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

Five little girls and Mamiwata

Crucifixion

THERE’S SOMETHING INESTIMABLY exciting about a new production that is conceived of, written and brought to life by a group of practitioners that is fast becoming recognised as a repertory group in the classical tradition. Why? Simply because you have seen their work in the past, and know that you’re in safe hands when it comes to exceptionally fine theatre that tweaks the edges just that little bit to keep your focus riveted.

Think of British director Alan Bleasdale and the performers of the ilk of Julie Walters, Robert Lindsay, Lindsay Duncan and David Ross from the mid-1990s, who put together an unrivalled level of collaboration with classics and new work that even made it to South African tv screens, in the form of miniseries Melissa and Jake’s Progress. While you’re thinking of this splendid work, think of this very ensemble, headed in this production by Jovan Muthray and Mlindeli Zondi, who are quietly redefining theatre making in this country, one production at a time: their relentless energy promises the Bleasedale equivalent in South Africa.

But let’s not digress. The Crucifixion of Amagqwirha is a tale woven around the values espoused in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (1953). But it is moored in contemporary South Africa, and amidst a rich concatenation of superstition and self-belief, members of a community who are young and ambitious and others who are old and hold onto tradition, and little girls who are vanishing with no explanation. And there’s also speak of the ghostly presence of Mamiwata, a creature, believed to be half woman, half snake, who patrols deep and quiet waters.

Blending shadow puppetry that engages the sinister in a manner so much more direct and fearsome than actors on a stage can project, the work is beautifully balanced and hard hitting in terms of social foibles and mob mentality.

But it is the performance of Nyakallo Motloung, Sanelisiwe Jobodwana, Campbell Meas and Star Anka that unequivocally capture the fierce yet tender bravado of little girls, while they embrace the elderly and punctuate the broader, scary tale with home truths and real South Africanisms. The work will take you from laughing out loud to shivering in your shoes, at the eerie prospect of the things out there that we cannot fathom.

The energy of the entire ensemble in creating this piece is palpable; there’s a give and take in dialogue and thinking which brings to mind the feisty dynamism in their work, Just Antigone, performed last year. When the four little girls are debating issues, it’s there. When the elders of the community are calling for a witch hunt, it’s there too.

The only downside of this extraordinarily beautifully crafted work is that it enjoyed but one performance at this festival. It deserves legs in many more contexts.

  • The Crucifixion of Amagqwirha is written and designed by the ensemble. It is directed by Jovan Muthray and Mlindeli Zondi and features creative input by Jovan Muthray and Mlindeli Zondi (lighting) and Binnie Christie (puppets and set). It was performed by Star Anka, Sanelisiwe Jobodwana, Campbell Meas and Nyakallo Motloung at the Downstairs Theatre on July 21, as part of the Wits 969 Festival. Visit webtickets.co.za or visit Wits 969 on facebook.

Paean to our post-Struggle rough and tumble

bookmarks

PARTY of four: Vish Naidoo (Luversan Gerard), Mncedisi Julius Matanzima (Pule Hlatswayo), Stanton de Villiers (Craig Morris) and Cornelia Hendricks (Campbell Meas). Photograph courtesy POP Arts theatre.

THE FABRIC OF struggle credentials is very specific. It’s about the grit and fire of political values which come head to head with the powers that be. It’s about trend and the urgency of getting your voice heard and the ‘right’ texts read. It’s about having the intellectual wherewithal to acknowledge your place in the world. And it’s also about how time flows and what happens to the rhetoric in a post struggle framework. Allan Kolski Horwitz’s play Book Marks embraces these values with a tight edge and a vital sense of prescience, but also with a reflection of context that could be about the self-conscious edginess of the Johannesburg suburb of Yeoville in the 1980s or that of Melville in the 2000s.

Beautifully cast, the work presents four well-rounded characters replete with their flaws of braggadocio and vulnerability that’s enmeshed in an identity of political rhetoric, sexual identity and the desire to fit in. Vish Naidoo (Luversan Gerard), Stanton De Villiers (Craig Morris) and Mncedisi Julius Matanzima (Pule Hlatswayo) are old friends, struggle veterans, people who know one another well and who’ve been together through the grotesque period that saw apartheid defeated. They’re from different socio-cultural contexts, but are heir to similar values. If you were a humanities student at university during the 1980s, you know these people, you know how they smell and how they think. You know how they argue and how they live.

Cornelia Hendricks (Campbell Meas) is the daughter of one of their comrades. She’s of the next generation and speaks with boldness and confidence with a ‘born free’ set of values. She also untouchable and lovely and represents a power nexus that the three men struggle around.

And together, the four find themselves in a context bruised by loadshedding in the wake of Thabo Mbeki’s antiretroviral controversy and amid the mixed values spouted by Msholozi’s complex popularity. The house is Stanton’s and the focus is a book club, fuelled with wine, conversation and debate.

But not everything turns out as sedately as all that. To the tune of plays such as Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the ‘party’ is pocked with unexpected dangerous potholes and everyone comes off a little battered by the experience. It’s a play about friendship and honesty as much as it is one of camaraderie and history.

To its credit, but also its detriment, it is a play very moored in the now. Which means, effectively that its contemporary audience will engage with all its issues, but a year or two down the line, much of the subtleties and the splaying of political interstices will be lost on its audience. Competently written, the work is about ten minutes too long, features some ghastly and unconvincing stage blood, and would benefit with more blatantly developed lines of narrative, which would give it the longevity it warrants.

Each performer embraces his or her character with a startling and compelling acumen. The work is structured to allow each to introduce him or herself in the first half of the work. As the piece unfolds, they become fleshed out and interact, revealing a tale that is as much about the personal as it is about the universal.

Kolski Horwitz is unrelenting in his commitment to theatre and in creating a season that causes many different platforms to collaborate with this work, hopefully he will engender a new trend, a new possible approach toward honing a season for a new work. See it here, see it there, but make a point of seeing it somewhere in the next few weeks.

  • Book Marks is written and directed by Allan Kolski Horwitz and performed by Luversan Gerard, Pule Hlatswayo, Campbell Meas and Craig Morris. It performs at the Olive Tree Theatre in Alexandra until February 5; at the Red Roof Theatre at AFDA in Auckland Park on February 9 and 10; at the Plat4rm in Newtown on February 11 and 12, at Hillbrow Theatre on February 16-18 and at the Soweto Theatre on February 23-4. Visit https://www.facebook.com/search/top/?q=book%20marks