Oh, the things you can do with humble tools!

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The world in a swath of brown paper: Liezl de Kock in Heart’s Hotel. Photo by Gemma Middleton, courtesy CuePix.

DO YOU REMEMBER casting shadows of animals made of your own little fingers and hands, on the wall, when you were a small child? The thrill of that level of interpretative magic which makes something unexpected happen in the context of ordinariness is something we as human beings should never allow ourselves to forget. And thanks to utterly remarkable theatre practitioners such as Toni Morkel, Liezl de Kock and James Cuningham, we won’t.

It is always such a splendid privilege and treat to get to see Morkel perform. She lends a blend of sinister humour which is unique and completely magnetic. Ditto for Liezl de Kock, who Johannesburg audiences last saw opposite Andrew Buckland in the wonderful Crazy in Love. When you hear that these two inimitable physical theatre giants are collaborating in a work, your only real questions should be where? And when? Hearts Hotel featured as one of the pickings of this year’s Wits 969 Festival, and hopefully it will enjoy legs, further down the line.

And while all the names on paper shine and sparkle in your mind’s eye, they certainly don’t disappoint in their performances in this quirky apocalyptic tale of motherly love, new beginnings, terrors in the night and a very poisonous scorpion. It’s a work that brings together the rich and simple idea of play in such provocative ways it will singe your heart and leave you aching for more.

When you weep at a death that is evoked with the smoothing out of wrinkled paper, or gasp at the way in which distance and nearness are conveyed by shadows alone, you become susceptible to an easy melding of different realities, and you get sucked into a work of such creative magnitude that it will shift your values. Hearts Hotel comprises a whole range of low-tech theatre crafts, from shadow puppetry to mime. It reflects ideas such as destruction by fire, great distances travelled on foot, big waves in the ocean and the playfulness of a baby with succinct gesture and great wisdom, that will make you laugh with glee and surprise.

Such a range of richness is carried by an economy of tools but a generosity of creative energies that you will feel like a child being exposed to great classics for the very first time.

The language in the work smacks of something East-European in its flavour and sense of tradition, but nothing is pinned down. The devilish horned hats also fit into something which you might not know, but will recognise as a time worn custom, replete with its own rituals and choreography.

Perhaps the only casualty in this work is the looseness of the grand narrative, which holds it all together and is not consistently easy to follow. But in the bigger picture of the work, it’s not a catastrophe – even if you’re not savvy of the apocalyptic nature of the piece, or the madness of the situation in the empty abandoned hotel, even if you do not understand where the curious stranger fits in, or where there be scorpions in this hostile landscape, you will still be swept away by the humble and soaring texture of its unequivocal generosity of magic.

  • Hearts Hotel is directed by James Cuningham assisted by Binnie Christie. It is performed by Liezl de Kock, Toni Morkel and Christelle van Graan as part of the Wits 969 festival for 2016, in the Wits Downstairs Theatre, which ended on July 24.

Buckland and De Kock tell of life, the universe and everything with a mop in a veil

Like father, like daughter: Leon (Andrew Buckland) and Ginny (Liezl de Kock) share a guffaw. Photograph by Bazil Raubach

Like father, like daughter: Leon (Andrew Buckland) and Ginny (Liezl de Kock) share a guffaw. Photograph by Bazil Raubach

With a hefty dollop of Beckett, some irrepressible clowning and a simple bittersweet tale peppered with absurdities, kangaroos and chameleons, not to mention an extraordinary set that comprises the skull of a gnu, a plastic shopping trolley and doodads that will make you laugh and cry, Andrew Buckland and Liezl de Kock have woven an intricate story of fatherhood with an insane backstory and context that makes tragedy comical and vice versa. If you’ve ever loved someone to the point of distraction, you will empathise with this niftily written and magically performed production.

Leon (Buckland) is a man who doesn’t commit well. He sidles out of relationships on the pretext of going shopping and from the first vignette, you love him and hate him for being so charming and delicious and yet so unreliable as a partner. In the first couple of sequences, Buckland makes you remember why for decades he had Johannesburg audiences in thrall: he’s an incredibly sophisticated clown who with his face, body and words, pushes the boundaries between tragedy and comedy to a point that is almost unbearable. And then, when you cannot laugh or cry one sob more, he relents, unwinds and starts all over again. Language and gesture are his playground and his tools and he gives life to nonsense, obscenity and blasphemy which in turn make it sophisticated, untouchably hilarious and profound.

De Kock – who plays Leon’s daughter Ginny – is grist for Buckland’s mill: the give and take between the two performers is generous and trusting yet brutal and direct. Where he ends, she takes up. Where he trips, she falls. It’s like watching a complicated game of tennis, but one that involves a mop and rake, lipstick and an absent mother.  They face a nothingness as do Fugard’s Boesman and Lena. They confront dreams in impossibility as do Beckett’s Estragon and Vladimir. Knotted together with one of the most well loved musical standards of all time, Somewhere Over the Rainbow as a theme that runs surreptitiously and delicately through the work, this production has undergone wise and resolute tweaks since last it was staged in Grahamstown.

Crazy in Love is a balm to South African theatre: In its short duration, it demonstrates how many stories can be told in a single burst of creative fire, how the sky is the limit, and how performers can take a basic and simple idea and let it run into a forest of possibilities that touch life and death, tragedy and hilarity, disappointment and freedom with unrelenting quirkiness. It’s an essay on life, love and madness and in the telling it is coupled with some of the most outlandish creativity you could dream up.  By the same token, it gives credence to building a shrine of nonentity as it describes the need for a young person to leave home and strike out on her own.

In touching all these values, the work offers sometimes harsh, sometimes poetic insight into the challenges of loss, of raising a child alone, of alcoholism and numbing poverty. Metaphors aplenty encrust this stage, but the bottom line is the pathos-littered tale of searching for a somebody that can make one’s life feel complete – even if that somebody and that search are exercises for their own sake.

  • Crazy in Love is co-created by Andrew Buckland and Liezl de Kock and directed by Rob Murray. It is performed by Andrew Buckland and Liezl de Kock and features set, costume and prop design by Jayne Batzofin and lighting design by Rob Murray. It is at the Barney Simon Theatre, Market Theatre complex in Newtown, Johannesburg, until April 12. 011 832 1641.