Unstoppable tale for six


BROKEN family with a tale to tell. From left, David Butler, Lebogang Inno, Sandi Schultz and Chantal Stanfield. Photograph courtesy artslink.co.za

HOW BEST DO you tell a story sullied and broken by trauma? Do you blurt it all out in one brutal shriek? Or do you give it context and framework? Do you make it circuitous?  And funny?  Joseph Heller did it. Alan Bleasdale did it. As did Luigi Pirandello. Magicked into contemporary Johannesburg relevance by director Sibusiso Mamba, Six Characters in Search of an Author is a play that begins as you step into the theatre foyer, and it will sweep you away on a journey tinctured and moulded by the philosophical constructs behind characters, actors, ghosts and a story that demands to be heard, but begs not to be told.

The woman mopping the foyer floor minutes before the doors to the theatre opened, got a loud and public scolding by an usher, as he checked audience tickets, officiously, a worried expression on his face. People got twitchy. “Should we go home?” they pondered. “What is the Market Theatre coming to?” they thought.

The doors opened and the same seemingly unrehearsed, seemingly haphazard approach of the performers filtered through, with snippets of music cast from an upright piano, a dog older than God in a car in the parking lot and a general sense of incompletion. Not quite sure how to respond, the audience, roughly respectfully, laughed politely along with the flowing sense of panic about a lack of funding, Brexit, rough and desperate read-throughs, and over dramatised gestures. It really did feel unready. And it was precisely the kind of tricky manipulation of the very mechanisms of theatre that Pirandello used as a foil to his work in 1921.

This astonishingly fine cast, with an exceptional mix of theatre veterans such as Desmond Dube, David Butler and Kate Normington, and relative newcomers and faces from tv, such as Sewende Laan’s Chantal Stanfield and Binnerlanders‘s Sandi Schultz hold this potentially catastrophic piece with the kind of tight steerage and sophisticated authority that really finely honed clowns are capable of. While you might not be able to predict the trajectory of this utterly beautiful piece, you know that you are in safe hands.

With some remarkable costume and set decisions that feature characters who are dead yet present, and others who are trapped in the horror of their own self-fulfilling tale of domestic tragedy, the work is a monster of a piece that takes you all over the place, and gives you everything from snippets of Skeem Saam to bits of Hamlet. In bowing with great respect to the European traditions of Pirandello, and with great humour to the dramatic gestures that punctuated certain theatre traditions, the work develops a powerful momentum maybe twenty minutes in, that prevents you from breathing too loud.

Wise interfolding of Pirandello’s text with asides from the contemporary context, this tale of almost incest and exploitation through several marriages and much sad and hard feeling, offers an overriding sensitive pondering of how the construct of theatre matters to you, a person in the world. It will entertain you completely. And it will haunt you.

  • Six Characters in Search of an Author is written by Luigi Pirandello and adapted and directed by Sibusiso Mamba assisted by incubate Mxolisi Masilela. It features design by Thapelo Mokgosi (lighting), Karabo Legoabe (set) assisted by incubate Nthabiseng Malaka, Nthabiseng Makone (costume) assisted by incubate Gift Nwokorie, and Disney Nonyane (sound). It is performed by David Butler, Desmond Dube, Lebogang Inno, Tebogo Konopi, Rebecca Busi Letwaba, Alick Magemane-Mdlongwa, Phumi Mncayi, Dimpho More, Kate Normington, Gontse Ntshegang, Sandi Schultz, Anele Situlweni and Chantal Stanfield and performs in the Mannie Manim Theatre, Market Theatre complex, Newtown, until July 24. Call 0118321641 or visit markettheatre.co.za

Look for the love in the Bram Fischer Waltz

David Butler is Bram Fischer. Photograph by Ruphin Coudyzer.

David Butler is Bram Fischer. Photograph by Ruphin Coudyzer.

More than anything, this monologue celebrating Bram Fischer, arguably one of South Africa’s more curious and interesting characters, is a love story. The unabashed love between Bram and Molly Fischer is the aperture in this tight bricks and mortar tale of the apartheid regime’s cruel spite and malice towards a turncoat; it is this love that allows you to see the heart of the character and the performer in a way so compelling that the threat of text heaviness of the rest of the work shimmies into place.

The brash honesty in David Butler’s performance is completely disarming. Arguably one of South Africa’s most dignified and empathetic performers who has embraced Herman Charles Bosman’s stories as he has mastered the difficult craft of monodrama, Butler is always a performer worth watching. He becomes Bram Fischer, in his dusky shirt and trousers, with his heavily rimmed spectacles, engaging with the indignity and sadness of being imprisoned and the cruelty and terror of apartheid.

The language is gritty and alive in its construction and embrace of nostalgia, from the manner in which Fischer celebrates the stars to how he expresses his love for his Molly. The denouement of the tale happens in the third quarter of the work, which sees the accidental death of Molly, and heralds the dizzying vortex into which Fischer’s sense of self stumbled from that point.

The historical realities of Fischer’s life are well documented. The heroic status of this Boer pimpernel remains a sore point in the litany of Afrikaner values, pointing at his demise from cancer and the cruel decision of the government to not allow even his cremated remains to be kept by his two surviving daughters, and yet, yet the character, under the pen of Kalmer and the performance of Butler attains a sexiness that comes of authenticity and credibility. This is a real man who suffered real torment but who was, like Nelson Mandela, prepared to die for the anti-racist values he espoused.

While the work itself is riddled with too many stage-darkening transitions and there are elements of the set – by way of miniature cages – that are not engaged with at all, there’s a simplicity of form to the work which is quite beautiful. Everything is, however, held together with the gutturality and the heart of Butler’s rendition. In the hands of a lesser performer, the nubs of the tale, the love and the humanity may get overshadowed by the political narrative.

  • The Bram Fischer Waltz is written and by Harry Kalmer, and performed by David Butler, with the voices of Amanda Strydom and James Whyle. It is designed by Butler and Kalmer (lighting) and Larry le Roux (set) and performs at the Barney Simon Theatre, Market Theatre complex, until October 15. (011)832-1641.