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

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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
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Big fish, conjured

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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.