Paean to The Ones With No Names

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HELPLESS among the dead: Roelf Visagie (Dawid Minnaar). Photo courtesy: The Market Theatre.

GRAVEYARDS ARE FASCINATING and complex ciphers of values. They’re about grounding one’s memories and honouring those who are no longer with us. They’re about a level of sacredness which touches everyone at the core. This is the premise of Athol Fugard’s devastatingly potent work, The Train Driver and the tone is established with simplicity and rawness from the set and the soundscape, from the outset.

So you think of train and you think of graveyards and you probably understand the nub of the play’s plot from the first few minutes: there’s a death. In fact, there are two. But the sophistication and the nuance of this work takes you much further and much richer into what it means to die, what it means to kill, and what it means to bury people whose names are not told to you. It’s a tale of anger and forgiving that reaches to the very vortex of what makes us human.

You might think Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina as you might think Tony Miyambo’s The Cenotaph of Dan Wa Moriri, and in neither association would you be misguided. This is a simple tale told with a deep heart and a developed sense of empathy. It is as much about the woman on the tracks as it is about the man, helplessly guiding his train.

As you sit and watch this yarn unfolding, you might cast your mind to the recent production of Reza de Wet’s Diepe Grond, a play which with subtlety and terror painted the broad and scary bush of South Africa – a place implied with sound elements and echoes, and one filled with ghosts.

And with no less than John Kani opposite Dawid Minnaar, the work will crumble you to your very essence. Kani plays Simon whose real name is Andile – a gloss on so-called white names in the messy bag that is South Africa. Simon’s a man who lives in a shack on the edges of the graveyard. It’s a place close to nowhere and reflects on issues of poverty which are impossible to understand if your basic necessities are covered. His livelihood is based on allowing those who have no names to rest in peace, safe from foraging dogs or violent opportunists.

Roelf Visagie is the train driver (Minnaar), who comes with white South African values and a heart broken by trauma. The denouement is wrenching and it leaves them both broken in different ways. This is the kind of play that is unforgiving in its indictment on the discrepancies of South African values, but in terms of all its collaborative elements, it sings with a clarity that is searing.

  • The Train Driver is written by Athol Fugard and directed by Charmaine Weir Smith. It features design by Thando Lobese (set and costumes) and Mannie Manim (lighting) and is performed by John Kani and Dawid Minnaar until June 3 at the Mannie Manim Theatre, Market Theatre complex in Newtown. Call 011-832-1641

Electric rain and ill winds

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WHO, really, are you? Namhla Gumede (Renate Stuurman) comes face to face with Dwayne Combrinck (Paul Slabolepszy). Photograph by Suzy Bernstein.

DWAYNE COMBRINCK IS a man with demons. You can see this as he walks into his workshop, a bloodied baseball bat in hand. You can see this in the anger he articulates and the acerbic vitriol he spews when provoked. But not all of his demons are fuelled by the sheer force of anger or terror. He’s a much more complicated character than that. He may be a white South African, in his early 60s; but penned and performed as he is by Paul Slabolepszy, he embraces a profound vulnerability that counterpoises his toughness and explodes stereotypes in three-dimensions.

To the world, he’s a tough guy. A “debt collector” – who uses whatever tactics, however dirty they may be, from his “Far East” Rand premises, to get money out of difficult customers. He also welds security gates.

Dwayne’s married to Shanell (Charmaine Weir-Smith), a blonde poppie with her own sense of what is morally right in the world, with a fashion and linguistic verve that will take you back to stereotypes of Brakpan in the 1970s. Hard as nails around the broken dreams she holds in her heart, and beautifully fleshed out by Weir-Smith, she too is a product of very specific apartheid induced bruises and scars.

The vignette of their life together that we are exposed to in this play is thwarted by loss and gain in surprising ways that catches you slipping into stereotypical assumptions. When you hear that someone has died at Dwayne’s business, you jump to startlingly violent conclusions. When the Combrincks discover a potential lottery win with unimaginably huge moral ties on their premises, you jump to others. But the tale woven by Slapolepszy is curiously less predictable in its nuances and realities than you may anticipate.

When Namhla Gumede, an elegant, self-possessed young black woman with an English accent (Renate Stuurman) shows up on their doorstep, mystery pervades. With a warm heart triggered into life by her loneliness, Shanell confides in her, gives her hardly a moment to get a word in edgewise, but in doing so, offers her – and you in the audience – the tools to figure out why she’s there. And this aspect of the story, embedded in a series of hairpin bends as it is, is fairly predictable.

Having said that, conjoined with a fantastically convincing set, the absolutely appropriate coordination of sound and light brings the violent Highveld storm in the title to Shakespearean splendour in this tale of exile and identity. Conceived and crafted to have been launched to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the 1976 Soweto Uprising – which it did: it debuted at the Market Theatre in June – its season now, amid the hail of racist accusations and violent antagonism that is still rocking our world, remains deeply prescient.

It’s a work, similar to plays such as Steven Boykie Sidley and Kate Sidley’s play Shape, and Mongiwekhaya’s I See You, which offers an introspective and thoughtful but not soft voice to embrace a reflection on the fact that not everything is as it seems and that nuance and even deep love can exist even in the most apparently blatant of racially-infused situations. Like the whole repertoire of Slabolepszy’s work written in the voice of its era, Suddenly the Storm is an important and beautifully written work that encapsulates issues that will set many a post-theatre dinner table afire with dialogue.

  • Suddenly the Storm is written by Paul Slabolepszy and directed by Bobby Heaney. Featuring design by Greg King (set), Wesley France (lighting) and Ntuthuko Mbuyazi (sound), it is performed by Paul Slabolepszy, Renate Stuurman and Charmaine Weir-Smith at the Auto & General Theatre on the Square in Sandton until November 19. Call 011 883-8606 or visit theatreonthesquare.co.za  

Feverish for that acid green sedan

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GETTING on his boogie shoes: Daniel Buys as Tony Manero. Photograph courtesy http://jozistyle.joburg/saturday-night-fever/

PICTURE THE SCENARIO. It’s the mid-1970s in the boroughs of New York City, and white working class teenagers are dancing themselves wild because there’s nothing else to do to keep body and soul together, other than joining the church or getting a low-key boring job. The opening chords – both musically and visually – of the current production of Saturday Night Fever, punctuated with classic songs from the Bee Gees articulates this with aplomb.

But it is the inadequate balance of sound and vocals, some truly grotesque choreography and underwhelming performances that leaves the production wanting. And yes, it’s a dated show, reflecting petty racisms and sexisms of teenagers in America from 40 years ago, but it’s still deemed an iconic classic; had it been performed with slickness, its sense of anachronism would have been forgivable.

Further, if you’re a die-hard Bee Gees fan, you, too, might be disappointed while you wait to be swept away on a swathe of nostalgia by your favourite tunes penned and originally performed by brothers Barry, Maurice and Robin Gibb in that distinctive falsetto.

Shows recreated in the last couple of years under the Broadway rubric, such as The Jersey Boys, which performed in South Africa in 2013, directed  by West Hyler, or Dream Girls of 2011, under the direction of Brittney Griffin, were performed in such a way that a song could freeze the moment, cause tears to fall and grown men and women to dance, weeping with love, in the aisles, whether or not they were alive when that music was fashionable. This doesn’t happen in this rendition of Saturday Night Fever. Rather, the music seems toned to be beneath the rather flimsy tale of the dreams of a poor boy to find the girl and the dance moves he deems his.

So, what happens is you struggle to hear the dialogue. The microphones attached to the performers’ foreheads force the sound out at such a level, that the words reverberate in the vast shell of the venue and smash against one another, becoming by and large inaudible. The dancing, with lots of really bizarre lifts and front splits for the women, is neither elegant nor erotic. Does it evoke the ethos of disco chaos of the seventies? Maybe. Certainly the costumes fit the era carefully, with the girls’ leotards and boys bell-bottoms – and of course the inimitable white three-piece suit which John Travolta brought into common fashion parlance with the 1977 film.

Daniel Buys in the starring role of Tony Manero has the voice and the moves, but lacks the sense of authority that a performer like Travolta exuded in this work. Instead, you find yourself trying to remember which one’s the one, when he and his buddies are out on the street.

Having said all of that, Matthew Berry playing the hapless Bobby C, one of Tony’s boys opposite Kiruna-Lind Devar as Pauline, Bobby C’s sweetheart arguably create several moments in this show which redeems the trek to the State Theatre. Beautifully cast, both of these young performers embrace the nuances of their – albeit tiny – roles, with fullness, sensitivity and dignity. They sing beautifully and liaise with conviction.

And then, there’s the acid-green 1970s sedan on the set, which is such a remarkably lovely idea that it should have been written about in the programme. Its elegant unpretentious curvaceousness, even the way in which its boot no longer closes properly, lends a tone of the time and flavour of the era which is irrepressible.

Indeed, the machinery of the set of the State Theatre is another element to this production which takes your breath away. Comprising numerous elevators in a variety of sizes, to say nothing of structures which move in on cue and on wheels, the world of the underbelly of New York is brought with all its dirty sham, drudgery and dreams, onto this stage in Pretoria in a manner so beautifully co-ordinated it rips your attention from the dynamics on stage. Here, you get to see inside Tony’s house, with his upstairs bedroom. There’s the park, and the apartment of Stephanie Mangano (Natasha van der Merwe) who grabs Tony by the libido, the bridge central to the tale and the disco venue itself.

Sadly, the State Theatre remains a conundrum for the regular theatre patron, and this old bastion of culture feels like a building site. The downstairs parking leaks and many bays are not accessible because the building’s in disrepair as a result of neglect. There are bits and chunks of the venue that are defined by shrill warnings to the public to stay away because they are unsafe, and huge electrical cords hang in disarray across the opera venue’s walls – a venue which remains as oblivious to safety needs of theatre venues as it was when it was first opened in 1981.

  • Saturday Night Fever based on the eponymous Paramount/RSO film and the story by Nik Cohn was originally adapted for stage by Robert Sligwood and Bill Oaks. It is directed by Greg Homann with design by Rowan Bakker (musical direction), Weslee Swain Lauder (choreography), Denis Hutchinson (set and lighting), Sarah Roberts (costumes) and TrevOr Peters (sound). It is performed by Joanna Abatzoglou, Matthew Berry, Cameron Botha, Vanessa Brierly, Daniel Buys, Kiruna-Lind Devar, Londiwe Dhlomo, Keaton Ditchfield, Toni Jean Erasmus, Devon Flemmer, Zane Gillion, Nurit Graff, Nathan Kruger, Sebe Leotlela, Clint Lesch, Brandon Lindsay, Phumi Mncayi, Bongi Mthombeni, Raquel Munn, L J Neilson, Mark Richardson, Phillip Schnetler, Craig Urbani, Natasha van der Merwe, Steven van Wyk and Charmaine Weir-Smith, and an off-stage band under the direction of Rowan Bakker and Drew Rienstra: Donny Bouwer (trumpet), Jason Green (bass), Maureen Marler (‘cello), Dan Selsick (trombone), Kuba Silkiewicz (guitar), Brian Smith (reeds), P W van der Walt (drums), Daline Wilson (violin), at the Opera Theatre in the State Theatre complex, Pretoria, until October 9. Call 012 392 4000 or visit statetheatre.co.za