My African queen

AntonyandCleopatra

HERE is my space: Mark Antony (Ben Kgosimore) with Cleopatra (Sanelisiwe Yekani). Photograph courtesy National Children’s Theatre.

THERE’S NOTHING QUITE like a foray with the world’s most famous illicit lovers, told by young voices to young audiences. It’s like being witness to the passing on of the baton to another generation of theatre makers and it might give you goosebumps, when you see Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra under the directorial hand of Neka da Costa. It’s currently on a programme touring schools, where the work is part of the national syllabus.

When you watch this troupe of performers, you wouldn’t be wrong to think of actors such as British performers Robert Lindsay and Dorothy Tutin, to say nothing of South Africa’s David Dennis and Camilla Waldman, for instance, who earned their stripes in Shakespearean trope as well as everything else. These young South African thespians continue to prove their robustness and versatility in redefining no less than the work of the Bard himself – you’ve seen them on the stage in a range of other capacities in the last couple of years, including contemporary storytelling and Greek tragedy.

The rendition of this work is gently and judiciously cut by Shakespeare specialist Rohan Quince to fit into time-based parameters and it runs just on 90 minutes with no interval. Interjected with a local drum beat, songs of mourning and gladness that reach from a South African heart and a peppering of ululation, it’s a piece which skirts and weaves the notion of Africanness in the ethos of Egyptian queen Cleopatra (Sanelisiwe Yekani) with competence and intrigue, but without feeling forced.

Indeed, Yekani embraces the complexity of Cleopatra with finesse and authority. She’s sly and manipulative, passionate and beautiful and as the central focus to the work, she holds it together with magnificence and utter potency. In short, she’s dangerous. Ben Kgosimore is a superb Mark Antony, the emperor who is her lover, a tough guy who is embroiled in a morass of political marriage, friends and foes. He’s vulnerable yet macho, sophisticated yet impressionable. And this royal couple takes things to the max from their passionate lovemaking and display of anger to their strategising, to their suicides.

In the role of Caesar, Cassius Davids shimmers with a focused performance which is utterly convincing and Campbell Meas in several roles, including Agrippa and Cleopatra’s hand-maiden lends tight focus and articulation to the work. Neo Sibiya, in a range of gender-ambiguous support roles also commands a sense of authority which makes you sit up and look.

Squeezed into a tiny space which is electrified into clean narrative lines with the device of freezing movement, and some highly innovative prop choices, the work is deftly made. There’s a battle scene and a scene of ships at war which will make you feel you’ve skipped the bounds of possibility and are now sitting in the folds of a dramatic fresco.

Having said all of that, the work is bruised by its shoutiness. And yes, while much of the drama necessitates exclamations in bold, not all of it does, and what you might find is something a little similar to how the NCT’s production of Coriolanus two years ago was flawed. The declamatory accents of everyone most of the time tends to collapse a sense of nuance in the dialogue.

It is, however, an immensely strong and invaluable resource for learners all over the country, because there’s nothing quite like seeing the work in flesh and blood – and local, young flesh and blood, at that. And also, because under astute direction, this complicated piece’s story is clearly evident.

  • Antony and Cleopatra is written by William Shakespeare and directed by Néka da Costa. It features design by Sarah Roberts (set and costumes) and Jane Gosnell (lighting) and is performed by Cassius Davis, Ben Kgosimore, Kevin Koopman, Campbell Meas, Sibusiso Mkhize, Neo Sibiya, Megan van Wyk, Carlos Williams and Sanelisiwe Yekani in a season that is touring several schools countrywide, until May 22. It is a project of the National Children’s Theatre. Call 011 484-1584 or visit http://www.nationalchildrenstheatre.org.za
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Hobson’s choice; moral compromise

GreenManFlashing

MY husband, my everything: Happier times with Gabby Anderson (Michelle Douglas) and Aaron Matshoba (Litha Bam). Photograph courtesy Auto and General Theatre on the Square.

“HAVE YOU SEEN Green Man Flashing?” was a statement uttered with urgency everywhere you went in 2004/5. It was a play that rocked South African society’s equilibrium when it first saw light of day. One of the first works from the pen of Mike van Graan, it fitted the idea of a cultural imperative which forced theatre attendance and was premised on the stuff that made dinner conversations meaty. Fourteen years later, does it still have the shock, the verve and the relevance it did then?

Directed again by Malcolm Purkey – it was his directorial debut in 2005 when he took up the position as artistic director of the Market Theatre – this is a work that brings together a number of important theatre cornerstones, which include it being a part of the high school syllabus in this country.

It’s a rippingly well developed story which poses a gut-wrenchingly hard conundrum about rape in our society. If you’re the victim, how willing might you be to allow your case to be split wide open under public scrutiny, particularly if you’ve been given a possible route out to a new life with the idea of making the blemish on the rapist’s reputation disappear? But more than this issue, it engages with layers of truths, trauma upon trauma in the name of political status, and ugly histories that don’t really go away, from either the private or the public context.

Staged at the moment at Auto and General Theatre on the Square in Sandton, the work is clearly articulated and riveting in its narrative energies and replays of sequences to inform and develop the story. Several directorial decisions enhance the work’s potency, but the set is enormously bland and odd casting decisions affect the play’s texture.

Further to that, punctuated with angry anti-apartheid posters, from the 1980s and earlier, the work’s backdrop offers tricks of lighting which do not make sense in the context of the story being told. You find yourself pondering which poster will be arbitrarily highlighted at the end of the next scene, as you have to force yourself back to listen to the dialogue.

And the word ‘listen’ is quite key to this – in fact, it could very easily have been a radio drama. You might, as you watch this work, recall Consider Your Verdict, a courtroom series broadcast in the 1970s on Springbok Radio, featuring legal conundrums tossed in the audience’s ear.

Cast-wise, many of the performances feel wooden; the characters are not feasibly three-dimensional and you find it hard to believe that the central protagonist Gabby Anderson (Michelle Douglas) is indeed the mother of a child. There’s a dispassionate harshness in her performance, which makes you question her love for her seemingly much younger husband Aaron Matshoba (Litha Bam) – with the exception of one key moment, where all resistance crumbles and credibility is fleetingly won.

But we digress: Green Man Flashing is a richly constructed work which presents mixed loyalties, unmitigated corruption and scary political priorities in the face of domestic realities in a fresh and new democratic South Africa. The finest performance in this production is that of Sechaba Morojele who plays Luthando Nyaka, the VIP security guard with a loose tongue and a sticky end. You want to trust him from the moment you see him, but his history and his smarminess prevail.

The work remains fabulously prescient in its blurry ideals of what is moral high ground, and scarily focuses on how political expediency can whitewash almost any heinous crime. It’s about the truths revealed in a court case, and the other truths which remain untold, as it presents and dissects deep layers of hate and distrust forged through apartheid impimpis, and a precarious teetering with sexist values. It’s compelling viewing, where the storyline remains king.

  • Green Man Flashing is written by Mike van Graan and directed by Malcolm Purkey. It features design by Denis Hutchinson (set) and Margo Fleish (costumes), is performed by Litha Bam, David Dennis, Michelle Douglas, Kate Liquorish and Sechaba Morojele until May 12 at the Auto and General Theatre on the Square in Sandton. Call 011 883-8606 or visit http://www.theatreonthesquare.co.za

Life can be such a delightful Drag!

Priscilla

LES Girls: Tick/Mitzi (Daniel Buys), Bernadette (David Dennis) and Adam/Felicia (Phillip Schnetler), giving it shtick.

What happens when three drag queens decide to turn a new page on life, armed with a bus named Priscilla, lots of shoes and an urge to strut their stuff in the Great Australian Outback? The world turns on its heel, glitter and tears characterise the moves and you, in the audience, probably really do have the most fun you can have in a theatre. The stage musical of Priscilla Queen of the Desert is simply as good as it gets.

When you watch the original eponymous film which first saw light of day in 1994, you get a very real sense of the scrappy mismatched wildness that characterises sheer unadulterated camp ramped up to the max. On paper, it might be difficult to imagine how this utterly fabulous film could be translated into a stage production, but you’re in safe hands: the international and local creative teams behind this project have produced something uniquely beautiful and majestic in its visual glossolalia and kaleidoscope of sexual jokes and nuance, replete with technological tricks and surprises all along the way.

The tour de force performance is that of David Dennis playing Bernadette, the character who is undergoing gender reassignment, has a Les Girls history and is nursing a broken heart beneath that spirit of fire and all those wigs. While Mitzi (Daniel Buys) and Felicia (Phillip Schnetler) are in fine form, great eyelashes and performative splendour, when Bernadette’s on stage, she’s where your eyes are. But the hero in the narrative itself is the character of Bob, a redneck with vision and sensitivity, played with true aplomb and sheer grit by James Borthwick. The kernel of the tale of Priscilla is not only about acceptance and the magic of lip syncing your way through life, it’s also about the meaning of love and reflects very astutely on how sex is secondary to what love is about.

But there’s no smarmy soppiness in this brightly coloured essay on the madness and freedom of being able to stand on top of a bus in the middle of a desert and belt your heart out to an aria from La Traviata. It’s Drag with a capital ‘D’, which is about all the vagaries and joys of performing on stage as it challenges gender expectations. By the same token, it doesn’t hold back on the ugly face of homophobia and gay bashing that remains a part of being different in the world.

Generally, a show with a big cast, lots of energy and all the tricks in the make up bag that you can conceive of, is a great hiding place for inferior performances. That doesn’t happen here: Priscilla hides no one, and the ensemble, from the three divas suspended from the sky (Londiwe Dhlomo-Dlamini, Candida Mosoma and Thembeka Mnguni) to the yellow dragons and acid green cream cakes and shocking pink paintbrushes all dancing in sequence, to the cameo which features the child of Mitzi, are utterly fabulous – the choreography is tight and on form, and the costumes are unbelievable in their wildness and wisdom, appropriately grotesque luridness, speedy changes and sense of freedom.

With a sound track that melds everything from the Village People to Tina Turner, Cindy Lauper to Kylie Minogue, Priscilla’s sound is pastiche with a tone of saccharine and it celebrates difference with abandon. It’s a show that will continue reverberating in your heart for months.

  • Priscilla Queen of the Desert: the Musical is based on the book by Stephan Elliott (who also wrote the original motion picture) and Allan Scott and directed and developed for the stage by Simon Phillips. Anton Luitingh is the resident director. It features designed by Brian Thomson (bus concept and set), Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner (costumes), Nicky Schlieper and Per Hörding (lighting), Michael Waters and Mark Malherbe (sound), Cassie Hanlon (make up), Bryan Schimmel (music director), Ross Coleman, Andrew Hallsworth and Duane Alexander (choreography) and Stephen Murphy and Charlie Hull (orchestration, musical arrangement and supervision). It is performed by James Borthwick, Donae Brazer, Daniel Buys, Taryn-Lee Buys, David Dennis, Londiwe Dhlomo-Dlamini, Darius Engelbrecht, Ryan Flynn, Michael Fullard, Zane Gillion, Nadine Grobbelaar, Craig Hawks, Chantal Herman, Samuel Hyde, Dirk Joubert, Thembeka Mnguni, Candida Mosoma, Tshepo Ncokoane, Henk Opperman, Jonathan Raath, Phillip Schnetler, Logan Timbre,  Candice van Litsenborgh and Michael William Wallace. The child cast comprises Jack Fokkens, Jagger Vosloo and Alexander Wallace (Cape Town) and Ashton Mervis, Michael Fry and Levi Maron (Johannesburg). And the orchestra under Bryan Schimmel comprises Kevin Kraak (keyboard), Kuba Silkiewicz (guitars), Luca de Bellis (drums), Roger Hobbs (bass), Camron Andrews (reeds), Lorenzo Blignault (trumpet/flugelhorn), Nick Green (trombone), Zbigniew Kobak (trombone) and Pieter Ross (standby keyboard). It performs at Teatro, Montecasino Fourways until June 18. Visit www.showtime.co.za