Hypocrisy’s crowning glory

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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
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The perfect pleasure of Tobacco

Tobacco

TAKING YOUR BREATH AWAY: Andrew Buckland is the hapless yet powerful Ivan. Photograph courtesy http://www.netwerk24.com

AS HE WALKS onstage, you know you are in safe hands, and that the evening will not only be completely impeccable, but that it will take your heart and wring it out in a way that you won’t readily forget. Arguably the single play that defined the Grahamstown National Arts Festival in 2014, Tobacco, and the harmful effects thereof is finally at the Market Theatre, and it’s no less of an utterly perfect theatre experience than it was two years ago.

Ivan (Andrew Buckland) is a nervous man who has been asked by his Wife (Toni Morkel) to do a public talk for charity. And premised on this simple do-gooder idea, there evolves a most extraordinary tale of love and hate, claustrophobia and the feathers of a golden eagle, the discomfort of a picnic with 20 children and the tenderness of a couple who know each other well – and everything in between.

A fine and wild monster of a text crafted by William Harding, Tobacco rests on the almost eponymous Anton Chekhov play of 1886 – or, rather than resting on it, it uses the Chekhov as a quirky starting point. With the aid of an incredibly clever set, comprising a very special purpose-made lectern, a wooden box and an old record player, as well as a pair of plastic noses, the work takes astonishing and brave leaps into the terrain of owls and pussy cats, Mozart and bizarre metaphors that smash grammar and logic aside, yielding an experience which takes you on a surreal and bizarre journey through not only tobacco and its harmful effects, but a whole life of complicated domesticity that is haunting in its brilliance.

Buckland and Morkel together articulate a level of clowning sophistication which makes you remember what perfect theatre is all about. With authoritative focus, they make you laugh at something tragic, and cry at something ridiculous: armed only with their bodies and their skill they invest poignancy into clumsiness and incredible poetry into a hen-pecked middle-aged man in his underpants with a necktie around his sweaty head.

But more than all of this Tobacco boasts a structure that evokes a scored piece of choral music. Tobacco is present everywhere, but it appears like a refrain in a text that is about anything but tobacco. The language has a musicality to it and a flow which is unstoppable, building physical theatre into a momentum that will keep you at the edge of your emotion, throughout.

Under the directorial hand of Sylvaine Strike, this is a remarkable play, beautifully cast and put together with such love and laughter that it sings. If you choose to have one theatre experience in your whole life, make it this one.

  • Tobacco, and the harmful effects thereof based on Anton Chekhov’s one act play, On the Harmful Effects of Tobacco is adapted by William Harding and directed by Sylvaine Strike. It features design by Chen Nakar (set) and Sylvaine Strike assisted by Ali Madiga (lighting) and is performed by Andrew Buckland and Toni Morkel, in the Barney Simon Theatre, Market Theatre complex in Newtown until March 6. Call 011 832 1641 or visit http://www.markettheate.co.za
  • See my review of this play from the Grahamstown Festival in 2014 here.

Tobacco: worth driving to KwaZulu Natal for

Deliciously Buckland, replete with nose and necktie. Photograph by Michelle Avenant.

Deliciously Buckland, replete with nose and necktie. Photograph by Michelle Avenant.

If you’re looking for a splinteringly fine reason to attend this year’s Hilton Arts Festival in KwaZulu Natal, in September, look no further. Arguably the pick of this year’s National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, On the Harmful Effects of Tobacco penned by William Harding is one of those theatrical productions which is so good, it has the power of holding a festival’s momentum, almost single-handedly.

When a seriously seasoned performer raises his own bar in terms of quality, you have to sit up and take notice. Andrew Buckland has been shaping and reshaping his onstage persona for decades. He’s stood at the helm of physical theatre in South Africa fearlessly and has grown a genre that melds an understanding of clowning with that of contemporary choreography.

It’s a supremely well-developed piece of theatre directed by Sylvaine Strike, which intelligently and movingly, is supported with the rich array of emotional wisdom in the skill of clowning. Based on a tale by the same name by Anton Chekhov, it brings in a range of literary and cultural references, from the ballad of the Owl and the Pussycat by Edward Lear, to very clear and beautiful Beckettian references, to bits and pieces of Kafka, American Indian mythology.

Ivan (played by Buckland) is the central character. He’s been called upon by his do-gooder and socially conscious wife (played in haunting and hilarious cameo appearances by Toni Morkel) to give a community talk on the harmful effects of tobacco, for a fundraising initiative. And from this deliciously hypocritical moment and throughout the play, Buckland ably tosses the notion around, bringing in love, life and everything else into the mix, which is juxtaposed with not only sheer poetry, but utter madness as well. In terms of clowning principles, clear gems of a melding of pathos with hilarity make you sit up and weep, it is so beautiful.

Perhaps in the hands of a lesser performer, this work would not have the astonishing sense of poignancy and wit or be able to hold the focus as touchingly and convincingly as it does. But the writing itself has levity and wit, wisdom and savvy that reach far beyond young Harding’s years, heftily reinforcing the understanding that he is someone to watch.

Distinctive of Strike’s works is a set, so simple that it is wild in its possibilities. Designed by Chen Nakar, this set comprises basically a hollowed out semi-circular plinth, which doubles and trebles in almost literally hundreds of different possibilities. A simple ingenious device, it holds the stage in a handful of magic.

This beautiful production, armed with fine and whimsical caveats is a tonic to the emotions and a celebration of the senses.

  • On the Harmful Effects of Tobacco is written by William Harding and directed by Sylvaine Strike. It features design by Strike (costumes); Chen Nakar (set); and Alex Farmer (lighting) and performances by Andrew Buckland and Toni Morkel and performs at the Hilton Arts Festival, near Pietermaritzburg, which takes place between September 18 and 21.