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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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