Bathroom of a million thoughts

Helen

ALL alone in the lavatory. Helen (Gina Shmukler) confronts her future and her past. Photograph by Suzy Bernstein.

PICTURE THE SCENARIO. Suddenly, everything that you may have known in your life has been curtailed down to extreme basics. You’ve a toilet and running water. Electricity. Some magazines, maybe. You can hear what is going on, but cannot reach it. Does anyone know that you are there? You are holed in the guest loo of your house, while burglars ransack your possessions. What is going through your head? This is the premise on which Mike van Graan’s Helen of Troyeville rests. Performed by seasoned actress Gina Shmukler, it is the kind of play that will engage and haunt you, not only because of the magnificent performance, but also because of its political crux.

The work is similar in many respects to the premise in Megan Voysey-Braig’s 2008 novel, Till We Can Keep an Animal. Helen is a white woman who has enjoyed the wide range of privileges that living in South Africa for a white person has presented to her. She’s educated, she’s got all the material possessions she could wish for, including the facility of a guest bathroom, in her home, which has become the repository for everything. She’s widowed. Her daughter has children of her own and lives elsewhere. Hers is a comfortable complacency that comes of age in a context of privilege. All her life she’s had a sense of her own agency. She’s felt that she has a role to play in her own decisions. Suddenly all of this is broken.

There are strange men in her house and she has become victim to a hostage situation and what happens next hangs is in the balance. Helen is savvy of her position as a statistic that won’t leave a blip on news feeds, either way. She’s also cognisant of the awkward role of privileged whites in a society beleaguered by poverty, corruption and oppression that traditionally still befalls people who are not white. She was once a “do-gooder” in society, that enthusiastic buyer of informal knick-knacks from beggars at traffic lights, she argues to herself.

But now she isn’t. Disempowered, disenfranchised, cast out of the picture, subject to the will of others. It is this scenario that forces her to rethink everything – life, her place in it, and what it all means. All she has to bounce ideas off is the bathroom mirror and her memories. And there follows a beautiful concatenation of ideas articulated with a texture and a rhythm that is infectious, almost Shakespearean in its flow, volume and width.

By and large, Helen is not a character given to self-pity, but her mood and her perspectives wax and wane with the flow of time, which does seem to stop, as she strains her ears to get an inkling of what may be happening upstairs in her home. To her possessions. And with a gulp of horror, to her dogs.

Focusing on everything from what she has to what she doesn’t have any longer – she gets you to remourn your own losses – as she ponders the sister she lost, the husband, the adult child who never fitted in, the child of a domestic worker, killed in a crime.

It’s a beautiful play, honed with tiny but provocative musical interludes, exceptional skill and Mike van Graan’s characteristic and intense depth of focus, all enclosed in a tight whorl of values – even to the point where Shmukler’s articulation is not always completely audible – on a level, she is, after all, alone and in her bathroom, allowing her thoughts to bounce off the tiled surfaces.

But it’s also a very frightening play, almost obvious in its framework and in the country’s state of mind with regard to this kind of crime. Handled by professionals highly skilled at their craft, from playwright van Graan to Shmukler to relative newcomer Lesedi Job at the directorial helm of the work, it’s a jewel. But Helen won’t leave your heart or your mind as you leave the theatre.

  • Helen of Troyeville is written by Mike van Green and directed by Lesedi Job. It features creative input by Mandla Mtshali (lighting) and is performed by Gina Shmukler in the Wits Downstairs theatre, on July 29 at 18:00 and July 30 at 18:00, as part of the Wits 969 Festival. Visit webtickets or see Wits 969’s facebook page.
  • For an interpretative commentary on this show, by seasoned columnist Geoff Sifrin, read this.
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Thwarted gems; stones in my shoes

black

MY history, my disappoinments: Ameera Patel in Black.

SHE LIES UPSIDE down to gather herself amid a beautiful slew of keyboard jazz, before she begins to perform, and half way through this one-hander, you wish you could too. The nastiness of the venue, in the Wits Amphitheatre plays such a prominent role in stultifying this play, it’s painful to watch.

Based on Carolann Davids’ 2013 novel, The Blacks of South Africa, Black weaves a tale around political betrayal in a South African context. In doing so, it presents a rich array of characters, but spends a long time in getting to the nub of the piece, such a long time, in fact, that your own body begins to complain very aggressively.

When you’re trying to watch a play but cannot help focusing on the comfort of your body, knowing that if you move an inch this way, you will kick the poor hapless sod in front of you in the head, and if you move an inch that way, the feet of the person behind you will be on your shoulder, then you know it’s virtually tickets for the dignity of the creative team you’ve actually paid to watch.

Part of the problem lies possibly in the fact that too many characters are fleshed out in this work. It stretches Ameera Patel’s skills beautifully, but makes the story unnecessarily complex. As the denouement unfolds in all its shocking travesty of a friendship forged between a black man, a Coloured man named Black and a white woman, over a history of a town where diamonds smuggled in the shoes of the grandfather represented the complicated solution out of poverty, as told by the daughter of said Coloured man, you reach the peak of your physical discomfort and the shock effect of the volte face in the scenario is tempered and dulled.

It’s a dreadful pity: with Daniel Geddes on the keyboard and Patel performing literally a whole community, the play has enormous promise on paper. Once you are embroiled in the characterisations and the petty history, offering a family tree sodden with the complexities of being Coloured under apartheid, you realise it is the beauty of the writing and the music which gives it hope. This could have been a gem of a play, given a space with an iota of dignity for the audience. But it isn’t, because of that. Instead, it becomes a difficult chore.

  • Black is adapted by Penny Youngleson from the book Blacks of Cape Town by Carolann Davids; it is directed and designed by Jade Bowers. Featuring creative input by Daniel Geddes (composer), it is performed by Ameera Patel and Daniel Geddes (on keyboard), as part of the Wits 969 Festival, in the Amphitheatre at Wits University. It performs again on July 29 at 19:30. Visit webtickets.co.za or visit Wits 969 on facebook.

 

Wrap your farm in your haversack

Mmupic

KISS of choice. Adam (Joel Leonard) shocks his peers when he puckers up to Gontse (Khumo Baduza). Photograph courtesy Wits 969.

MAKING SENSE OF life, the universe and everything, when you have kicked your sister out of the home for behaviour you’ve deemed debauched, buried your brother due to no fault of yours or his, are so deep in your cups that you cannot tell real life from sinister dreams, and have your ancestral soil in a bag which you carry around you is faced head on by Simon played by Abongile Matyutyu in Mmu, the one production which went to the National Arts Festival, representing Wits’s student body.

A fresh and complex tale that ably sways through different chronologies and circumstances, Mmu is about the soil we drop onto the graves of our loved ones. It’s about our understanding of the muscular connection between identity and land. Featuring several stories which run concurrently, in a soapie gossip-worthiness rubric, it’s told with clear directorial skills, and you’re not left out in the cold as to who belongs to whom or how the narrative fans out.

Pinned to farm novel traditions and their discontents in a contemporary South African world, replete with a history of accidental crime and the alternatives offered by the shebeen, it features Adam (Joel Leonard) as the white pivot around which the drama rotates. Born on the farm, he inherits it when he grows up. The other thing he doesn’t lose in growing up is his love for the children of the farm’s staff with whom he spent his childhood scrabbling in the sand and spinning bottles. Only it’s love of a less platonic nature, now.

Sometimes not completely believably a man with many love interests in mismatched contexts peppered with power dynamics – because he seems too young – or one with the maturity to negotiate a farm selling operation, Leonard forms an able counterpoint to the rest of the cast, but it is Matyutyu in the central role of Samson that populates the work with the energy and the madness that keeps it tight and well-focused.

A stand out performance by Kashifa Sithole in the role of Maria offers an angle which blends poignancy with humour in a deeply empathetic capacity resonant with the ubiquity of church values in a world spotted by obscenity. And besides, you fall in love with the bigness of Maria’s heart.

Further to that, along the lines of Chilahaebolae, performed under the auspices of this university earlier this year, there is a fantastic collaborative energy and give and take between the cast. It lends the work the kind of busy messy soundscape that being in the traffic of the city entails.

While a low point in the plot is the final moment, which falls a little like a lead balloon in its predictability, and begs for more workshopping, it is the developed and powerful texture and narrative that keeps this story potent, vibrant and eminently watchable.

  • Mmu is written by Quinton Manning and directed by Sinenhlanhla Zwane and Luke Reid. It is performed by Khumo Baduza, Joel Leonard, Abongile Matyutyu, Nambitha Tyelbooi, and Kashifa Sithole, in the Nunnery at Wits University, as part of the Wits 969 Festival. It performs again on July 26 at 17:00, July 28 at 13:15 and 18:00, July 29 at 14:00 and July 30 at 14:30. Visit webtickets.co.za or visit Wits 969 on facebook.

 

Incendiary, devastating subtlety

burn

DON’T do it. Mark Tatham (left), Daniel Geddes and a fragile orb.

AS YOU WALK into the theatre for this dance work, there’s a dangerous simmering of possibilities that unsettles you. It has to do with the set, which comprises a mountain of live matches and a lot of inflammable material. You might consider this to be obvious in a work entitled Burn, but it’s so blatant that it is not obvious, balancing possibility with prescience. Your fear, of course, is that the whole theatre will go up in violent flames, with one false move. But what does happen is even more powerful.

Enter Mark Tatham opposite Daniel Geddes and the work takes on a narrative sequence that on one level is about making fire in a storm. On another, it is about the relationship between man and earth, and on yet another, it is about the give and take in any relationship, which is physical and kind as it is furious and destructive.

Tatham and Geddes push the limits of their bodies in contradistinction with the pull of gravity. It’s a work that is about breathing life into the inanimate, and it touches on Frankenstein metaphors as it forces the performers into torsion and tension you will find difficult to get your head around. It’s tightly formed, choreographed with supreme intelligence and structured around hairpin bends in the sequence of events that will hold your focus utterly. But above all else, it is noble in its symmetry and the splaying of possibility. Burn comprises gestures of blowing, metaphors of burning, nuances of destruction and loops of creativity that will make you think of Adam being created by God in a gust of air, as it makes you understand the horror of breathlessness and the magic of life.

In short, it’s a tremendous privilege to see these two dancers, different in their physicality, but utterly focused in the sense of self, creating a landscape of metaphorical and narrative possibilities that not only reaches to the outer threads of environmentalist issues, but also reaches into the very interstices of what it takes to be human. You will only realise how breathless the work makes you when you leave the theatre. A dance work which redefines vulnerable flawlessness. Beautifully.

  • Burn is choreographed and directed by Bailey Snyman and performed by Daniel Geddes and Mark Tatham at the Downstairs Theatre on July 22 and 23, as part of the Wits 969 Festival. Visit webtickets.co.za or visit Wits 969 on facebook.

Five little girls and Mamiwata

Crucifixion

THERE’S SOMETHING INESTIMABLY exciting about a new production that is conceived of, written and brought to life by a group of practitioners that is fast becoming recognised as a repertory group in the classical tradition. Why? Simply because you have seen their work in the past, and know that you’re in safe hands when it comes to exceptionally fine theatre that tweaks the edges just that little bit to keep your focus riveted.

Think of British director Alan Bleasdale and the performers of the ilk of Julie Walters, Robert Lindsay, Lindsay Duncan and David Ross from the mid-1990s, who put together an unrivalled level of collaboration with classics and new work that even made it to South African tv screens, in the form of miniseries Melissa and Jake’s Progress. While you’re thinking of this splendid work, think of this very ensemble, headed in this production by Jovan Muthray and Mlindeli Zondi, who are quietly redefining theatre making in this country, one production at a time: their relentless energy promises the Bleasedale equivalent in South Africa.

But let’s not digress. The Crucifixion of Amagqwirha is a tale woven around the values espoused in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (1953). But it is moored in contemporary South Africa, and amidst a rich concatenation of superstition and self-belief, members of a community who are young and ambitious and others who are old and hold onto tradition, and little girls who are vanishing with no explanation. And there’s also speak of the ghostly presence of Mamiwata, a creature, believed to be half woman, half snake, who patrols deep and quiet waters.

Blending shadow puppetry that engages the sinister in a manner so much more direct and fearsome than actors on a stage can project, the work is beautifully balanced and hard hitting in terms of social foibles and mob mentality.

But it is the performance of Nyakallo Motloung, Sanelisiwe Jobodwana, Campbell Meas and Star Anka that unequivocally capture the fierce yet tender bravado of little girls, while they embrace the elderly and punctuate the broader, scary tale with home truths and real South Africanisms. The work will take you from laughing out loud to shivering in your shoes, at the eerie prospect of the things out there that we cannot fathom.

The energy of the entire ensemble in creating this piece is palpable; there’s a give and take in dialogue and thinking which brings to mind the feisty dynamism in their work, Just Antigone, performed last year. When the four little girls are debating issues, it’s there. When the elders of the community are calling for a witch hunt, it’s there too.

The only downside of this extraordinarily beautifully crafted work is that it enjoyed but one performance at this festival. It deserves legs in many more contexts.

  • The Crucifixion of Amagqwirha is written and designed by the ensemble. It is directed by Jovan Muthray and Mlindeli Zondi and features creative input by Jovan Muthray and Mlindeli Zondi (lighting) and Binnie Christie (puppets and set). It was performed by Star Anka, Sanelisiwe Jobodwana, Campbell Meas and Nyakallo Motloung at the Downstairs Theatre on July 21, as part of the Wits 969 Festival. Visit webtickets.co.za or visit Wits 969 on facebook.

Unchain my dog!

chilahaebolae

DOG on a short chain: Phokobje the jackal (Paul Noko) comes to grips with the limitations imposed on Mpja (Sibusiso Mkhize). Photograph courtesy Wits Theatre.

A MASH-UP OF ancient storytelling techniques with crude humour and cartoonish action, Chilahaebolae is a curious new work featuring a mix of students and professionals that plummets into the annuls of colonialism through allegory and offers a sinister edge into the price that one pays for creature comforts. It’s a tale of a tail cast in the life of jackal and a dog, powered into life with a dynamic choreographing of sound and energy on the part of its chorus, played by the whole cast.

Nourished with layers of personification, the animals in this work are neither beast nor human, but something between the two, and while the humour ranges from utter physical slapstick to some frisky sleight of hand wit, generally, the work is too lacking in nuance to fly. It is also so replete with slo-mo violence, that you feel your jaw begin to yawn of its own volition at yet another sjambok smacking the recalcitrant jackal in the balls: the work is about 20 minutes too long and there are a lot of repeated refrains which compromise rather than strengthen the story at hand.

We meet Phokobje, a wild jackal (Paul Noko), with his twisted loyalties selfishly in place. His mate Mpja (Sibusiso Mkhize) is a dog who bears a different kind of brunt and learns early on about the price one pays for an easy meal and a good place to sleep. Featuring a very feisty cat interpreted by Zimkhitha Mothlabeng, Chilahaebolae is a fantasy world that showcases the one-dimensional role of the butcher, the fashion designer and the circus master in a narrative seething with colonialist values that is as bloodthirsty as it demonstrates a naked thirst for money.

Unequivocally the highlight of this work is the manner in which the cast is woven around the story. Making animal sounds, and serving as features in the set – from fixed poles onto which a chain can be attached, to a tap dispensing water, an electric wall and diverse creatures of the night, the cast of ten becomes interchangeably a beast with its own internal complexities and you find yourself forced to pull your attention from them and back to the main scenario at hand.

The downside of this play is its utter lack of subtlety. Skirting around issues of sinister intent, death, murder and horror, the work is a very shouty one and rather than grabbing audience attention by the scruff of its neck, it tends to degenerate into a volume contest, which does become a bit of an assault, given the limited space of the theatre. You find yourself grabbed by the ears, and not in a good way. This is a pity: the basic premises of this work bring it to the periphery of narratives of the ilk of George Orwell’s Animal Farm or Aesop’s fables, but the articulation leaves it just there.

  • Chilahaebolae is written and directed by Kgafela oa Magogodi assisted by Obett Motaung. It features design by Quinton Manning (choreography), Thando Msibi (costumes) and Ntokozo Ndlovu (set) and is performed by Siphosam Kamwendo, Joel Leonard, Abongile Matyutyu, Sibusiso Mkhize, Zipho Mokoena, Zimkhitha Mothlabeng, Nakesa Ndou, Paul Noko, Nolitha Radebe and Shane Veeran. It represents a collaboration between Wits Theatre, Wits School of the Arts and the Market Theatre and it performs at the Barney Simon Theatre, Market Theatre complex in Newtown until May 28. Visit markettheatre.co.za or call 011 832 1641.

Verwoerd’s Assassin: a bloody tale of brilliant nuance

VerwoerdsAssassinpic

Murder is a sexy topic, in any entertainment sphere. Murder carrying a factual trail of political blood and racial acrimony, moreso, but there’s always the threat, the possibility that the gory denouement or headline might drench the whole work in blood, thus compromising credibility and coating it with sensationalism. In the hands of Renos Spanoudes the story of the murder of Hendrik Verwoerd by Dimitri Tsafendas goes beyond story-telling. It’s a completely astonishing work in which Spanoudes magically becomes Tsafendas, and in doing so lends this much maligned historical figure the dignity and complexity he warrants.

On September 6, 1966, Tsafendas, then employed by Parliament in Cape Town, as a messenger, stabbed the then Prime Minister Verwoerd to death, whilst Parliament was in session. The gesture was the result of years of unbelonging and exile; a lifetime of being relentlessly pushed from pillar to post, with a lot of brutality and bullying thrust at him from all quarters, in between. And Verwoerd, as the author of the racist system which prevented him from a life of normalcy, was the target.

The illegitimate child of a South African Greek man and his Shangaan domestic maid, Tsafendas teetered irrevocably between racial classification. Not light-skinned enough to be considered white nor dark skinned enough to be considered black, he never knew for sure whether he was white or Coloured, and spent his early life in the impossible double bind presented by apartheid. He could not marry because he was considered white when he fell in love with a Coloured woman. He travelled out of the country, and was not permitted to return because of his being this curious anomaly.

This play, embracing everything from a contemplation of dust, to the drowning of Wolraad Woltemade to the voice of a tape worm, debuted in a slightly different form, over ten years ago. It rips into the intestines and heart of the issue, without pulling punches. It’s an essay on the horrors of apartheid brutality, conveyed with deft hands, in the directorial, writing and performance aspects of the story and represents an energised and self-critical but deeply intelligent collaboration.

Spanoudes is a completely wonderful performer, who takes Tsafendas, body and soul and allows him to soar with the kind of authenticity that keeps you completely magnetically transfixed. Neither a chronological account nor a contrived one, this is storytelling at its wisest: it opens to present a bloody and bruised Tsafendas in his jail cell, and expands and contracts around his past and present. In entirety it presents a tale of hardship and humiliation, but ultimately it is the kind of work that leaves your empowered and simmering with a sense of victory.

Yes, Tsafendas lived out his life in horror and sadness, having survived the pricks and kicks of a vindictive Afrikaans policing, and horrifying privations like being installed beneath the gallows, where he was constant aural witness to hangings, for instance, but the work is constructed less as an essay of injustice and more as a nuanced and well-paced paean to the historical figure himself, a man not unintelligent, but plagued by demons.

Featuring a relationship with dark transitions on stage, which cloaks the text in sinister allusions to other presences, be they hidden members of the police, out there to drench the prisoner in water or piss in his tea, or be they the voices in the elderly Greek’s head, ostensibly drawing from the tape worm from which he suffered chronically, this play offers a very satisfying give and take in how this performer winds his presence through the text and the character, creating a work so developed and wise that even the notoriously horrible space of the Amphitheatre falls into irrelevance.

Spanoudes, in a tour-de-force performance, at times reminiscent of Ron Perlman’s unforgettable monk Salvatore, in Jean-Jacques Annaud’s The Name of the Rose (1986) allows your heart and soul to leap and fall and leap again, with the challenges Tsafendas faced in his long and tortuous life. It’s not an easy play to watch; it’s a very important foray into an otherwise poorly explored history.

  • Verwoerd’s Assassin is written by Anton Krueger and based on the direction of Jose Domingos and Lynne Maree. It was performed by Renos Spanoudes, at the Amphitheatre, as part of this year’s Wits-hosted So Solo Festival.