Behold: Echidna, monster of monsters

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ON the wings of Samothrace: a detail of Nandipha Mntambo’s Echidna. Photograph courtesy Stevenson Gallery.

THE SMELL OF resin assails you as you enter the space. It makes your nose sting, your eyes water, but the first work that you confront, a 3m-wide monoprint with gold leaf, grabs you and casts your discomfort into abeyance. As you fall into the urgency of this work, entitled Wild Thoughts, you might vaguely think you’ve hardly ever seen paintings or prints by Nandipha Mntambo before, but you’re too engrossed to step further. The work is roughly abstract but presents a parabola of thought and an engagement with colour and mark making that reveals Mntambo’s authority with this approach too.

Mntambo rose to prominence with her work Europa in 2008, an astonishing therianthrope, mixing the head of a mythical beast with her own. An artwork that conjoined animal fur with human flesh, live performer with constructed image, it was scary and sexy, provocative and disturbing at once. It was a work that made you look. And remember.

Now, almost 10 years later, with many exhibitions and accolades under her belt – this is her seventh solo at Stevenson – you get to see Mntambo stretching toward new heights. She’s still working in the mythical traditions, but her work is less obvious and even more potent.

On paper, The Snake You Left Inside Me is a modestly-sized exhibition. It features just 10 works. But when you arrive in the space, you will be overwhelmed, not only by the residue of resin in your nostrils, but by the energy, the sense of abstraction and the maturity of these pieces.

And so, as you wrench yourself from the work in the gallery’s vestibule, you get to see Moonlit Shadows and Wild Thoughts: works on paper using gold leaf that blast you in your solar plexus, with their complex simplicity. You will also see corrupted drum-like works – Mother and Child, Hubris and Ouroboros. They feature Mntambo’s signature use of animal skin stretched on a frame. You are able to look at them with a kind of dispassion, exploring the subtleties, understanding the nuance in the pieces.

Well and good, you might think, satisfied that this is a powerful exhibition. You might at that point turn to leave the gallery space. Don’t. There’s more.

Behind the wall separating the second gallery space from the third, lies Echidna. As you intrepidly enter the space – it’s dark and the work has the advantage over you – you come upon something that conjures up the disturbing realism of the work of Australian sculptor Patricia Piccinini, or that of Chinese sculptor Liu Xue. Only, it’s more. It’s like the denouement of a story, the classic pièce de résistance.

Echidna is gloriously half-woman/half-snake, reaching as she does from ancient Greek narrative. She’s the monster of all monsters, evoking in a poetic and understated way, the classic Winged Victory of Samothrace in the thrust presented by the resin-rich fabric, the potency of the pose, even though (or especially because) it is headless. The creature’s tail embraces the room with a furry muscularity that will make your hair stand on end, but will leave you unable to look quickly.

Balancing intelligent curatorial decisions with exceptionally fine work, The Snake You Left Inside Me offers a glance at the relevance of mythological contortions. It is a potent and terrifying exhibition that will not leave you untouched, as you walk back through the space, something squirming uncomfortably in your belly.

  •  The snake you left inside me by Nandipha Mntambo is at Stevenson Gallery, Braamfontein, Johannesburg, until January 19 2018. Visit stevenson.info or call 011 403 1055.
  • The gallery will be closed from December 16 until January 8.
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Kaddish for Elu

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HORROR of loss: Steven Cohen in his work ‘fat’. Photograph courtesy Stevenson Gallery.

SOMETIMES THE RAW howl of loss is the only thing possible. Sometimes it is more potent than any words which are in danger of teetering anywhere near the threat of idle platitude. Sometimes the raw gesture, the unthinkable act of personal anger and sadness in the wake of loss is more appropriate than the mannered one that is societally acceptable. If you have watched a loved one degenerate into base matter through illness, before they vanish from your life, part of Steven Cohen’s current exhibition will hit you in the solar plexus and it won’t let go until you have howled that memory back into subservience. put your heart under your feet … and walk! is a potent and utterly beautiful tribute to Elu, Cohen’s life partner who passed away suddenly in July of 2016. It resonates unapologetically with deeply personal references and a brutality of fresh and alarming aesthetics which Cohen and Elu developed over the last 20 years.

In many ways, this exhibition seems deceptively modest in size. It comprises three videos and a room full of ballet shoes. And as such, it is an informal taxonomy of Cohen and Elu’s rich collaborative career. As you look at each different installation of used and bruised, torn and smashed pink pointe shoes on their little podium, you recognise snippets and talismans drawing from the rich and taboo ethos of South African performance history – of which Cohen and Elu were the centrifugal force from the late 1990s – effectively pulling and pushing at the sense of possibility in a medium that had no history yet, in this country.

There are monkey skulls in ballet shoes, hunched like demons; there’s a mummified cat strapped to a shoe. Hitler puppets and anti-semitic propaganda vie with ornamental roosters and Victorian purses. There’s an anal probe and a startling array of sex toys and domestic tools, not to forget an elephant’s tail, a pair of purses made of real toads and a pair of phylacteries strapped over a rolled up Torah Scroll.

There’s a piece of Vallauris pottery in direct and shattering reference to Cohen’s unforgettable work Golgotha (2009), which too, dealt with loss – that of his brother. And as you ponder each tableau, each combination of values with the ballet shoe pinned or sewn, nailed or enfolded around the historical reference, you see in your mind’s eye, snippets of a career that was almost thwarted by a frightened public, but a career that developed nevertheless.

Cohen speaks and writes of the Elunessless of his life, since the passing of Elu. But when you enter this space, there is something so richly personal, so irrevocably about the dancer himself, that it feels that Elu is present. Immortalised. Dancing with his characteristic sense of anguish and self-belief, in these shoes, or those. In pain and in joy.

The eponymous phrase that serves as the title of this exhibition was uttered to Cohen after Elu’s passing. It was uttered by Nomsa Dhlamini, the woman who raised Cohen and became a significant collaborator in his later works.

Cohen explains in the gallery’s flyer when he told Nomsa – who was then 96 – that Elu had died: “I asked her how I could continue life alone, she said ‘put your heart under your feet … and walk!’” The first video work that you encounter in this exhibition is one of Cohen having the soles of his feet tattooed with this phrase. The rest comprises a real manifestation of how he is making this come true.

And effectively, that’s where the aesthetic, moral and emotional pinnacle of this exhibition lies. The video works which are screened in the second half of the gallery space. Named simply fat and blood, these two works have a duration of just over 6 minutes each and yet, as you sit there in the darkened space and the abjection of these images infiltrates your head and your heart and your ability to breathe fluently and your mind’s sense of smell, they will touch you in a place that you might not have known you had, until this experience. And when you emerge from having watched them, you will be stilled. And silenced. And it will feel like hours, aeons, have passed.

In these works, Cohen brings his grief to a South African abattoir, and dressed in a white tutu, with his characteristic head of makeup and butterfly wings, he is filmed dancing his heart out, in wrenching tribute to the loss of life. It’s a tribute to the stuff and muck that constitutes what a living being is and a paean to all that in the world that must be. It’s like watching a crime, a snuff movie, a manifestation of great religious sacrifice all rolled together. It’s the kind of work that is art but transcends art and pushes it back into the realm of spiritual gesture.

It isn’t easy to see. It’s not meant to be. But it is devastatingly potent and will not let you go flippantly. Above all in this quintessential gesture of tribute and mourning, of horror and celebration, Cohen’s aesthetic remains intact and doesn’t begin to touch the slippery mess of sensationalism that pervades the grimy commercialism of our world. Indeed, you might be told to see it, for sensationalist reasons. But if you’ve looked properly, when you have emerged, you will be a different person. As you might have been when you visited Deborah Bell’s recent exhibition, or Minnette Vári’s.

  • put your heart under your feet … and walk! by Steven Cohen is at Stevenson Johannesburg in Braamfontein until November 17. Visit stevenson.info or call 011 403 1055.

Knocked out by King Kong

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TOP of the world: King Kong (Andile Gumbi) stands his ground. Photograph by Jesse Kramer.

IT WAS THE show that launched the international careers of such performers as Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba and the Manhattan Brothers. King Kong. It’s been labelled iconic and groundbreaking, and frissons of its great potency filtered through the ether long before the Fugard Theatre’s season of this show took to the boards. A tale of love and boxing, with exquisite harmonies and clarinet riffs to make you weep, it saw light of day in 1959, changed the game plan of what musical theatre was in this country and has not been performed in entirety until now. Does this version do this glamorous history and all the urban myths around the work justice? In short, it doesn’t.

Skating on the momentum of the 1959 production of the show, this version of it has some truly beautiful moments and some utterly delicious performances, but you watch it and quietly wonder whether part of the work’s original charm did not perhaps have a lot to do with the novelty of being a show from apartheid-riddled Africa. Was it not perhaps the exoticism of the moment that gave Makeba and others their ticket to a real career?

Richly enfolded in the complicated beauty of the 1950s, in terms of clothing style, dance ethos and an energy of simmering protest peppered with a lot of racial legislation, this tale based on the life of boxer Ezekiel Dlamini is a cautionary one of hubris and talent. It’s a yarn that reflects on petty jealousies and the vulnerability of an ego in a world beset with tsotsis and small-town shebeen queens. It’s a series of love stories, interwoven with boxing successes and failures and one in which an idol is lionised and then destroyed by his own society.

But the work is less about the wows of the story. Billing itself as a jazz opera, it does, indeed feature, some beautiful music, which has shifted into classic South African status, and yet, as a musical entity, it doesn’t hold together tightly, and feels a little more like a play with music incidents.

Looking beyond the song and dance sequences, the performers are not supported by the creative team in a way that enhances their physical presence on stage. Whether it is odd lighting decisions, costumes with the dowdiness factor ramped up as far as possible, or peculiar staging instructions, something is lost in the capacity of performers such as Andile Gumbi (who plays the eponymous boxer) to hold the audience. You will love looking at him – he’s physically beautiful, but there’s something amiss in how he connects with the stage, the work and the audience. The more you look at him, the more it’s clear that this omission is not his fault; it rests on design decisions.

This is not the case, however, when it comes to Sne Dladla in the role of the barber, Pop, who tells the story. Known as a stand up comic in his own capacity, Dladla reveals a smooth sense of poetry in his delivery that you might not have experienced before; he embraces his character with a full heart that will have you yearning for more lines for him. Similarly, Dolly Louw, a member of the female ensemble. She exudes such delightful presence every time she’s on stage, that your heart and eyes drift in her direction and remain with her, lapping up her enthusiasm.

Lerato Mvelase in the role of Petal, the thwarted young lady with a very fond eye indeed for the King, is another case in point. Armed with an utterly magnificent voice, a dowdy cardigan and some horn-rimmed specs, she’ll make your ears prick up, but keep you guessing in terms of her stage persona. Opposite a magnificently voiced Nondumiso Tembe in the role of slinky, sexy Joyce, and balanced by the powerful vocal presence of Ntambo Rapatla as Miriam, there is beautiful harmony in the work, but it is not exploited visually.

Indeed, there are times when you look at this production and cannot see anyone in it. The lighting design is centralised and overall constantly leaves cast members in the dark. There’re moments where their singing voices reach with loneliness from darkened corners, taking time for you to realise who is actually performing.

But the biggest problem with this work which looms in your face throughout, is the set. As you take your seat in the theatre you might have a moment that teeters with your sense of orientation: it looks like you are in the Fugard Theatre.

And there’s the rub: the Fugard boasts a stage that is considerably smaller than that of the Mandela. It’s less deep, more vertical. The set, like a huge rusted machine with many different doors and hiding places, is very in-your-face. And clearly, it comes directly from the Fugard, with nary an alteration. Indeed, as such, it squeezes the breathing space out of the stage itself. And while there are moments where nuance is evoked in the pockets of the set, by and large, something is lost in the telling of this tale of greed and misfortune, ice creams and vulnerability, simply because everything is hammering on your eyeballs from the same distance.

Having said all of this, the live band, the boxing ring scenes and much of the choreography hold this work together with a compelling energy. You will leave the auditorium whistling the production’s theme songs, but not with the kind of fire in your heart or belly that comes of having seen true greatness.

  • King Kong: Legend of a Boxer is written for stage by Pat Williams based on the book by Harold Bloom, and directed by Jonathan Munby and Mdu Kweyama. It features creative input by Todd Matshikiza (original music), William Nicholson (additional lyrics), Charl-Johan Lingenfelder (additional music arrangements), Gregory Maqoma and Richard Lothian (choreography), Paul Wills (set), Tim Mitchell (lighting), Birrie Le Roux (costumes), Sipumzo Trueman Lucwaba and Charl-Johan Lingenfelder (musical directors) and Mark Malherbe (sound). It is performed by Sne Dladla, Rushney Ferguson, Andile Gumbi, Ben Kgosimore, Dolly Louw, Barileng Malebye, Lungelwa Mdekazi, Namisa Mdlalose, Aphiwe Menziwa, Athenkosi Mfamela, Given Mkhize, Lerato Mvelase, Sibusiso Mxosana, Siphiwe Nkabinde, Edith Plaatjies, Sabelo Radebe, Ntambo Rapatla, Tshamano Sebe, Sanda Shandu, Nondumiso Tembe, Shalom Zamisa and Joel Zuma, supported by a live band: Sipumzo Trueman Lucwaba (band leader/bass), Blake Hellaby (keyboard), Siphiwe Shiburi (drums), Billy Monama (guitar), Lwanda Gogwana and Joseph Kunnuji (trumpets), Zeke le Grange (tenor sax), William Hendricks (alto sax, clarinet) and Siya Makuzeni (trombone) at the Mandela Theatre, Joburg Theatre complex in Braamfontein, until October 8.

Are we home, yet?

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WHAT happens now? Grace (Lynelle Kenned) en route to a foreign country to escape a war in Africa. Photograph by Oscar O’Ryan

<<Warning: This production contains strobe lights and lights focused directly on the audience>>

THE TRICK OF writing good material for a stage production is not about packing a story full of so much detail that it develops narrative indigestion, and then focusing interrogation-strong lights on your audience from time to time. It’s about the age-old principle of less is more.

The much-anticipated brand new musical Calling Me Home is, as it is billed, a story of hope, a story of love and a story of home. But it’s also a story of drugs and shallow stereotypes, a story of war and Africa, a story of jail and betrayal, a story of class awareness and poverty, a story of prostitutes and the mafia, a story of woman abuse and exile, and the list goes on. In short, it tries very earnestly to do far too many things concurrently and sadly spins way out of its depth very quickly.

To add insult to injury, it’s a very long show, clocking in at close to three hours, including the interval. It’s this long because the story is pedantic and begs for the decisions of a strong editor. The songs are also annoyingly repetitive. Featuring strong voices which have earned their stripes in the local theatre industry, including Lynelle Kenned, Samantha Peo and Anthony Downing, the work doesn’t respect the individual personae of the performers, and its thunderball of a story which is bombastic as it is clichéd, featuring bland choreography – particularly for the women, and lyrics which utterly lack poetry, become something of an ordeal for the audience to sit through.

It’s a story of sibling love in a time of war, jimmied into other realities in a diversity of directions which make you think there was an angry committee at the helm of this writing project.

Indeed, in the opening scenes, Zolani Mahola presents a strong Lindiwe, who meets Grace (Lynelle Kenned) on the train and the two become friends. Lindiwe is a woman with a terrible tale to tell: she’s a runaway from an abusive husband. As the story unfolds and rolls in a whole range of concurrent directions, Lindiwe turns into a cameo, a casualty of the work.

This is not an isolated instance of thwarted opportunity. Samantha Peo plays Isabella, a tragic figure who is the sister of Rafael (Anthony Downing), Grace’s romantic interest. She sings in a night club, snorts her way through unhappiness and is subject to the whims of Russian druglords, Vladimir (Pierre van Heerden) and Ivan (Christiaan Snyman). Isabella’s tale headlines the second half of the production, and it’s a squalid tale told with great dollops of schmaltz, so earnest in their application that the potential subtlety of Peo’s character is battered by the prosaic nature of the work.

All things considered, with due respect to the professionals involved in creating this work and giving the project life, you cannot help but ask yourself: we live currently in such a violent society; do we really need to spend money to see more war and strobe lights on our stages, in the garb of tricksy techology? Do we really need to be exposed to gun-toting performers casting a fantasy war around us, as we sit in a theatre?

Calling Me Home features innovative set design with animation that will hold your interest – conveying a sense of space and atmosphere which is clear and compelling. But some basic premises in the work hurt what might have been good intentions, and as you peer through these sets at the world the production hopes to magic into life, you come away with some very damaging stereotypes about cultures – Africans are defined by war, poverty and cultural naivete, while Americans are tainted by the overweening presence of Russian crime bosses, construction workers and prostitutes. It’s enough to make you want to flee all the way home, without even being called to do so.

  • Calling Me Home is written and composed by Alice Gillham and directed by Magdalene Minnaar, assisted by Grant van Ster. It features creative input by Nadine Minnaar (set), Joshua Cutts (lighting), Louis Minnaar and Werner Burger (animation), Shaun Oelf (choreography), Alice Gillham and Stefan Lombard (musical direction), Mark Malherbe (sound), Matthew James (soundscape) and Juanita Kôtze and Sue Daniels (wardrobe). It is performed by Luigia Casaleggio, Anthony Downing, Richard Gau, Carly Graeme, Isabella Jane, Lynelle Kenned, Saxola Ketshengane, Vasti Knoesen, Clint Lesch, Tannah Levick, Thiart Li, Zolani Mahola, Kgomotso Makwela, Tankiso Mamabolo, Michael McMeeking, Manda Ndimande, Given Nkosi, Yollandi Nortjie, Samantha Peo, Laura-Lee Pitout, Musanete Sakupwanya, Dihan Schoeman, Conroy Scott, Len-Barry Simons, Christiaan Snyman, Annemarie Steenkamp, Shaun Thomas, Anja van den Berg, Sarah-Ann van der Merwe, Pierre van Heerden, Sebastian Zokoza and Zion Zuke, as well as a live orchestra featuring Cameron Andrews (clarinet), Olga Korvink (violin), Maureen Marler (‘cello), Anna-Maria Muller (flute) and Marga Sander (piano), in the Mandela Theatre, Joburg Theatre complex, Braamfontein, Johannesburg, until September 3. Visit joburgtheatre.com or call 0861 670 670.

Beautiful opera for the common folk

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LET me hold your tiny frozen hand. Rodolfo (Phenye Modiane) in a tender embrace with Mimi (Khaykazi Madlala). Photograph courtesy Gauteng Opera.

SHE ERUPTS ON stage like a splendid volcano of fierceness and vocality, beauty and attitude as she grabs your attention by its proverbial lapels and doesn’t let go, even when she’s not singing. This is Litho Nqai in the role of Musetta, in this production of Gauteng Opera’s La Bohème. And balanced with the more subdued and more classically genteel yet utterly tragic Mimi (Khayakazi Madlala), magic is made. But it’s magic that doesn’t permeate the whole production.

Indeed while you’re watching, you may be tempted to close your eyes and let yourself sink into the glory of beautiful music making that has been celebrated as such since the end of the 19th century. And you may be correct in that decision, as it would preclude your having to see the crude typos in the surtitles and get confused in crowd scenes while the surtitles trip over themselves and throw meaning to the wind. Closed eyed, you’d also not see the staging and the set, which, replete with what emerges as ornamental electric pink step ladders and a misspelled indication of the tavern’s existence, offers a ham-handed attempt at switching the ethos and geography of early Modernist Paris to that of Johannesburg in 2017. But if you did experience the work shut-eyed, you would miss out on the sheer physical beauty of this cast, and their characterisation, which would be a pity.

Overall, this production of this popular tale of poverty and consumption, creativity and prostitution that describes the texture of Europe of the late 1800s, is the kind of work that may tempt you to go on a foray into the history of opera and to think of the context in which there were seats for the ‘common folk’ of the era – the people who for a couple of shillings could be exposed to the magnificence of the medium, but who had the manners and the proclivity to throw rotten fruit at performances they deemed under par. When the company’s CEO stood on stage just before the opening performance and granted the audience permission blanketly to take photographs with their cell phones and tweet and post during the production, effectively, he opened up the work to the same kind of rabble-based behaviour that detracts from a genuine appreciation of the work itself. And unfortunately, ours is not a city theatre which has designated cell-phone-using seats in a context away from the rest, as the fruit-throwing masses of Europe had.

Sadly, it is when the niceties of a production get compromised – when this type of attention to detail is overlooked – something irreplaceable in the magic of the work is lost. While the competence of the Gauteng Opera cast and the orchestra supporting it, cannot be condemned, the effect of the work on as noble and beautifully designed a stage as that of the Mandela, falls into the realm of community production, which just doesn’t do justice to the history and tradition of Puccini – nor to the history and potency of opera in South Africa.

  • La Bohème is composed by Giacomo Puccini with libretto by Guiseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica. Directed by Marcus Desando, it features creative input by Lungile Cindi (set), Simon King (lighting), and is performed by Kagiso Boroko, Kanyiso Kula, Khayakazi Madlala, Tshepo Masuku, Vuyani Mlinde, Phenye Modiane, Solly Motaung, Thabiso Nkabane, Litho Nqai and Chuma Sijeqa in the principle roles and Noluthando Biyana, Thandiwe Dlamini, Amie Hood, Mpho Kgame, Letago Komape, Delisile Kubheka, Leana Leuvennink, Phiwe Makaula, Nomvuyo Manomza, Mbulelo Manzini, Lindokuhle Maso, Kgaugelo Mfene, Siphiwe Mkhatshwa, Carmen Micic, Thabang Modise, Mathews Motsoeneng, Sibongile Mtuyane, Zolila Ngudle, Zita Pretorius, Sifiso Radebe, Andries Sebati, Siyabulela Tofile and Simphiwe Yende, from the Gauteng Opera chorus. Performed by the Gauteng Opera Orchestra, led by Camelia Onea and conducted by Eddie Clayton, it is on at the Mandela, Joburg Theatre complex in Braamfontein, until July 23. Visit http://www.joburgtheatre.com/la-boheme-info/ or gautengopera.org

Baby in a pickle

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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

Hold my hand and we’re half way there: West Side Story’s unequivocal victory

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LOVE in the face of turf wars. Tony (Jonathan Roxmouth) and Maria (Lynnelle Kenned). Photograph by Jesse Kramer.

IT TAKES SPECIAL skill to tease open one of theatre and literature’s greatest works and to reinvent it. It  takes even more special skill and creative bravery to be able to produce a work on stage that has been produced on myriads of other stages all over the world and in various mediums, and to make it fresh. Producers Eric Abraham and Daniel Galloway, for the Fugard Theatre, are to be congratulated on the unequivocal victory they have achieved with West Side Story.

Premised on the unadulterated beauty of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, this tale of poverty and crime, love and hate in a post-Second World War, post Depression context on the West Side of New York, touches all the keystones that are triggers to the kind of clichés that give clichés their schmaltzy reputation, but with a set which is at once dazzling and subtle, some extraordinary stand-out performances and a deeply honed and polished reflection of violence and social context, to say nothing of sheer brilliance in design, it’s up there among the best theatre experiences in this city, of the decade.

It begins, however, with some unnecessary and uneasy gimmickry in the resonance between lighting and music and the spirit of the work doesn’t grab you by the throat from the work’s first bars of music, or first steps of dance, as you may anticipate.  The scene is cast with bland clarity, as the two gangs, the Sharks and the Jets, strut their stuff and tease their respective foes into internecine violence. The women in the bridal factory tend to be shrieky. But as the work unfolds, the incredible crescendo it achieves in balancing narrative with design, showcasing Jonathan Roxmouth opposite Lynnelle Kenned with their devastatingly fine voices in the leads, sweeps you away, heart first and not only do you forgive the opening blandness, but you forget it, too.

Making incredibly sophisticated use of the horizontal in the massive concrete-evocative set, an understanding of space and time but also depth of focus is compelling, and with this geometry, something completely extraordinary happens. The tale is a predictable one and you know how it ends, and the songs, from Maria and Tonight, to I Feel Pretty and Somewhere are so well known, they punctuate the piece with familiarity.

But what this director and his enormous cast have achieved here is an offering of a tale which will trigger your tears in spite of everything: the fierce love between Maria and Tony, which flies in the face of their respective gangs’ ideologies is handled with a sincerity and a flamboyance that is not just about the spectacle or the drama. It’s rich with life and fraught with texture. It’s not only about gritty New York values, and a self-conscious use of 1950s slang and dance sequences. It’s something that is lifted to the level of the timeless universal.

Kenned is relatively new on Johannesburg’s stages and slight of build, but supremely skilled vocally, she embraces the whole stage and the whole audience with her presence. Even whilst she is climbing scaffolding or in the scene but off central focus, your eyes rest on her. There’s a demureness and an innocence that evokes Olivia Hussey’s 1968 portrayal of Juliet in Franco Zefirelli’s version of the Shakespeare classic, and a brassiness which gives her soul. But when calamity strikes and death happens, that torsion between her and her lover and her brother is palpable. It’s a moment you won’t readily forget.

If you see one musical this year in Johannesburg: this is it.

  • West Side Story is based on an idea by Jerome Robbins and a book by Arthur Laurents and directed by Matthew Wild. It is designed by Leonard Bernstein (composition), Stephen Sondheim (lyrics), Jerome Robbins, Louisa Talbot and Richard Lothian (choreography), Charl-Johan Lingenfelder assisted by Marga Sandar (musical direction), Conor Murphy, Johan Engels, Carl Gersbach, Nadine Minnaar and Gerhard Morkel (set), Birrie Le Roux (costumes), Joshua Cutts (lighting) and Mark Malherbe (sound). It is performed by Grant Almirall, Matthew Berry, Cameron Botha, Daniel Buys, Caitlin Clerk, Elzanne Crause, Keaton Ditchfield, Adrian Galley, Nurit Graff, Reg Hart, Natasha Hess, Christopher Jaftha, Stephen Jubber, Lynelle Kenned, Bianca Le Grange, Richard Lothian, Carlo McFarlane, Ipeleng Merafe, Sven-Eric Müller, Kirsten Murphy Rossiter, Brendan Murray, Sibusiso Mxosana, LJ Neilson, Thami Njoko, Chloe Perling, Sabelo Radebe, JP Rossouw, Jonathan Roxmouth, Zolani Shangase, Gemma Trehearn, Craig Urbani, Sarah-Ann van der Merwe, Filipa van Eck, Tamryn van Houten, Tevin Weiner, Duane Williams and Kristin Wilson. The orchestra comprises Elsabe Laubscher (coordinator), Serge Cuca, Elbe Henkins, Ivo Ivanov, Daline Wilson, Dorota Swart, Song Ha Choi, Evert van Niekerk, Katrien Jooster, Ane van Staaden, Viara and Adrie Naude (violin); Carel Henn, Susan Mouton, Maureen Marler and Gerrit Koorsen (cello); Christi Swanepoel (double bass); Helen Vosloo, Anna Maria Muller and Handri Loots (flute); David Sendef and Donny Bouwer (trumpet); Siya Charles (trombone); Shanon Armer (horn); Brahm Henkins (bassoon); Gerben Grooten (percussion); and Chrisa Smit, Carl Ashford and James Green (reeds), conducted by Charl-Johan Lingenfelder assisted by Marga Sander. The band comprises Dawid Bowehoff, Matthew Foster, James Lombard, Justin Carter and Aldert du Toit. It is at the Nelson Mandela Theatre, Joburg theatre complex, Braamfontein, until March 5. Call 011 877 6800 or visit www.joburtheatre.com