My African queen

AntonyandCleopatra

HERE is my space: Mark Antony (Ben Kgosimore) with Cleopatra (Sanelisiwe Yekani). Photograph courtesy National Children’s Theatre.

THERE’S NOTHING QUITE like a foray with the world’s most famous illicit lovers, told by young voices to young audiences. It’s like being witness to the passing on of the baton to another generation of theatre makers and it might give you goosebumps, when you see Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra under the directorial hand of Neka da Costa. It’s currently on a programme touring schools, where the work is part of the national syllabus.

When you watch this troupe of performers, you wouldn’t be wrong to think of actors such as British performers Robert Lindsay and Dorothy Tutin, to say nothing of South Africa’s David Dennis and Camilla Waldman, for instance, who earned their stripes in Shakespearean trope as well as everything else. These young South African thespians continue to prove their robustness and versatility in redefining no less than the work of the Bard himself – you’ve seen them on the stage in a range of other capacities in the last couple of years, including contemporary storytelling and Greek tragedy.

The rendition of this work is gently and judiciously cut by Shakespeare specialist Rohan Quince to fit into time-based parameters and it runs just on 90 minutes with no interval. Interjected with a local drum beat, songs of mourning and gladness that reach from a South African heart and a peppering of ululation, it’s a piece which skirts and weaves the notion of Africanness in the ethos of Egyptian queen Cleopatra (Sanelisiwe Yekani) with competence and intrigue, but without feeling forced.

Indeed, Yekani embraces the complexity of Cleopatra with finesse and authority. She’s sly and manipulative, passionate and beautiful and as the central focus to the work, she holds it together with magnificence and utter potency. In short, she’s dangerous. Ben Kgosimore is a superb Mark Antony, the emperor who is her lover, a tough guy who is embroiled in a morass of political marriage, friends and foes. He’s vulnerable yet macho, sophisticated yet impressionable. And this royal couple takes things to the max from their passionate lovemaking and display of anger to their strategising, to their suicides.

In the role of Caesar, Cassius Davids shimmers with a focused performance which is utterly convincing and Campbell Meas in several roles, including Agrippa and Cleopatra’s hand-maiden lends tight focus and articulation to the work. Neo Sibiya, in a range of gender-ambiguous support roles also commands a sense of authority which makes you sit up and look.

Squeezed into a tiny space which is electrified into clean narrative lines with the device of freezing movement, and some highly innovative prop choices, the work is deftly made. There’s a battle scene and a scene of ships at war which will make you feel you’ve skipped the bounds of possibility and are now sitting in the folds of a dramatic fresco.

Having said all of that, the work is bruised by its shoutiness. And yes, while much of the drama necessitates exclamations in bold, not all of it does, and what you might find is something a little similar to how the NCT’s production of Coriolanus two years ago was flawed. The declamatory accents of everyone most of the time tends to collapse a sense of nuance in the dialogue.

It is, however, an immensely strong and invaluable resource for learners all over the country, because there’s nothing quite like seeing the work in flesh and blood – and local, young flesh and blood, at that. And also, because under astute direction, this complicated piece’s story is clearly evident.

  • Antony and Cleopatra is written by William Shakespeare and directed by Néka da Costa. It features design by Sarah Roberts (set and costumes) and Jane Gosnell (lighting) and is performed by Cassius Davis, Ben Kgosimore, Kevin Koopman, Campbell Meas, Sibusiso Mkhize, Neo Sibiya, Megan van Wyk, Carlos Williams and Sanelisiwe Yekani in a season that is touring several schools countrywide, until May 22. It is a project of the National Children’s Theatre. Call 011 484-1584 or visit www.nationalchildrenstheatre.org.za

Hypocrisy’s crowning glory

tartuffe.jpg

A heady mix of irreverence, theatricality placed in a set simple in its magnificence, that is ramped up all the way and features contrivance pushed to the giddy hilt, Tartuffe is a tightly focused, beautifully choreographed tribute to Molière, which indulges in such an array of over-the-top shenanigans, you become embroiled in the madness and don’t want it to end.

Featuring actors physically large and small, from Vanessa Cooke as the maid Dorine to Neil McCarthy as Orgon, the beguiled father of the house, it’s an impeccable celebration of overstated gesture, eavesdropping and intrigue in the face of utter unabashed hypocrisy. A tale which enjoyed credence in the 17th century, it remains remarkably prescient in contemporary culture: Tartuffe (Craig Morris) is the charlatan smarmily secreted in the church’s moral values for his own benefit. He slips into the confidence, the heart and the intimate family values of Orgon, to almost devastating – but utterly hilarious – effect. But fear not, there’s a grim and sinister twist in the tale that lends it a devilish tone.

There are some strange anachronisms in the language:  the work was originally written in rhyming couplets and has by and large been translated as such in this version. This is a quality which sometimes causes the flow of the poetic metre to stumble and feel uncomfortable. Nevertheless the couplets that do work and the clarity of their articulation will hold you focused and keep you staving off your own laughter, because the hairpin turns of the plot need to be heard to be properly appreciated.

Capitalising on the physical attributes of her cast, director Sylvaine Strike works like a true caricaturist, making the simple gesture of walking up three steps into a sonata, and the act of crossing one’s legs a sonnet.  Indeed, Madame Pernelle, played by Morris is virtually all mouth, and her presence evokes Lewis Carroll’s Queen of Hearts, to excruciatingly funny proportions. Monsieur Loyal, the lawyer, played by William Harding, takes immoderate to another whole level with his size, his sausage and his utterly ingratiating quality which might call up characters such as Dickens’s Uriah Heep, in your mind’s eye.

The music, which represents a pastiche of sound and tunes from the 1920s, is, however, too heavy handed in its approach and it does tend to crush the scenes it infiltrates, jarring and bouncing off the venue’s walls at times. The heaviness of the sound is balanced with acuity with the madly flexible bodies of the cast, however, and this tale of hypocrisy and love, sex and trust is something you wont want to drag yourself away from.

  • Tartuffe is written by Molière, translated from the French by Richard Wilbur and directed by Sylvaine Strike. It features creative input by Sasha Ehlers and Chen Nakar (set), Sasha Ehlers (costume), Oliver Hauser (lighting), Dean Barrett (music composition) and Owen Lonzar (choreography). It is performed by Adrian Alper, Vanessa Cooke, Khutjo Green, William Harding, Vuyelwa Maluleke, Neil McCarthy, Craig Morris, Anele Situlweni and Camilla Waldman at the Fringe, Joburg Theatre, Braamfontein, until June 25. Visit tartuffe.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