How to hold infinity in the palm of your hand

Luigi Pirandello
TAKE my hand and let me share my humanity: Luigi Pirandello wrote The Man with the Flower in his Mouth in 1922. Photograph by Gianni Ansaldi.

THE MAGIC OF radio theatre, when it is well done, knows no bounds. In the hands of competent theatre makers, the project is unrestrained by the complexities or cost of set or the challenges of lighting or costumes. Armed only with crisply uttered language, delivered with beautiful coherence, the director casts a whole world in the head and sensibilities of a listener. And this is what you get in the Afrikaans translation of Luigi Pirandello’s 1922 play, The man with the flower in his mouth, which debuted on Radio Sonder Grense on November 30 2017, but is available for purchase on podcast.

It’s an extraordinary piece of theatre premised on a simple idea and brought to muscular life with words so beautiful, you will want to eat them, but when you understand the thrust of this short work, you leap back with a realisation that reaches into your very sense of mortality.

Two men (Chris van Niekerk and Anrich Herbst) meet by chance at a bar near a railway station. They’re strangers to one another. The one has missed his train. The other has some things to share. Things that resonate with the idea of being present in the present. Things like the idea of cleaving to the minuscule details and humdrum gestures in the lives of strangers. Things such as the pondering of the substance of the furniture in a good doctor’s waiting room.

Like a character in a Gabriel García Márquez novel, or the implied personage in the William Blake poem, he holds the secret of his mortality hidden, yet close to the surface. He speaks of the joy of boredom and the roots of a lust for life. He has an illness, a tumour – a flower if you will – inside his mouth. Evoking plays of the ilk of Freud’s Last Session, the work deals with the horror and embarrassment of transfiguring illness and imminent death, but it does so in a removed context that forms and mouths and asks questions about the fragility, the preciousness of existence. It’s a work about death, reflecting on it as a logical defining border to life. And it’s a work which offers insight into the values that Pirandello brought to theatre making; gestures which opened the doors to absurdist possibilities and a breaking down and a rebuilding of theatre tradition.

The work in Afrikaans is completely extraordinary – it’s a very fine translation – and within seconds, you’re there woven into the text and surrounded by Pirandello’s black humour cast by a man carrying a very large burden, that is his own, but effectively, the lot of everyman.

It’s a beguilingly simple play that brings humour to the horror of illness, as it gives potency to the simple, complex art of conjuring invisible theatre. On this imaginary stage, presented in the proverbial dark space of radio, it’s a real achievement: an instant Afrikaans classic.

  • Die man met die blom in sy mond (The man with the flower in his mouth) is written by Luigi Pirandello and translated into Afrikaans by FB Van der Merwe. Directed by Christelle Webb-Joubert, and featuring technical input by Bongi Thomas and Evert Snyman, with Kobus Burger as executive producer, drama, for the radio station, it is performed by Anrich Herbst and Chris van Niekerk, and debuted on RSG on November 30 and is available on podcast: rsg.co.za.
  • See this interview with Christelle Webb-Joubert which offers insight into the project’s back story.

Two men and a long road home

journey
IT’S going to be a long drive: Martin McGuinness (Colm Meaney) alongside the Reverend Ian Paisley (Timothy Spall). Photograph courtesy Ster Kinekor.

OCCASIONALLY, A FILM crosses your awareness that makes you remember why films exist in this world. Nick Hamm’s The Journey is unequivocally one of those productions that celebrates the value of beautiful storytelling and the impeccable characterisation of historical figures, while it relentlessly keeps you utterly transfixed in a what-if scenario that blends political history with a foray into human values. It’s the kind of film that will suck you in, body and soul, and one that you will feel bereft when it reaches closure. And the pinnacle of its brilliance is its fictional premise, rather than its reconstruction of period, politics or the wide world.

Northern Ireland was one of the world’s most virulent hot spots since 1968, seething around the schism between Protestant and Catholic values, as it festered over the constitutional status of the area in the United Kingdom and the eruptions of ethno-nationality which saw the deaths of many innocent people in 30 years of unmitigated tit-for-tat violent recriminations. The Reverend Ian Paisley (Timothy Spall) was the firebrand Protestant clergyman who became the face of hardline unionism. Sinn Féin politician Martin McGuinness (Colm Meaney) was his arch rival. Republican champion of the IRA, he was considered an arch-terrorist – depending, of course, on where you sit as you read history.

In 2007, these two men did the unthinkable: They came to terms with their differences and put an end to the internecine violence in the region. What was it that enabled these two sworn enemies, on the cusp of great, righteous anger, to suddenly see eye to eye and to shake hands?  The history books will tell you one thing. They speak of time and cogitation, much renegotiation and hard work.

Director Nick Hamm, looks at this conundrum from a human perspective. Take two men. Leaders and important figures, by all accounts. Strip them of their lackeys and supporters. Frighten them a little in a road with detours and with no clear recourse to help. Pare them down to their basic humanity, and something else can happen.

And of course this is not Hamm casting aspersions at the facts of history. And of course this is not a real-fire solution to intractable politics in the world. The work, since its UK release in 2016, stands amidst a furore of critical opinion, some of which angrily declares that Hamm is hurting history for future generations. It’s a curious concern which reflects more on the success of the credibility of this piece of cinema than on the argument: if this critical position held sway, all fiction that rests lightly or heavily on fact would be rubbished.

Having said that, and as you find yourself magnetised to the premises of the tale, you get to empathise with both men. They’re in a car on the way to Belfast. The weather is wretched and it is the eve of Paisley’s golden wedding anniversary celebrations. He has to make his flight in time. You know how it will end – the proverbial book-ends of the story are firmly and unapologetically in place. But it’s what happens between point A and point B that is the central kernel to the work.

Like the play, Freud’s Last Session, this piece places emphasis on content as well as context and the words matter as much as the performances. Spall – who you may have last seen in the film Mr Turner – reflects the immovability of a man nearing the end of his life. He offers such a beautiful understanding of the persona and physical idiosyncrasies of Paisley that you cannot stop looking at him. The sculptural quality of his head is given emphasis and it sits with irrevocable nobility on his shoulders, which are more often than not hunched away from his travelling partner.

Meaney’s McGuinness is a fantastic visual, intellectual and human foil to Paisley and his vanities: he’s a bit of a jokester, but one firmly focused on his values. He’s more ordinary to behold, smiles more easily, but is no less tough a companion, with a fervent and focused understanding of the fight for freedom central to the ethos of him and his followers .

It’s a tale of attempted manipulation – featuring a very cleverly primed driver in quiet communication with MI5 Harry Patterson (John Hurt), but one in which the universe prevails. Things go wrong. And the two icons reach crisis in a remote forest covered in a forgiving layer of moss, in the presence of a godforsaken church and a dying deer.

It’s a story that resonates with the blood of innocent lives that gets shed in the name of ideology and power. It’s one about the seductive temptation and the possibility of power that the ego is prone to. It’s about an understanding of the Anti-Christ and a reflection of the 10 IRA hunger strikers who died in the 1980s. It’s also about the beauty of the Scottish landscape and the nuance of Irish dialect, of ancient graveyards and stained glass windows paying testament to the agony of martyrs. Above all, it’s a crisp and refined piece of storytelling that will not let you down. It will make you laugh and weep, it will stay with you for good.

  • The Journey is directed by Nick Hamm and features Ian Beattie, Frank Cannon, Stewart David Hawthorne, Freddie Highmore, Michael Hooley, John Hurt, Mark Lambert, Catherine McCormack, Ian McElhinney, Colm Meaney, Aaron Rolph, Kristy Robinson, Timothy Spall, Toby Stephens, Barry Ward and John Wark. It is written by Colin Bateman and features creative input by Stephen Warbeck (music), Greg Gardiner (cinematography), Chris Gill (editing), Olivia Scott-Webb (casting), David Craig (production) and Suzi Battersby, Chris Lyons and Polly McKay (makeup). Release date: October 26 2017.

 

Fine tuned laughter of memory and forgetting

Freuds-Last-Session
BACK to back, they face each other: Sigmund Freud (Graham Hopkins) and CS Lewis (Antony Coleman). Photo courtesy Auto & General Theatre on the Square.

IT TAKES A special balance of intellect and skill, depth of focus and an understanding of subtlety, texture, the shame and dignity of suffering, to say nothing of historical context to take the reins of a play as nuanced and rich as this work, Freud’s Last Session and enable it to seethe with merit and relevance. Alan Swerdlow directing Graham Hopkins opposite Antony Coleman together yield an unutterably fine rendition of a fantasy meeting between an old and dying Sigmund Freud, the Austrian father of psychoanalysis, and a young CS Lewis, then an Oxford professor of literary scholarship, still reeling from the Great War. And their subject at hand? God.

It’s a fictional but imminently feasible dialogue of the ilk of a play such as Hinterland that looked at a meeting between Cecil John Rhodes and Sol Plaatjies, staged at this theatre two years ago, that takes the overlapping time frame of two intellectual giants and asks some pertinent ‘what ifs’. But unlike Hinterland, this work reflects an enormous and detailed affinity with the period as well as the personas. It’s London on the cusp of World War Two. There’s a properness in the behaviour of both men and the way in which the space is decorated as well as in its wireless broadcasts and the palpability of the fear in the ether at the time.

With everything from the beautiful Art Deco radiogram to the Bakelite phone, the reference to Freud’s red chow Jofi and the conviviality of tea in the room containing the notorious psychiatrist’s divan, the work reeks of thoughtful authenticity and direct realism. The only anachronism is three screens bearing projected – and blurred – images of shelved books. It’s not clear why this very two-dimensional understanding of a patently multi-dimensional aspect to the room of a great reader and intellectual was decided on: the set’s use of the Kali statue, for instance, lend the work a particular energy.

Having said that, Hopkins and Coleman embody Freud and Lewis with resonant familiarity. Here are two giants of thought-making coming together to debate and tease apart one of the greatest mysteries of the human species. And they do it with the kind of understated charm that you imagine they would have, had they had the chance.

The quiet dignity of fierce debate conducted by men of great intelligence means that there’s no crass exchange of insults and yet the perspicacity of each man’s position is held with a grave tightness and a relentless conviction. But it’s not only godly things that come under both men’s scrutiny. Illness and terror pervade the conversation. It’s probably in the late 1930s and Freud’s oral cancer is well-advanced. Lewis is shell-shocked from his time in the Great War. But wit is woven into the material, reaching from Freud’s classic jokes to ‘fartist’ humour.

It’s a beautiful piece – an unforgettable one and easily among the strongest pieces of straight theatre in English that this city has seen in a while. It lends a complex and wise mix of the warmth of familiarity to readers and fans of both men’s writing as it paints a graphic portrait of the courage it takes to come to terms with one’s own mortality. Don’t miss this one: it’s a real achievement.

  • Freud’s Last Session is written by Marc St. Germain and directed by Alan Swerdlow. It is designed by Denis Hutchinson and performed by Antony Coleman and Graham Hopkins at Auto & General Theatre on the Square in Sandton until September 16. Visit theatreonthesquare.co.za or call 011 883 8606.
  • Currently also on the boards in Johannesburg is a production of one of CS Lewis’s most well-loved children’s classics, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe.
  • Read a socio-political commentary which grapples with the focus of this play, by seasoned columnist Geoff Sifrin, here.