Mind the gap: an essay on elegant dishonesty

betrayal

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
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Nothing to fear, Gruffalo’s here!

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ONE roar and all resistance crumbles: Sisonke Yefele is The Gruffalo. Photograph by Nardus Engelbrecht.

WHAT WOULD YOU do if you were all alone in a forest, with a yen for a nice big nut, and a knowledge that there were creatures for whom you would be lunch? A brave brown mouse, played by Nombasa Ngoqo captures the hearts and sense of adventure of little ones as she tricks the fox, the owl and the snake into believing she’s tougher than them in this South African version of the West End’s The Gruffalo.

It’s a-screech-a-minute scenario in a deep, dark wood, with the very young audience members, who love the “He’s right behind you!” sequences of shouts in this show, of which there are plenty. It’s a character which, penned by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler in 1999 in a storybook took the world by storm.

The Gruffalo – played by Sisonke Yefele – is a monster who’s quite easily frightened, in truth. He’s a madcap combination of various scary elements, such as horns and poisonous warts, deliciously potent claws and orange eyes, and the story’s largely about who can be more hilariously scared than who. It’s also a tale of friendship and trickster behaviour and an understanding of the soft spots of the monster you can conjure up in your mind.

Brought to fantastic life on stage with bright colour and intense sound, replete with a cuddly Gruffalo costume, it’s a rollicking bit of theatre which the littlies will know from their exposure to other levels of Gruffalo rhetoric. He’s everywhere, in the form of stuffed plush toys, games and songs. While the piped music often fights with the performers’ voices and you lose some of the work’s nuance in the lyrics, this is not a hassle for the toddlers on board, who want ultimate victory for the mouse and a chance to pat the Gruffalo himself.

  • The Gruffalo is a stage adaptation of the eponymous children’s story book written by Julia Donaldson and illustrated by Axel Scheffler. It is directed by Tara Notcutt and performed by Mandisi Heshu, Nombasa Ngoqo, Ayanda Nondlwana and Sisonke Yefele at Auto and General Theatre on the Square, twice daily, until May 7. Visit gruffalolive.co.za or call 011-883-8606.

Mariachi and his Song of Love, Life, Death

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BELTING it out: The irrepressible James Cairns is El Blanco. Photograph courtesy The Luvvie.

 

ARMED WITH A big tummy and a tiny ukulele, James Cairns embodies a whole community of Mexicans in this fabulous piece of theatre, which is a rich and rambunctious amalgamation of everything from traditional Mexican narrative to the demonic beast of copywriting, some colourful fantasy and a bit of radio-style drama thrown in between. It’s swift and funny, sophisticated and self-deprecating and successfully calls upon the devil and God in one voice.

Put together by a highly skilled team of writers, designers and performers, El Blanco examines the path of a pale and freckled Mariachi and how he fares in a dark-skinned world of bias, ancient Egyptian obsidian stones and one in which he needs to whore out his song-writing skills in order to pay the rent. It’s a skilful and heady mix of the past and the potential future, with romance and madness, sadness and lies all cobbled together in a complex series of stories within stories.

And while Cairns has the gift of being able to twist his tongue and his persona into a myriad of different characters all at once, at times, you lose the tiny nuances of the tale, because there are so many voices present in it.  You don’t however, lose the thread of the work, which is like stepping into a delicious and irrevocably rich slice out of one of Gabriel García Marques’s novels, with all its idiosyncrasies, hairpin twists in story lines, thick and layered detail and gesture to make you look. And laugh. And forget yourself.

More than that, Cairns’s stage persona brings a whiff of Danny Kaye, a snort of Spike Jones and the City Slickers and a soupçon of BBC radio’s airs and graces from the 1970s. If you loved his performance opposite Taryn Bennett in The Snow Goose, staged recently in this theatre, you will be completely smitten by this wildly creative monodrama, which vies with loose and totally fabulous abandon between being immensely proper, and totally off the wall, with the flick of an eyebrow.

The rudimentary nature of the work’s set plays into the directness of the work and its uncontrived charm. But the balance of bare necessities and immense skill makes this a work you just don’t want to miss.

  • El Blanco: Tales of the Mariachi is written by Gwydion Beynon and directed by Jenine Collocott. It features design by João Orecchia (sound), Jenine Collocott (set) and Jemma Kahn (costumes) and is performed by James Cairns at Auto and General Theatre on the Square until April 8. Call 011 883-8606 or visit theatreonthesquare.co.za

What to do when your mother-in-law dishes up

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THE mystique of kosher: Chantal Stanfield plays herself in From Koe’siestes to Kneidlach. Photograph courtesy Theatre on the Square.

YOU KNOW THE story from the moment you look at the publicity images for this play. A bride and groom stand next to one another. He wears a yarmulke. She’s Coloured. The rest feels like it will be a miasma of stereotypes and schlock that will draws gusts of sometimes deeply uncomfortable laughter of recognition from the belly of a community fraught with levels of bias and idiosyncrasy. It’s about tradition. And South African Jews. And Coloureds. And by implication, you think it will be peppered with the blandness of well trodden cliché, references to cultural cuisine and low key inside jokes. But in making all these assumptions, you don’t anticipate the feisty, fresh and searing energy that Chantal Stanfield, the performer and writer of this direct and autobiographical piece brings.

Yes, it’s a tale of marriage across local cultures and one in which a wide-eyed Stanfield is exposed to the bizarre and unexplainable litanies of ritual in the practice of traditional orthodox Jewry, when she meets, falls in love with, and marries muso RJ Benjamin. It’s written with a frisky sense of wonder, and while it niftily skirts issues from crude racism to the complexity of benign hypocrisy, it makes for tight and immensely watchable theatre.

Stanfield, a Sewende Laan actress who we saw in Johannesburg in Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author a couple of years ago, is one of those performers who you instantly fall in love with: she’s got a sense of presence that is easy on the eye and she fits comfortably in her own skin, rendering her first person narrative in this true story alternatively funny, deeply empathetic and critical almost to the point of cruelty, which heightens the hilarity stakes considerably and forces the whole business from becoming self-indulgent. The work is extremely polished, it’s exactly the right length and resonates with a slick inner rhythm that keeps you focused but never allows the piece to degenerate into the soft schlock that you may anticipate. It’s also a tightly pared down production, in design and set: all the frills and trimmings are described in a beautifully structured text, rich with nuance and wit.

From Koe’siestes to Kneidlach is a tale of uniqueness and curiosity blending the Malay doughnut with the East-European dumpling in such a way that it splays open the complex give and take between everything from Yiddish to Gayle, Muslim antipathies to kugel shallowness. It takes no prisoners in reflecting on the whims and idiosyncrasies of both sides of the wedding, and never stoops to being self-consciously romantic. It’s a love affair cast among the vagaries of Twitter, over protective mothering and culinary and other kinds of bias and is a joy from beginning to end.

  • From Koe’siestes to Kneidlach is written by Chantal Stanfield and directed by Megan Furniss. Featuring music arranged by Paul Choritz, it is performed by Chantal Stanfield at the Auto and General Theatre on the Square in Sandton until March 18. Visit theatreonthesquare.co.za or call 011 883 8606

The man who could fly

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MADNESS of reason: Godfrey Johnson is Vaslav Nijinsky. Photograph courtesy http://www.artslink.co.za

HE SITS AT the piano and caresses it into life, like a god. Like a demon. Like a godly demon or a demonic god. Sometimes he looks maniacal and deformed at other times, like a sprite, who could at any moment leap the constraints of gravity and fly away. This is Godfrey Johnson in his utterly magnificent portrayal of Vaslav Nijinsky, in a piece of theatre that is aflame with energy from the moment he touches the piano keys.

But more than a focus on the biographical complexities of a Polish dancer in Russia who effectively broke and reconstituted what ballet means by the electricity of his movements and his uncanny ability to pause mid-leap, this extraordinary work paints a portrait of an era. It was the Fin de Siècle. The end of the nineteenth century and boundaries were being tested by creative people across the spectrum – and the text is encrusted with musical quotes from Debussy and Ravel, Stravinsky and Diaghilev, from Schoenberg and Berg and more. You get to taste the elegance and the wildness, the conventions and how fragile they were, in the splay of language which reaches and stretches into infinity as it blurs boundaries  and casts choreographic sequences into the ether.

And once you are firmly within the period and its frissons of possibility in a world that was a whirligig of newness and change, you realise something more. More than a celebration of Nijinsky only, this is an essay about the values of the society of the time, where critics held sway and literature had meaning. Proust is present. As is the bitchery between Nijinsky and Anna Pavlova. But more than all of this, it’s an astute and sharply honed exploration of madness and growing old. And in this capacity, it is handled with such a sophisticated understanding of poetry and humour, sadness and cruelty that it leaves you breathless, your pulse racing, wishing for more and more… alas, too quickly it is over.

Godfrey Johnson is not a performer who we see often getting the chance to embrace the whole stage and to stretch his skills in a diversity of mad directions. Most recently in Johannesburg he was the accompanist in Pieter Dirk Uys’s Fifty Shades of Bambi. His immense ability to infuse this wild and impassioned script and so movingly interject the music and the dance, by association, into it, brings an ethos of fire and feathers, of unbottled energy that describes the way in which art can beget madness, and which renders this work utterly haunting and uncannily beautiful.

Vaslav is an imminently pristine piece successfully backed with an audio-visual track and effective and simple lighting choices but the stage does tend to be a little cluttered with wire cords connected to microphones and light, which slightly, but not pervasively, tend to bruise the magic that is cast.

The work is not quite a monodrama – the piano, similarly to how it is handled in Zakes Mda’s The Mother of All Eating – becomes a character in its own right. Not in a literal sense, but in the gritty gorgeousness of the musical puns and drama, sequences and masturbatory musical phrases that populate the work. In giving Debussy’s L’après-midi d’un faune jewel-like haunting prominence, it conjures up associations with the work of South African choreographer Elu, who, too was mesmerised in celebrating the atavistic values where artist meets beast, meets god all in the same intellectual conversation.

  • Vaslav is directed by Lara Bye and written by Karen Jeynes, Godfrey Johnson and Lara Bye, based on the diaries of Vaslav Nijinsky. It features design by Jon Keevy (lighting) and Joanna Evans (set and costume co-ordination) and is performed by Godfrey Johnson at the Auto and General Theatre on the Square in Sandton until February 25. Call 011 883 8606 or visit theatreonthesquare.co.za

Fiona gives Poison wings

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REGRETS, I’ve had a few: Fiona Ramsay plays Stella Goldschlag. Photograph courtesy http://www.artslink.co.za

CAN SOMETHING AS thoroughly written about as the European Holocaust still engage a contemporary audience with a modicum of freshness? Or are we, as a society so limp with Holocaust fatigue in our histories and fictional accounts that another Holocaust play trotting out narratives we know well, has scant impact? This is a question you might ponder, with Blonde Poison. But unequivocally, as you watch the work, the authority Fiona Ramsay exudes across this tale of betrayal and hate, beauty and ugliness, is the ingredient that makes the work tick.

As it opens with the ripe and gravelly German accent of Stella Goldschlag and the story begins to elegantly unfurl, taking us back to Berlin in the 1930s under Janna Ramos-Violante’s expert direction and Ramsay’s utterly tight and masterful portrayal, you’re not quite sure of Stella’s identity. She’s blonde. She’s very German, but she’s too blasé in her condemnation of Jews and her knowledge of Jewish cuisine not to be a Jew herself. This self-assurance, this element of jazzy pizzazz gives her the edge and forces her over it, in the name of self-preservation.

The interface of sound and voice overs and the elements of the set, are tightly woven into the narrative, which casts an understanding of context that is sophisticated as it is descriptive and evocative, never leaning toward gimmick. The texture of the play is strong and the language powerful, but still, as the text teeters around that “parachute moment” in war when morals have to be cast aside in the name of saving your own life, you’re left feeling that you know this story. You know how it will end.

You know there will be a tremendous amount of loss and death on the way. And you know that you’ll feel your emotions pushed and pulled in different directions as anti-Semitism and the murder of Jews comes under the proverbial loupe. And in having this sense of knowledge, you lose an aspect of horror. You’ve been down these paths before. You’ve shouted and cried before. You might not do it again.

In short, the play casts a cardboard cut-out reflection on the morality of history. Ramsay is too sophisticated a performer to slip into this kind of one-dimensionality and she lifts and stretches the work, through her presence in it, way beyond its potential. So, what you get is an extraordinary theatre experience, premised on a fairly ordinary play, but populated with such astute performance and design skill, that any flaws in the predictability of the work become forgivable.

  • Blonde Poison is written by Gail Louw and directed by Janna Ramos-Violante. Featuring design by Alex Farmer (lighting) and Stan Knight (set construction), it is performed by Fiona Ramsay with voice overs by James Alexander, Janna Ramos-Violante and Tim Wells at the Auto and General Theatre on the Square in Sandton until February 4. Call 011 883-8606 or visit theatreonthesquare.co.za

Back to the future with a pot of kak at the end of the rainbow

paybackcurry

WHAT happened to our dreams? Daniel Mpilo Richards will blow you away.

YOU MIGHT THINK the political repartee through which we have collectively been wading for the last little while has been so overused by local comics that nothing’s very funny anymore. You’d be wrong. Mike van Graan’s Pay Back the Curry will dispossess you of any of those ideas, within its first few moments. Tautly cast, beautifully written in tune with the shenaginans in our country and seamlessly performed by the immensely talented Daniel Mpilo Richards, this is South African satire at its most ruthlessly scathing best.

But humour is complex, as director Rob van Vuuren indicates with this highly polished piece of work. Many Van Vuuren fans may know him for his work on Corné and Twakkie and the Most Amazing Show – or as a stand up comic. But there’s another side to this talented theatre personality, which saw plays of the ilk of Brother Number and The Three Little Pigs, really sinister works that meld well-established ideas with their utter corollaries: his successful appearance in serious theatre as well as comic roles makes him the perfect man to direct this piece.

Part stand up comedy, part revue, this one-man-play takes everything from Shakespeare to Sinatra, Somewhere Over the Rainbow to Born Free and casts it relentlessly against the besmirched mirror of our times. The writing is nimble and supremely sophisticated. You might laugh out loud several times, but the repartee will also have you squirming uncomfortably in your seat – and there, indeed, is the rub: occasionally in this intensely focused work you will find your grin frozen on your face in horror, as the focus digresses from the foolishness of Zuma and into the terror of being an African in a context where lesbians are raped, poverty pervades and corruption rules.

Pay Back the Curry doesn’t tell a story in the conventional way, but Richards so smoothly embraces myriad persona changes while he seduces the audience to looking at things they would normally shy from, that the sorry tale of contemporary South Africa gets splayed and flayed for all to see. From Penny Sparrow to Oscar Pistorius, the Guptas to Malema, nothing dodgy, contradictory, shameful or blatantly foolish escapes Van Graan’s intimate and bold speculum.

This play is an important one for this moment – it’s the kind of work that will date because its references are so very specific. Richards’s performance however, won’t: this is an actor who embraces major challenges with acumen and integrity. You can’t draw your eyes from him as he embodies every kind of political voice you can imagine, with all the colour, intelligence and flair necessary. See this play, now, while it’s ripe.

  • Pay Back the Curry is written by Mike van Graan and directed by Rob van Vuuren. It features design by Gantane Kusch (lighting) and is performed by Daniel Mpilo Richards at the Auto & General Theatre on the Square in Sandton until December 15. Call 011 883 8606 or visit theatreonthesquare.co.za