Startled by Coriolanus

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#MartiusMustFall! A young cast tells the dense tragedy of Coriolanus. Photograph courtesy reviewonline.co.za

IT’S RATHER AN odd kind of name to be trending around senior high school students at the moment. Coriolanus is arguably one of Shakespeare’s densest and more difficult works. With no witches or ghosts, monsters or weather patterns to give it verve, it’s a tragedy of political violence and class struggle which resonates with the political morals of our own times, and it’s also this year’s and next year’s English matric setwork for South African schools affiliated to the Independent Examinations Board. This production casts the National Children’s Theatre in a previously unexplored framework: that of the teenaged audience.

And all these elements are to the theatre and the production team’s credit. The pared-down set, and cleverly adaptable costume changes lend starkness and boldness to this rendition. The young enthusiastic cast and their dry-mouthed passion in articulating the tale is infectious and your focus is caught and held very quickly. The play, featuring some astonishing fight choreography, is geared to adapt easily to a range of different venues and to travel easily, but, it seems, having seen the work at the intimate theatre of the NCT in Parktown, the cast has not been adequately prepped in modulating their volume in different spaces.

While it may be all fun and dandy to bang sticks on the floor of a high school stage and shout with great volubility into the faces of youngsters who are studying the work, doing something similar to adult audiences in a tiny space hurts not only the play’s clarity, but the audience’s ability to engage the material. The cajoling of a mob could have been as effective – if not more sinister – had it been conducted in a whisper, in this venue, for instance.

It’s a curious thing: a porous reflection on the theatre’s fourth wall is understood to loosen up the material and render it more casual but offer a more developed understanding of the characters being performed, because responding to audience members effectively changes the nub and current of the performance. Each night. Noble goals, indeed. But it makes some rather astonishing assumptions on the robustness of said audience members. There’s a give and take that happens in this context which puts you, in the audience, who has paid for your ticket, at a disadvantage. This feels wrong: Don’t shout into my face. Move me with your conviction and your skill and your supreme understanding of what you are doing.

The play is sensibly cut to a workable duration of 90 minutes or so. But Coriolanus is not marketed as one of Shakespeare’s more ‘sexy’ works, for a range of reasons. The material, dealing with everything from the ethics of honouring your parents to remaining true to what you believe in, is replete with nuance that takes it back to ancient Rome where it is set. It is dense with cultural references and this young cast doesn’t play a strong role in clarifying the work’s narrative spine. Pieces like Just Antigone and (After) The Flies, for instance, meshed complex historical works with a contemporary understanding, as well as audience engagement, without compromising the material or the focus. But in spite of some hashtag-evocative chants throughout the work, Coriolanus doesn’t offer you any of that loose, wise astuteness, and you leave the work not really entertained or even informed but still startled.

Having said all of that, the difficulty of the initiative must be taken into account. This is a tremendously talented group of creative professionals. Their articulation of Shakespeare’s words is uncompromised and beautiful and their interaction onstage is sophisticated and bold. It’s just their friendliness to an audience that needs more sharpening.

  • Coriolanus by William Shakespeare is co-directed by Rohan Quince and Nicola Pilkington. It features design by Sarah Roberts (costume and set), Jane Gosnell (lighting), Stan Knight (set construction) and Ryan Dittman (combat choreographer). It is performed by Cassius Davids, Emma Delius, William Harding, Maxx Moticoe, Emilie Owen, Thapelo Sebogodi, Carlos Williams and Sanelisiwe Yekani, and is performing a travelling season under the auspices of the National Children’s Theatre, which will be touring to high schools nationally. Call 011 484 1584 or visit nationalchildrenstheatre.org.za
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Stiff challenges well met in Heidi

The Alm-Uncle (Grant Towers) and Heidi (Megan Rigby). Photograph courtesy National Children's Theatre.

The Alm-Uncle (Grant Towers) and Heidi (Megan Rigby). Photograph courtesy National Children’s Theatre.

Children’s theatre has the license to take the idea of soppy and stretch it to biblical proportions, which enables adults and children alike in the audience to cry with empathetic abandon, as the characters can declare love for one another with the kind of fierce naïve sentimentality that on a grown-up stage would be laughed out the door on cynical tide.

This happens gloriously in the National Children’s Theatre’s latest production, Heidi in a stage adaptation by Francois Theron. Written in 1880 by Johanna Spyri, the story of the girl from the Alps has been loved by generations of young readers – it was screened on South African TV from 1979, in the form of a Japanese anime series – and is understood to be by far the most popular Swiss piece of literature ever published, but a closer look at it reveals a harsh tale coloured with cruelty and disappointment and the nuances of class in 19th century Europe.

Heidi – or Adelheid, as she is more formally named in smart Swiss society – (Megan Rigby) is a hapless child. Orphaned as a toddler, she is raised by her aunt Dete, who is a governess (Emilie Owen), until she’s about five. And then a job prospect teeters the severe woman into dropping her young niece into the context of her uncle, a man who lives in the Alps with only the goats and the landscape as succour (Grant Towers). The uncle, a big, bearded man has a reputation for being scary, one that he honours with aplomb, treasuring his solitude, as he does.

No sooner is the little girl settled in the magnificent Alps, where she gets to laugh and play and imbibe the air and goats’ milk alongside goatherd Peter (Dale Scheepers), to say nothing of exposing a secret part of her grandfather’s heart, a situation under the stern eye of aunt Dete develops for her: to be the companion to a young wheelchair-bound girl, Clara (Caitlin Salgado), in the posh city of Frankfurt, and once again, the child has to undergo an emotional volte face to confront a whole new world and figure out where she fits into all of it.

While the work is coloured by stereotypes – all the governesses are merciless to the point of sadism – the narrative is conveyed with an authoritative directorial pen. The complexity of the tale is handled with wisdom and an intimate knowledge of the theatre’s audience: whilst it grapples with difficult abstract concepts like death and love, immorality and class discrepancy, it does so adeptly, offering the story in clean lines and balancing it with musical forays, which sparkle with sincerity, but never overbalance into too much schmaltz.

Choreographically and musically, this is a large work, which belies, but doesn’t undermine the theatre’s tiny space. The gestures are wide and generous, the songs sung with a bigness of force and the dancing is celebratory: half close your eyes and you can imagine it all happening on a grander stage.

And challenges of the tale itself aside, once again, the theatre presents a delicious young cast headed by Megan Rigby in the eponymous role opposite Grant Towers as the uncle with a secret inner life. The casting of these two newcomers to South African theatre is absolutely impeccable and both rise to the occasion, articulating the bold emotions, yet three-dimensional sense of spirit of both fairly complicated characters with conviction and intelligence.

  • Heidi, written by Johanna Spyri in 1880, is adapted and directed by Francois Theron. It is performed by Daniel Fisher, Jana Louw, Venolia Manale, Emilie Owen, Megan Rigby, Caitlin Salgado, Dale Scheepers and Grant Towers, and designed by Graham Brown and Stan Knight (set); Rowan Bakker (musical supervisor); Nicol Sheraton (choreography); and Jane Gosnell (lighting), and performs at the National Children’s Theatre, Parktown until April 12: 011 484 1584.