The boy who loved cats

Agony

CHERRY red lips on a bed of snow. Craig Morris is Malcolm Leask. Photograph by Aman Bloom.

PERFECTION. IT’S SOMETHING every parent wants of their child, no matter how dysfunctional they may be in the rest of their lives. Taken to another level, that quest to make your child the best at ballet, at tennis, at maths can become pathological, twisted and poisonous, and it is on this bizarre relationship that Agony is premised. Written with an impeccable sense of texture that enables you to experience the smell of cat food and that of new tennis balls in your mind’s nose, the work is an unforgettable cipher to the sadness of a life stuffed to bilious satiety with other people’s dreams.

It is here, in this dingy flat filled with cats, that we meet Malcolm Leask. He’s alone. Nine months’ rent in arrears hangs over his head, and the crackle of Puccini on his record player fills the vacuum. That, and the cat food. That, and the memories, which bang and twist against one another in a way that will make you panic and weep as you sit there watching this tale of make believe and other people’s filthy secrets and threats unfold.

It’s a story told by several highly skilled professionals – with light and with puppets, with direction and with writing, which might make you think of Irish actor Patrick Magee and how his physical presence embraced the task of Krapp’s Last Tape which was written by Samuel Beckett with his voice in mind. It’s a story naked of gimmicks which evokes that of Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy in transient ways. But this is no paean to discovering one’s sexuality. It’s no celebration of distant youth. It’s a direct, often ruthless portrayal of what happens when all that pressure to excel is turned inside out, exposing instead the flaws of the one who imposed that pressure. It’s about what happens when one runs by chance into secret fantasies of others that smash one’s life into so many smithereens they can’t be put together again. It’s a story about the intimacy of a theatre’s wardrobe and one that sees the dolphins on the shower curtain weep at the bad things they’re made privy to, and it’s one about reclaiming a sense of self in a world broken by other people’s ugly greed, as it is one that glories in the perfection of closing that last clasp above the zip, of a beautiful ball gown.

And at its core is Craig Morris. Dancer, performer, magician with light and space and bodily presence, Morris gives Malcolm Leask the unequivocal dignity he warrants. To the world, this character might be considered tragic. Within Morris’s reach, he’s a hero making his final curtain call in the face of all the sham and drudgery and punishment that has been dished to him. This play will haunt you with its idiosyncrasies as it will pepper your thinking with what ifs.

  • There’s a brief season of this riveting and completely magnificent work – in loving memory of Greg Melvill-Smith – at Centurion Theatre, in the beginning of November, if you have missed the current season.
  • Agony is conceived by Greg Melvill-Smith and Douglas Thistlewhite, written by Iain Paton and directed by Megan Willson. It is performed by Craig Morris and features design by Jenni-lee Crewe (puppets) and Barry Strydom (lighting). It was performed in the Downstairs Theatre as part of the So So1o Festival at Wits University, on September 29 and 30 and October 8. It performs at the Centurion Theatre on November 3 and 4. Visit centurionteater.co.za or call 012-664-7859.
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Let your little ones reach for the stars

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UP, up and away: Jojo (Lunga Mofokeng), the science teacher (Sithembiso Khalishwayo) and Jinks (Stella Dlangalala) head upwards. Photograph by Sakhile Dube

A FABULOUS NEW element to the Wits 969 offering is a slot for children’s theatre, and this year, the festival pickings, hot off the Grahamstown circuit, features no less than three productions suitable for the next generation of theatre patrons. Space Rocks is a kaleidoscope of fact, fiction, allegory and invention, to say nothing of good moral values, that have everything to do with brushing your teeth and being nice to your brother/sister, and it will keep your child riveted – that is, if he or she is older than the time frame  of 4 to 8 years, suggested by the work.

It’s a rip-roaring tale of an adventure into space on an improvised space ship, by two children, Jinks (Stella Dlangalala) and her kid brother Jojo (Lunga Mofokeng). And while the wrench from the values of the mother (Earth) played by Diana Penman are big and real, there’s a whole splendid world of adventure waiting for them in the night sky. There’s also the scary danger of Vortex and Void, in which they can become lost or totally discombobulated, but there’s a wise and fine selection of morals and songs, hypnosis and seduction that happens on the way. Not to forget Mr Bing Bing, a robot toy who comes along for the ride and gets first prize in the space adventure stakes.

It may be all too much for your four year old – replete as it is with a heady mix of lots of planetary fact and fondly formed humour, including a whole gamut of fart jokes on the part of Jupiter who reeks of gases, amongst other space oddities, but if your tot is the kind of kid who can easily get mesmerised by the gentleness and excited by the shoutiness, the silver foil and delightful lyrics of a work, they may be able to happily bypass the nitty-gritty of the sense of the narrative and hum along. Indeed, the ensemble of this production exudes a collaborative energy which speaks not only of planetary sanctity and good wishes for the future of Earth, but good clean inventive fun, to boot.

Space Rocks in its design is a work that boasts rethinking everything from teabag strainers to bicycle pumps, and it features some utterly delightful shadow puppetry and a sequence of events which is resoundingly clear as it is satisfying in its unfolding.

  • Space Rocks is written by Tamara Schulz and directed by Craig Morris. It features creative input by Tamara Schulz (costume and set) and is performed by Lehlonholonolo Dube, Stella Dlangalala, Sithembiso Khalishwayo, Lunga Mofokeng, Thapelo Mohapi and Diana Penman, in the Nunnery at the Wits 969 Festival, Wits University, on July 16 at 11:00. Visit webtickets.co.za or visit Wits 969 on facebook. Other children’s shows at this year’s Wits 969 Festival include KidCasino! and Rat Race.

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

Paean to our post-Struggle rough and tumble

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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

The importance of Johnny

Bosbefok: Craig Morris is Johnny Boskak. Photograph by Kate Janse, courtesy cue.ru.ac.za

Bosbefok: Craig Morris is Johnny Boskak. Photograph by Kate Janse, courtesy cue.ru.ac.za

Very occasionally there comes a play which confronts an era from the inside out, with both a sense of empathy and one of hard-edged objectivity, with as complete and yet vulnerable an understanding of how riddled with complexity a given issue can be. Even more occasionally, do you find that the text of the work is completely impeccable: authentic to what it reflects, entertaining and satisfying to hear, and able to splay and contain emotion with a sense of mastery. And hardly ever, do you find a performance that melds the beauty of a text with physical theatre, interpretative possession of the material and an unrelenting ability to hold you, in the audience so mesmerised from the word go, that you can barely breathe. This is what you can anticipate in the current season of Johnny Boskak is Feeling Funny, performed by Craig Morris, which closes this year’s So So1o festival with astonishing aplomb.

The work grew out of a cameo character in playwright Greig Coetzee’s White Men With Weapons, and arguably holds an even more dynamic sway over the complex material it handles. Touching everything from the horror that white young men were compelled to face in the South African army, which was mandatory for them under the apartheid regime, to Jesus – with a Capetonian accent – and a distinctly Coloured devil rapping in tandem, to love, and death and rhyme and mime and hatred and racism, Johnny Boskak evokes the kind of seemingly-effortless perfection you find in works such as Steven Berkoff’s Decadence. Bringing the unique culture which surrounded the South African apartheid army and seriously damaged so many white South Africans, the piece plays with unfashionable taboos in its exploration of white society, replete as it is with 1980s white slang.

The language fills the story it tells with an exuberance which never allows it to be too slick, but holds its grittiness with a sense of moral itchiness. You want to hold onto each magnificent turn of phrase and astonishing metaphor, but alas, they slip through your sensibilities and memory as others vie for your attention, and yet others after that. The language is so rich with local colour, viciousness and malignancy in its description of a world tainted by conflicting and complicated values, you want to eat it: it’s rich with its own wisdoms but it never becomes silly or self-indulgent and flows with a rapidity and a fineness that leaves you breathless: you can’t hold onto it, but are left the richer for having experienced it.

And it all could very easily have been written for Craig Morris who embraces it all with such provocative focus that he is hauntingly magnetic. Armed with just an army kitbag and a piece of the kind of traffic barrier that separates a highway from the landscape it severs, some brilliant lighting work and the 1980s sound of Syd Kitchen, Morris evokes a whole wide landscape, from Estcourt to Van Reenen’s pass en route to Durban, coloured with drugs, sex and violence, conflicting values and terror, reality and scary dream fantasies, all seamlessly conjoined in a breathless stretch of 70 precious minutes.

It’s a complicated tale which feels like Bob Dylan’s Masters of War meeting one of Bitterkomix’s more graphic stories.  As the narrative unfolds, you feel as though you’ve been tossed into a cauldron of delicious evil and terrifying South African history, which blends the hateful illogic of Kafkaesque horror with the conundrums of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.

In short, it’s a ten-out-of-ten production which is not only completely flawless, but serves as an important theatrical anthem to that troubling and messy era in South Africa’s history.

  • Johnny Boskak is Feeling Funny is directed by Roslyn Wood-Morris and Craig Morris. It is written by Greig Coetzee and features costume and set design by Craig Morris and lighting design by Barry Strydom. Featuring original music by the late Syd Kitchen, it is performed by Craig Morris, as part of the So So1o 2015 festival, hosted by Wits University. It performs in the Wits Downstairs Theatre on Saturday October 10 at 14.30 and 19.30 and Sunday October 11 at 14.30 and 18.00. Tickets through co.za. Visit http://www.wits.ac.za/witstheatre