Pandora’s suitcase

The Suitcase 2017

ALL we need is each other: Timi (Siyabonga Thwala) and Namhla (Masasa Lindiwe Mbangeni). Photograph by Iris Dawn Parker, courtesy of the Market Theatre.

WHEN A WORK touches you so deeply that elements in its direction have become part of how you see and speak about the world, you know that something’s been done right. In 2006, James Ngcobo directed the stage version of Es’kia Mphahlele’s tragic and beautiful tale The Suitcase. It’s back, returning from a recent United Kingdom tour, and while there are some radical changes to the form of the work, armed with many of the same performers and almost the same set, its magic is still mostly there.

It’s a tale of love and horror in a time of poverty which sees Timi Ngobese (Siyabonga Thwala) and his young wife Namhla (Masasa Lindiwe Mbangeni) coming to the big city to start a life together. It’s the 1950s and they come from a rural village. She’s Xhosa. He’s Zulu. And in the face of frowns from their respective families, they are rich with their love for one another. This love is so young and so real that it makes you weep: you instinctively know the universe is nestling sinister plots in the wings for them.

In the details of this work, love exudes from the way in which its fibre and texture are crafted. From the lambrequins — ornamental shelf hangings lending an irrevocable domesticity to otherwise bare spaces — that define the set and offer platform to the paper birds, to the manner in which the set enfolds a story within a story, that echoes the way in which the words fold into one another, the piece is eminently satisfying to watch. Also bucking the trend of forcing piped music into a production, the work features Bheki Khoza playing the guitar on stage, which complements the work with sophistication and delicacy.

Along the same kind of lines, the work also features three young women – Nokukhanya Dlamini, Gugulethu Shezi and Ndoh Dlamini – who bring interregna of song into the story. And this is a decision less sophisticated and delicate: Their sung interjections are highly amplified, and while the trio is generally in fine form and mostly harmonises well, the boldness of their presence tends to shove the emotional impact of the story down your throat rather vehemently. It no longer allows the events to simmer in a context of devastating subtlety as they did in the earlier version of the play.

Featuring quirky nuances, lovely stylisations of movement and sound, it’s a tale of bright shiny and naïve optimism and crushing, relentless disappointment as it is a heartbreaking cipher of the cruelty of apartheid values that shunned the black man from any modicum of hope.

Mbangeni absolutely glows in the mix of endearing naïveté and mature, scarred resignation she presents to the work. She performs opposite Thwala who reprised this role over ten years ago, and together they offer an energy of domesticity and love that is sweet and palpable. Desmond Dube and John Lata reflect the community surrounding the young Ngobesis, bringing humour and poignancy, the flavour of poverty and the bitter jokes that come of its challenges into the mix.

Not flawless, but deeply iconic as a piece of South African storytelling, this is a valuable, compelling theatre experience.

  • The Suitcase is written by Es’kia Mphahlele and adapted and directed by James Ngcobo. It features creative input by Wesley France (lighting), Nadya Cohen (set) and Nthabiseng Makone (costumes), and is performed by Ndoh Dlamini, Nokukhanya Dlamini, Desmond Dube, John Lata, Masasa Lindiwe Mbangeni, Gugulethu Shezi and Siyabonga Thwala, with Bheki Khoza on guitar, at the John Kani Theatre, Market Theatre complex until November 26. Visit markettheatre.co.za or call 011 832 1641.
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Lost in the Wood

robinhood

DIRECTIONLESS and forlorn: Little John (Phumci Mncayi) and Friar Tuck (Desmond Dube), doing the traffic light jive in their bid to rob from the rich and give to the poor. Photograph by Mariola Biela.

INDEED, THE SILLY season is already upon us. But silly is as silly does and when the volume and strobes in an auditorium are ramped up to deafen and blind an audience in order to compensate for a messy hodge-podge of a story featuring political- and market-related humour that is so tired you have to be seriously drunk to laugh, you can only despair. Robin Hood and the Babes in the Wood the city’s highly punted pantomime for the year, takes silly to a new level of incompetence. It features so much self-indulgent clap-trap in its narrative flow, choice of music and ribaldry that not only does the story lose its way spectacularly, but it is also crushed under the weight of too many agendas.

With stand-out performances by Graham Hopkins as the evil villain Norman the Nasty Sheriff of Nottingham; Kate Normington in the role of an Irish geriatric fairy called Silly Sylviana, the Spirit of the Forest; Desmond Dube as Friar Tuck and the very talented Dale Scheepers as one of the hapless ‘babes in the wood’, Tokkel; it is not the performers or the choreographers who can be condemned. They do their best. They’re immensely skilled. But they’re working in a context which so lacks narrative definition that it feels as though anything goes. The work is an unsuccessful mashing together of a bunch of tales surrounding Robin Hood, the medieval activist who stole from the rich and gave to the poor, and that of Hansel and Gretel, two poor children condemned by a nasty step mother to die in the forest. Both these central classics are pinned to poverty, patronage politics and corruption rhetoric specific to the time in which we live, only it’s not funny.

Sadly the political shenanigans of the time have been so widely laughed at, analysed, criticised and condemned by all and sundry that the humour has begun to pall. And in this production in particular, it’s as subtle and nuanced as a sledge-hammer hitting a fly.

Where the two tales meet and why they’re pushed together is a mystery. Pantomime is traditionally such a complex and bawdy bit of burlesque to begin with, it’s not clear why this production needed even more frills than normal by taking on two stories at once.

The requisite over the top drag character is played by LJ Urbani with immensely tragic make-up, in the role of the wicked step-mother, but the moments of genuine hilarity are few and far between. If you can look beyond the arbitrary and irresponsible use of strobes, and forget that the sound is at such a decibel level that you feel the vibration in your teeth, there’s still not much left, particularly for the littlies. When this production is not messily presented in its narrative, it’s seriously scary or crudely cruel. Thus the entertainment value is substituted for a kind of sensory assault. If that’s your thing, you might love it. When audiences of large scale musicals shout hysterically on cue at every drum roll, it’s either because they think they should, or because they’re crying about the money they’ve just spent so badly. In terms of big shows fitting the family entertainment bill for the end of year treat, this one certainly doesn’t cut it.

  • Robin Hood and the Babes in the Wood is written and directed by Janice Honeyman. Featuring design by Graham McLusky (lighting), Rowan Bakker (musical director), Richard Smith (sound), Bronwyn Lovegrove (costume co-ordinator), Nicol Sheraton (choreographer), it is performed by Teekay Baloyi, Izak Davel, Desmond Dube, Darius Engelbrecht, Clive Gilson, Nurit Graff, Kyra Green, Graham Hopkins, Dirk Joubert, Dolly Louw, Yamikani Mahaka-Phiri, Noni Mkhonto, Phumi Mncayi, Candida Mosoma, Bongi Mthombeni, Tshepo Ncokoane, Kate Normington, Carmen Pretorius, Dale Scheepers, LJ Urbani, Natasha Van Der Merwe, Maryanne Van Eyssen and Jaco Van Rensburg. It features a live band under the baton of Rowan Bakker and Drew Rienstra on keyboards, comprised Deon Kruger (guitar), Kuba Silkiewicz (bass) and PW Van Der Walt (drums), and is at the Nelson Mandela Theatre, Joburg Theatre complex in Braamfontein, until December 30. Call 0861 670 670 or visit joburgtheatre.com

Unstoppable tale for six

sixcharacters

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

I see you: the voice of a new generation

'I See You' Play by Mongiwekhaya performed at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs, London, UK

Hey Wena! Buthelezi (Desmond Dube) takes on Ben (Bayo Gbadamosi). Photograph by Alastair Muir.

How well do you know your own history? Would you be able to talk to it under scary scrutiny by a cop with a past replete with anger? With this premise, playwright Mongiwekhaya makes his debut in a beautifully constructed piece of theatre which feels like the opening lines of a brand new chapter in South African narrative.

Ben (Bayo Gbadamosi) is a 19-year-old law student at Wits University. He’s armed with the casual high-spiritedness of youth, his virginity and a personal history which took him out of the South African context as a very young child. Skinn (Jordan Baker) is about the same age. Does she turn tricks or is she just a good-time girl? We don’t get to find out.

Their rendezvous is intruded upon by members of the South African police who are on a mission, and Ben and Skinn just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, forcing Ben into a terrifying merry-go-round of mockery, brutality and cultural identity. This hard-edged piece of work cuts deep into an understanding of contemporary politics, fears and vulnerabilities. It features a smooth cleavage between performance and script – the work is well-written, the characters, satisfyingly three-dimensional and the narrative boldly constructed.

Similar in many respects to Steven Sidley and Kate Sidley’s recently staged play Shape, I See You offers potent and important insight into what it means to be a young South African right now, 22 years after democracy and Mongiwekhaya takes no prisoners in flaying open the issues of black privilege as he looks on abandoned roots and history of resentment.

It’s a high octane, visually minimal set, which is dotted with choreographic moments and a dj, that from the outset feels like a novelty that doesn’t really contribute to the work. Looking beyond a red herring of a prologue which sets a night club scene, you will find extremely fine performances by Desmond Dube as Buthelezi as well as Gbadamosi and Jordan, as you will find an engagement with the audience and the space and the narrative which belies the youth of the performers.

While the cast does seem unnecessarily large, there’s a maturity in the unpacking of this fresh young tale that offers hope to the theatre industry going forward. This is the voice of theatre’s future: it’s bold, it’s bare and it knows where it is going.

  • Read further social commentary on I See You here.
  • I See You is written by Mongiwekhaya and directed by Noma Dumezweni. It features design by Soutra Gilmour (set); Richard Howell (lighting); Luyanda Sidiya (movement); and Giles Thomas (sound) and it is performed by Jordan Baker, Desmond Dube, Bayo Gbadamosi, Austin Hardiman, Sibusiso Mamba, Amaka Okafor and Lunga Radebe. The work is a collaboration between the Market Theatre and the Royal Court Theatre in London, and it performs at the Laager Theatre, Market Theatre Complex in Newtown until May 1. Call 0118321641 or visit co.za