He who turns battered pianos into Formula Ones


TEA with Gershwin: Pianist Charl du Plessis in conversation. Photograph by Robyn Sassen.

HE’S DEVASTATINGLY SUAVE but quietly spoken; he’s funny and earnest at the same time and when he sits at the piano, the world becomes a friendlier place. Meet Charl du Plessis who performs a week-long season at Auto and General Theatre on the Square in Sandton, this week. This Steinway artist who performs with Nataniël and has his own trio is the magic ingredient in any music line up. He recently chatted to My View about the magic of Gershwin, the vagaries of self-promotion and the wonder of straddling jazz and classics, to say nothing of the treasures you can find in a piano’s belly.

Trained classically both locally and abroad, du Plessis’s knack at improvisation is arguably the wizardry that makes his work fly. Nearly 10 years ago, he formed a jazz trio – which today comprises Werner Spies on bass and Peter Auret on drums.

“We started playing the kind of jazz you would find anywhere else in the world. And then something strange began to happen. Over the years in my repertoire, classics and jazz started to merge. More and more. Eventually, I realised I quite like taking classical music and turning it into a kind of jazzy sound, but still keeping the inherent quality of the original classical music. It sort of stimulates both markets.

“Jazz people like it, because they can understand and it opens the doors to classical music for them. And the classical music lovers recognise Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, or Air on a G string by Bach, and all of a sudden it’s new and fresh and they have a smile on their face. I’m not the first person to do something like this, but I have had success with it, and it’s certainly artistically gratifying for me.

“I can play Chopin or Bach, but so can hundreds of other pianists. I like to give the music my own flavour in a sophisticated way so that it is never easy. It is never rommel trommel in the corner of a restaurant kind of thing. It is something distinct, which people like.”

Born and raised in Bloemfontein, du Plessis went to Grey College. After school, he studied piano under Joseph Stanford at Pretoria University and then honed his craft in Texas and Zurich. He returned to South Africa close to 20 years ago.

“The first person who gave me a full time job, back then, was Nataniël, the singer and stage personality; I still work with him. I have learnt so much from him in terms of his unrelenting work ethic. His standards are very high in terms of what he offers his public, always.

“He once said: If you live in a country where you weren’t born, sometimes it’s difficult to really make a contribution because people see you as a foreigner. And this is so true: Even though playing piano essentially has no language, the problem is that there is a matter of being able to contribute a little more. And that’s why I am still here.”

Piano was du Plessis’s first professional instrument. But “when I was little – before my voice broke, I used to sing. So the voice was my first instrument of making music. And then I played piano as well, but not so seriously, and then my voice broke and I was like: ‘Oh hell! What am I going to do now?!’

“I tried to play a bit of organ at university, but the piano was the only thing that really tickled me.”

Being a pianist who also does his own promotion is, he says, extremely difficult, but also quite liberating. “I am not the sort of artist who sits and practises and waits for the New York Philharmonic to phone me. They’ll never phone me because they don’t know I’m alive! But if I phone them, or if I do my own thing and make work for myself, then people are likely to say: ‘Yes, I think I’ve heard of you. Or I think I’ve heard your CD.’ The truth is, these days, it’s every man for himself.”

In 2010, du Plessis was named as Africa’s youngest ever Steinway artist, a status which comes with a responsibility to shine. But du Plessis has done more than shine. He’s given pianos new life, in the most astonishing of ways.

There’s a scene in the 2000 film Billy Elliott directed by Stephen Daldry in which a piano is chopped up into firewood. It’s like watching a murder. Du Plessis concurs. “A damaged piano is like a battered or neglected wife. And the value of a bit of a makeover or a visit to the hairdresser is huge.”

His playing tours all come with a bit of a side-show in which the piano is taken apart. “This developed out of my travels to different concert halls, where sometimes the pianos are in terrible shape,” he says. “I asked Ian Burgess-Simpson, a Steinway-trained technician, to come on board as a doctor who would resuscitate pianos all across the country.”

This healing process was conducted free of charge. “It comprises a tuning – which is like putting petrol into a car – with a full service, which is about going into the machine and replacing stuff, and fixing stuff … and you know what? We’ve had such incredible response from the instruments which were okay – they were satisfactory, and then all of a sudden, they’ve become Formula One racing cars.

“The venues are very happy to have this tour because it benefits them. But how does it benefit the audience? And that is how I thought of the idea of taking the piano apart in front of the audience. When we played in Cape Town for example, one old lady came to me with tears in her eyes. She said ‘I have been a member of this concert club for maybe 15 years. I have never been allowed to see the piano close up. I’ve never even touched it. I’ve never been allowed to go on stage, let alone see the inside.’

“We live in a society in which we can google everything. People don’t like not knowing. They want to open things up and find out how they work. With the piano, I invite people in. I talk, I explain the piece I play, so that it’s not all formal.”

The composer headlining the season at Auto and General Theatre on the Square this week is George Gershwin. “I love him,” Du Plessis is unequivocal. “He’s the universal standard for everyone from jazz saxophonists to opera singers to classical pianists. Gershwin’s one of those guys with one foot in the world of classics, one foot in the world of jazz, and people respect him for that.”

It’s a mixture of musical respect, intimate knowledge of the work and humour, not to mention improvisational fire that will make you fall in love with du Plessis.


Roll up! Roll up! White-faced dark tales for the brave


WHAT say you, my fine zucchini? Michelle Douglas in Couplet. Photograph courtesy NAF.

THE HIGHLY POWDERED corpse-white face which seems to be disconnected from anything else, pokes through shimmering curtains. It has red cheeks and blackened eye-holes, a startling grimace and a proclivity to spew rhyming lines from its mouth with abandon and complexity. This malleable and mesmerising face sets the tone for Steven Feinstein’s two-hander which tells dark and chilling tales, all cast in rhyming couples. Michelle Douglas – the owner of the face in question – brings to this work which conflates Burlesque and Vaudeville with sleight of hand and Victorian grotesqueries, a sparkly sense of how the tales twist, and from the get-go, it seems as though you’ve stepped into a dinkum PT Barnum experience.

From fearful Freddie to the girl who couldn’t tell a truth, to the tale of Vincent who lived in a world of heartlessness, to the plight of two nasty homeless thoughts and some zucchini narratives, the stories are frisky and bleak in their engagement with evildoings and bad stuff. It might make you think you’ve mistakenly stepped into the Scaffolds’ madcap 1968 song, Lily the Pink, based as it was on a 19th century ballad, framed on the life of a famous concoctor called Lydia Pinkham. But this is no explication of a medicinal compound, it’s a leap and a hop into a world of evilness under the aegis of bawdry, humour, a lot of make up and dresses containing hoops and much cleavage. And indeed, the genre classically points itself to an element of rude meanderings and sexual innuendos, which Couplet doesn’t engage with here, a fact which might lead you to believe it’s a show more for young people than seasoned grown up theatre-goers.

Spiced with fantastic artifice and delightful masks, the work tries hard, but the problem is that you sit there, old or young though you may be, grasping for crispness, and holding on to every rhythm with expectation, so tightly, that the language loses its edge. Given that the nimbleness of a show like this depends on the language, it’s a big blow for the work’s charm. You might think rhyming couplets and believe you can experience predictable rhyme with unpredictable words inserted in hilarious places, but sadly, you don’t get this here. And the laughs don’t come as plentifully as you might wish.

The stories have great potential, but there are many of them and they twist and curve around one another in ways that might leave you so dizzy that you forget what belongs to whom. Rather than telling one story from beginning to end, Douglas and Julie-Anne McDowell, her partner in crime, concatenate them, which leads to bits of scary boys and girls peeking into stories which are not their own.

With a delicious use of masks and puppetry, the work is candy for the eyes, and that powdered face of Douglas’s is its magic ingredient, but the work in entirety might leave you wanting more tightness, as well as a push a tad stronger against those boundaries of permissiveness.

  • Couplet is written by Michelle Douglas and directed by Steven Feinstein. It features design by Feinstein (production), Oliver Hauser (lighting), Lien van der Linde and Christelle van Graan (puppets and masks), Sandy Muller (costumes), Rob Joseph (sets) and Jahn Beukes (music) and is performed by Michelle Douglas and Julie-Anne McDowell until October 28 at the Auto and General Theatre on the Square in Sandton. Call 011 883-8606 or visit http://www.theatreonthesquare.co.za

Big fish, conjured


MAN of war ahoy! Manolin (Taryn Bennett) and crew (James Cairns and Jaques de Silva) cast out to sea. Photograph courtesy Auto & General Theatre on the Square.

THERE ARE FEW things as gratifying as a spot of Hemingway to pepper up a dull Johannesburg evening with a bit of culture, but this is Hemingway as you could never have anticipated him. One of this country’s most exciting repertory theatre groups, under the pens of Nick Warren and Jenine Collocott have created a gem of a work that will make you laugh and cry, sailing gloriously and with great skill on the coattails of Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea. Even if you don’t like – or know – modernist literature.

Like their production of the Snow Goose, a few seasons ago, the work hinges more on accounts of the incident rather than the incident itself, but in doing so, not one iota of the texture and the fabric of the tale is compromised, and a whole sea replete with the greatest challenge of an old fisherman’s lifetime, and a humble village of loyal friends, is cast in a simple framework with a turning set, put together with a couple of planks, a log and a table, and some incredibly fine masks and very simple puppets.

It’s a curious novel. On the one hand, celebrated as arguably among the most important novels of the modern era, The Old Man and the Sea (1951) is an example of short, tight writing at its peak. You can read it in a few hours, but still the monumental struggle between big fish and small man becomes almost biblical in its largeness. It contains a parable similar to tales such as Moby Dick, which gives you something to take home with you – about old age, mortality and the challenges of being in the world.

And you might wonder what a group of contemporary South African theatre makers can do with a work of such historical gravitas and serious reputation. Rest assured that you’re safe in the hands of Jaques de Silva, Taryn Bennett and James Cairns, who take apart this great classic with immense bravery and chutzpah, but also an incredible amount of intelligence and skill. The gravitas remains, but is woven into a texture of village life that is rich with humour and tall stories, earnestness and dominoes.

The story is fleshed out with characters such as Manolin, the young boy who Santiago, the old man in question has been training in his boat, but also the village fishermen who tell the incredible tale of a man who went out for the biggest fish of his life, and came back with a story. Indeed, this production reinvents the textures and love affairs, the humour and the pathos of this unnamed fishing village.

Flavoured with songs of the ocean, and sutured together with mime that harnesses a very real sense of magic, the work is truly a brilliant experience: it is beautifully honed and tells a clear story with a very big fish (and an even bigger heart).

  • The Old Man and the Sea is adapted for stage by Nick Warren, based on the eponymous novel by Ernest Hemingway. It is directed by Jenine Collocott and features creative input by Jenine Collocott (production design), Sue Grealy (music), Alida van Deventer (puppetry), Alistair Findlay (set) and Steve Clarke (sound). It is performed by Taryn Bennett, James Cairns and Jaques de Silva at the Auto and General Theatre on the Square in Sandton until October 7. Call 011 883 8606 or visit www.theatreonthesquare.co.za

Of snake shenanigans and trouser vipers


MY lips are sealed: Funny guys Ben Voss and John van de Ruit.

THE POLITICAL, SEXUAL and otherwise social hooliganism of us South Africans, big and small, black and white make for constantly fertile material with which to play. Particularly if you’re John van de Ruit and Ben Voss. Their Mamba brand, coined in 2002, is still going strong with classic and new sketches and skits that reach as close to the bone – or the boner – as they dare, and come up laughing each time and in this regard and with this premise in mind, Mamba Republic does not disappoint.

From the wiles and faux pas of Parliament (on a soccer field) to an essay on the idiocy of masculinity, Mamba Republic, in evoking the kind of spoofs devised and presented by Spike Jones and the City Slickers in the 1940s, offers sketch upon sketch upon sketch. Not all of them work well, but there are so many, at such nimble and close succession, rapidly firing into the audience, as they tease apart the ludicrous and the downright outrageous that have adorned the South African landscape, of late, that you quickly overlook the ones which didn’t make you laugh out loud.

You won’t forget the hilarious interviews with “Pest means Business” and “President Gupta”, which tosses up the earnestness of tv shows of this nature, throwing finance minister jokes with hilarious abandon into the mix. You won’t forget a spoof of Idols, which is about racist behaviour and silliness. And you most certainly won’t forget the way in which van de Ruit and Voss have taken cuisine to a new level of political humour. Theirs was the white whine which hit the funnies’ headlines some years ago, and this repartee still pushes forth, sending up everything from corruption in the SABC to the draconian frowns of political incorrectness.

This is easy and good entertainment: the puns and jokes are there, as they are in the news broadcasts, and the work offers a flow of dialogue, mockery and giggles which takes apart all the South African stereotypes in all their vulnerabilities to laugh at how they tick. Too nifty to be offensive, too gentle to hurt, the Mamba brand is an excellent one and a real crowd pleaser.

  • Mamba Republic is written by John van de Ruit and Ben Voss. Directed by Dr Mervyn McMurtry, it features lighting design by Michael Taylor-Broderick and is performed by John van de Ruit and Ben Voss at the Auto and General Theatre on the Square in Sandton, until August 20. Visit theatreonthesquare.co.za or call 011 883 8606.

More hilarious horror from the news


A man for all caricatures: Daniel Mpilo Richards. Photograph courtesy Auto & General Theatre on the Square.

YET ANOTHER BRISTLING piece of repartee, rich and seething with the material spewed out by our world, Mike van Graan’s State Fracture is a fitting sequel to his Pay Back the Curry, which graced this theatre at the end of last year. Boasting the same cast and team, the work is as slick and quick and biting as ever: and while you’re laughing, with the knife-edge flick of a nuance, the work turns sinister, freezing that grin on your face. It’s the genius of director Rob van Vuuren and van Graan with Daniel Mpilo Richards at the proverbial coal face that makes this collaborative energy so fresh, tight and cohesive.

Like Pay Back the Curry, this revue of different characters, from Dean the front man at the Saxonwold Shebeen; to a local battery chicken who resents the American chicks with their fat brine-infused thighs; to Hlaudi Motsoeneng, a man so full of Jesus and the SABC he knows not one from the other, offers a peek at the madness, the alternative facts and the blatant stupidity within. The lyrics of songs by Abba, Leonard Cohen and Bob Marley are gutted and reinstated in van Graan’s characteristically sophisticated and angry manner to hilarious effect which will keep you restraining those guffaws because you need to hear all the words and consider how they resonate with the originals. Like Pay Back the Curry, and novels such as Paige Nick’s recent Unpresidented, the work will date rapidly, but it is articulating stories and scenarios which are relevant, and in doing so, it serves an important function in society.

As you sit there, in the audience, however, something else might flicker through your sensibilities. It has to do with works such as the 1972 Kander and Ebb musical Cabaret, in which Joel Gray, the inimitable MC represents the messy and rotten state of the world at the time, situated as it is in the 1930s – between the wars – with humour and horror spiced by song so richly cooked together it makes your head spin. What van Graan is doing in work of this nature is holding a mirror up to society – as do practitioners such as political jester Pieter-Dirk Uys and political cartoonist Zapiro. While State Fracture is a couple of spoofs too many (or too similar), which finds your focus dwindling toward the end, it’s a well-crafted work that hits the mark. Resoundingly.

  • State Fracture is written by Mike van Graan and directed by Rob Van Vuuren. It features creative input by Stephanie Papini (lighting) and is performed by Daniel Mpilo Richards at the Auto & General Theatre on the Square in Sandton until July 29. Visit theatreonthesquare.co.za or call 011 883-8606.

If we had nothing but love


BREL trio: Jannie du Toit leads Chanie Jonker (left) and Susan Mouton. Photograph courtesy Auto and General Theatre on the Square.

THERE’S NOTHING QUITE like a dollop of Brel on a cold winter evening to warm the cockles of your heart. Embraced as schmaltz by generations of song-lovers everywhere, the rough and drunken, sad and maudlin brilliance of Belgian singer/songwriter Jacques Brel (1929-1978) bring together a mix of wisdom and poetry in a way that reminds you why his songs are unequivocal classics; they’re songs that can knock generations-old memories to the foreground within their first three bars and it doesn’t even matter what language they’re sung in.

Led by Jannie du Toit on vocals in English and Afrikaans, French and Flemish, this collection of 20-odd songs are deliciously hand-picked, and feature a gentle extrapolation on the lyrics before the performance of each song. They’re magnificent pieces, some boasting the status of “Brel anthems” and others less well known but no less beautiful, but in performance, they’re sadly not always as crisp and audible as you might wish: the cheek mic on du Toit’s face and the mics on the instruments tend to grind the sound together in a way that flattens it, and the physical arrangement of the stage lacks the kind of finesse that you might expect in a Brel production.

All of this is, however, utterly forgivable. What this production lacks in polish, it makes up for in heart. Du Toit’s reputation as a Brel specialist is significant, and stretches over decades: his rendition in all four languages is utterly competent, with his Madeleine in Flemish topping the evening with a mix of pizzazz and clowning, poetry and tragedy all rolled together.

This heart-warming show doesn’t aspire or pretend to be anything more or less than a body of beautiful work celebrated by seasoned musicians. And you’ll leave with a spring in your step and a song in your heart and a tear or two on your cheek.

  • Bonjour Monsieur Brel is compiled by Juanita Swanepoel comprising songs originally written by Jacques Brel. It features creative input by Clinton Zerf, Matthys Maree, Coenraad Rall, and Jannie du Toit (musical arrangements) and is performed by Jannie du Toit (vocals and guitar), Susan Mouton (cello and piano), Chanie Jonker/Coenraad Rall (piano and piano accordion). It performs until July 16 at the Auto and General Theatre on the Square in Sandton. Call 011 883-8606 or visit http://www.theatreonthesquare.co.za

Mind the gap: an essay on elegant dishonesty


AWKWARD reminiscences: Jerry (Tom Fairfoot) and Emma (Carly Graeme) meet in a pub. Photograph by Philip Kuhn.

IT’S THE SILENCES and gaps between words and the construction of the unspoken beat in this intriguing Pinter work, that lends it its potency and dramatic verve, but it is this potency mixed with extremely classy performances, an understated set and an unequivocal elegance that gives it the edge that keeps you focused. However, as the play reaches closure, you might question yourself as to whether there can be such a thing as just too much elegance and too many manners.

And as the name dictates, Betrayal is a tale of complicity and untruths. Of secrets and lies. And of revelations.  Emma (Carly Graeme) is married to Robert (Antony Coleman). She’s a gallerist. He’s an editor of a poetry journal. They have two small children.

And for a period of seven years, Emma has had a lover. He knows. Her husband, that is. She knows he knows. But does the lover know she knows he knows? Without the classic English understatedness, this narrative could descend into farcical humour, but it’s kept tight and succinct, demure and hilarious in its own capacity.

We meet Emma and Jerry (Tom Fairfoot) in a pub. They’re excruciatingly awkward with one another, but as they hem and haw and blurt out long sentences of memories of their friendship, and then retract them, you quickly realise this was no ordinary association. Love came into the mix.

But then it left.

This is a tale of how men and women dialogue over the deed of love, sex and relationships. It’s beautiful in its elegance, somewhat anachronistic in its costume choices – this is, after all, a period between 1968 and 1977 as the projection tells us – and the clothes the characters wear are a lot more refined than the period dictated. That said, the Bauhaus-style furnishings that quietly comprise the set are as fitting and as versatile as necessary: they’re just right.

One of the biggest challenges of a play of this nature is the danger of the work descending into blandness. Indeed, once you’ve figured out all the different levels of betrayal articulated from scene to scene, there seems little else, and the plot is exactly that – an unravelling of several intrigues. Looking at it in this capacity, the conclusion of the piece seems unsatisfying: but this is less a criticism of the work invested in it than a reflection of the original.

What happens next after the philandering partners have owned up? Why, that’s another whole story, you might suggest. Betrayal is an elegant, eminently watchable and utterly competent work to watch.

  • Betrayal is written by Harold Pinter and directed by Greg Homann. It features design by Homann (set) and Oliver Hauser (lighting), is performed by Antony Coleman, Jose Domingos, Tom Fairfoot and Carly Graeme until July 1 at the Auto and General Theatre on the Square in Sandton. Call 011 883-8606 or visit http://www.theatreonthesquare.co.za