is clear that the director wanted to evoke the kind of terrifying, claustrophobic entrapment miners face daily, for you, who has paid for a ticket and sits in the audience, and in doing this, he succeeds, but perhaps there should be a disclaimer or two at the door or the box office.

You cannot get out of this space without walking through the stage, once the work begins to unfold. You may wish to – on opening night, a woman in the audience actually vomited in response to the drama onstage. There are terrifying strobes and an environment which at times is completely brutal in its description of loss and mourning, shock and anger.

It’s sad: In 2006, there was a production in this theatre complex of Es’kia Mphahlele’s The Suitcase, directed by James Ngcobo with set design by Nadya Cohen. The idea of the horror of sudden loss was absolutely unforgettably conveyed with the crash of a metal dustbin lid. It was a gesture so simple and so devastating and shocking that it reached far beyond its simplicity.

Egoli begins with an astoundingly fine metaphor that evokes that bin lid crash in its wisdom and subtlety, in representing the mine shaft elevator, but sadly there is scant follow through on such sophisticated thinking and much of the work, with the exception of some untouchably lovely a capella work, is violent and crude.

Also there are other elements in this work which seem to overlook the fact that the audience is the final component to a play. If you only speak English, you may well miss some 70% of the work’s nuances. If you’re not able to turn your head completely around, like an owl, you may not be able to see all of the work in entirety: the performers use every corner of the theatre, including areas behind the seated audience. While this is effective, it’s also counterproductive.

Having said all of that, this tale of the horrendous challenges faced by men is at times so achingly beautiful and tragic, it will take your breath away. A work that presents South African miners in delicate three-dimensionality, Egoli is a series of stories within stories about love and hate and humiliation and terror and premature loss and politics, and in this respect, it succeeds in the same way that iconic texts like Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1961) reflects on the humour and fear and crushing inevitability of men in a mandatory situation at war. It’s headlined by nuanced and superb performances in the authoritative hands of Hamilton Dhlamini opposite Lebogang Motaung – as Hamilton and John respectively.

While the texture of the work is convincing and tight, mine tales are mine tales and struggle tales are struggle tales. Knitting the two together feels contrived and the story’s central kernel is a flawed one because the association of the two men feels impossibly coincidental. But it’s a narrative flaw that’s easy to forgive in the face of bigger theatre sins: Gritty and deep, clever and rich, the work, if you’re able to overlook the vomit-inducing elements, the constriction and threat to audience safety, is replete with such developed subtleties and symbolic gestures that its wild leaps toward brutal literality make it feel as though there’s a director too many at work here.

  • Egoli is written by Matsemela Manaka and directed by Phala Ookeditse Phala, mentored by Makhaola Siyanda Ndebele. It features design by Nomvula Molepo (lighting), Onthatile Matshidiso (set and costumes) and it is performed by Faith Busika, Hamilton Dhlamini, Billy Langa, Katlego Letsholonyana, Mohlatsi Mokgonyana, Lebohang Motaung and Alfred Motlhapi, at the Laager Theatre, Market Theatre complex, Newtown, until January 31. Call 0118321641 or visit markeettheatre.co.za
  • Arguably, the success of the environment overrides the critical success of the play itself. Read this piece.