The boy who loved cats

Agony

CHERRY red lips on a bed of snow. Craig Morris is Malcolm Leask. Photograph by Aman Bloom.

PERFECTION. IT’S SOMETHING every parent wants of their child, no matter how dysfunctional they may be in the rest of their lives. Taken to another level, that quest to make your child the best at ballet, at tennis, at maths can become pathological, twisted and poisonous, and it is on this bizarre relationship that Agony is premised. Written with an impeccable sense of texture that enables you to experience the smell of cat food and that of new tennis balls in your mind’s nose, the work is an unforgettable cipher to the sadness of a life stuffed to bilious satiety with other people’s dreams.

It is here, in this dingy flat filled with cats, that we meet Malcolm Leask. He’s alone. Nine months’ rent in arrears hangs over his head, and the crackle of Puccini on his record player fills the vacuum. That, and the cat food. That, and the memories, which bang and twist against one another in a way that will make you panic and weep as you sit there watching this tale of make believe and other people’s filthy secrets and threats unfold.

It’s a story told by several highly skilled professionals – with light and with puppets, with direction and with writing, which might make you think of Irish actor Patrick Magee and how his physical presence embraced the task of Krapp’s Last Tape which was written by Samuel Beckett with his voice in mind. It’s a story naked of gimmicks which evokes that of Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy in transient ways. But this is no paean to discovering one’s sexuality. It’s no celebration of distant youth. It’s a direct, often ruthless portrayal of what happens when all that pressure to excel is turned inside out, exposing instead the flaws of the one who imposed that pressure. It’s about what happens when one runs by chance into secret fantasies of others that smash one’s life into so many smithereens they can’t be put together again. It’s a story about the intimacy of a theatre’s wardrobe and one that sees the dolphins on the shower curtain weep at the bad things they’re made privy to, and it’s one about reclaiming a sense of self in a world broken by other people’s ugly greed, as it is one that glories in the perfection of closing that last clasp above the zip, of a beautiful ball gown.

And at its core is Craig Morris. Dancer, performer, magician with light and space and bodily presence, Morris gives Malcolm Leask the unequivocal dignity he warrants. To the world, this character might be considered tragic. Within Morris’s reach, he’s a hero making his final curtain call in the face of all the sham and drudgery and punishment that has been dished to him. This play will haunt you with its idiosyncrasies as it will pepper your thinking with what ifs.

  • There’s a brief season of this riveting and completely magnificent work – in loving memory of Greg Melvill-Smith – at Centurion Theatre, in the beginning of November, if you have missed the current season.
  • Agony is conceived by Greg Melvill-Smith and Douglas Thistlewhite, written by Iain Paton and directed by Megan Willson. It is performed by Craig Morris and features design by Jenni-lee Crewe (puppets) and Barry Strydom (lighting). It was performed in the Downstairs Theatre as part of the So So1o Festival at Wits University, on September 29 and 30 and October 8. It performs at the Centurion Theatre on November 3 and 4. Visit centurionteater.co.za or call 012-664-7859.
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Lessons from the moon

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DOWN boy! Nhlanhla Mkhwanazi in A Man and a Dog. Photograph by Jan Potgieter (NAF).

THERE’S AN INSTANT in A Man and a Dog in which you fall irrevocably in love with Nhlanhla Mkhwanazi and it happens right at the beginning of this piece. It has something to do with the gusto he injects into his performance and something to do with the utter sense of brazen vulnerability which infuses the characters he sketches as the piece unfolds. Reflecting a careful portrait of a dog with all its canine foibles, from the outset, the work takes you through the terrain of a young Zulu man: it’s a rocky terrain that is pocked with crevices, but you know you are in very safe hands.

A Man and a Dog is a foray into the values of community, and the idiosyncrasy of traditional storytelling and oral narrative. Interwoven into the text – which is about five minutes too long – is a sophisticated reflection on the tough socio-economic challenges that millions of South Africans face, from being raised by grandparents in the city to being rejected by a mother’s husband in the village; challenges that reflect how a world can shatter and shift with the smallest of accidents and challenges that force one’s mother to become a maid to a rich madam, taking her away from you again.

It’s a heartbreaking and true tale peppered with digressions into beliefs and legends, and the boldness with which Mkhwanazi performs conflates beautifully with the way in which the texture of South African society is revealed. It’s never a pretty image, and the work is evolved to contain elements of nuance which angrily reflect on how men have let down women and how women are impossibly burdened with trying to keep it all together.

While the anger in the text towards the end becomes, from time to time, so pervasive that some of the magic at the work’s outset loses some of its spark, the piece is a strong and convincing extrapolation on the underbelly of life in South Africa. It’s mottled with Catch-22s, which sees a young Nhlanhla of eight being tossed in this direction and that, his dog a loyal follower.

But you always hurt the one you love most, as the saying goes, and the work presents with a couple of sharp bends in the flow of narrative: Unexpected ones that will make you weep.

A Man and a Dog is a strong piece of theatre, told with sophistication and directness. But it is Mkhwanazi’s presence on stage that sets it afire.

  • A Man and a Dog is written and directed by Penny Youngleson based on a story told by Nhlanhla Mkhwanazi. It is also performed by Nhlanhla Mkhwanazi and features set and costume design by Penny Youngleson. It is performed in the Amphitheatre as part of the So So1o Festival hosted by Wits University, tonight (October 7) at 7pm. Visit webtickets.co.za or www.wits.ac.za/witstheatre

Lies that bind us

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MY grandfather, myself: Maude Sandham tells her family’s tales. Photograph courtesy Wits.

WHAT DO YOU do when you discover an implacable secret that effectively will cause tectonic shifts in your relation to the world in which you’ve lived up until now? Do you try to secrete it back where you found it? Do you address it and follow up all its innuendos even if it brings you to a point where you’re addressing the dead and don’t know which way is forward? This is part of the rich and beautiful challenge Maude Sandham set herself in honouring the life and secrets of her grandfather, Alan.

And there follows a very richly constructed text written with a strong hand and a sophisticated sense of timing and of clarity. The language is lucid and poignant and runs directly from the heart with a sense of unwavering frankness. The tale is a true one, unfettered with sensationalism or unnecessary detail or fluff, but a wrenching one premised on apartheid’s draconian values and rules. And it is immediate: we meet Maude’s grandfather, a husband and father, a bricklayer employed by the railways, and a man who is stoic in the face of the indignity of being poor and white – but he is utterly bereft of a true sense of belonging because of a secret that would shatter everything he stood for.

Generations succeed generations and children are born, plastering away a past that is understood for its damaging consequences. It’s a tale that resonates with that of the Afrikaans film Vaselinetjie, and one that serves as a potent hit back to generalisations about what skin colour means. Centred on the Johannesburg suburb of Crosby, known for being a repository for poor people who were white, the work is coupled with a set that comprises projected images of old family snaps that have not been digitally cleaned up, and in consequence, it is deeply haunting, hanging on to authenticity with photographic grain. And the optimistic young face of the boy in one of the photographs becomes a cipher for complex levels of betrayal.

The revelation of the secret is the nub of the play and it is evolved in layers of devastating subtlety that give voice to the depth of value in a sense of belonging; a subtlety that remembers the bond of sibling love even through the horrors of separation.

The complicated challenges of telling your own story and being the pivotal character in the unfolding tale is clearly one not lost on Sandham who embraces the text with a fulsome sense of directness, but an engaging humility, sweeping you into the values of self-doubt, classical music and memory.

Criss-crossed by references to the other side of the tracks, the work skirts deftly from cliché, and features a humble armchair and a standing lamp, on a carpet; there’s a small table on which a framed photograph stands, its back to the audience. It’s a play in the internal context of a domestic environment, and yet, in being so, it’s a play that opens its heart to the helter-skelter emotional values central to what being raised in a world where the brutality of racial segregation felt obvious.

Unflinching yet vitally important in saying what it does, it is a play of this nature, crafted with a keen sense of aesthetics and a potent understanding of the magic of storytelling that makes you remember what theatre is all about. This kind of work is the kernel and heart of a festival such as So So1o. It deserves legs all over the country – and publication.

  • Tracks is written by Maude Sandham and Nicola Pilkington. It is performed by Maude Sandham and directed by Nicola Pilkington and is the So So1o commissioned play for 2017. It performs in the Downstairs Theatre, Wits University, until October 8. Visit webtickets.co.za or www.wits.ac.za/witstheatre

The things we’ll do for rain

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CASTING light: Hannah Van Tonder is Ntombizonke. Photograph by Tahlia Govender.

AT FIRST, IT’S difficult to believe or understand that that small incident which corrupts a great sheet of fabric covering the stage, is a human being, and yet as the play unfolds and takes you hither and yon through ritual and ancient tradition, contemporary quasi-urban values and a whole litany of prayer, you get to understand how the gesture and belief, the need for water and the love of the land interface, under the steerage of this one performer.

The work is brought to astonishing life by a concatenation of props which recalls, in a sense, Paul Noko’s earlier work Fruit, in which the props held the nexus of the material. Here, though, there’s more, but there is also less. Ntombizonke is the young woman born of a bride who is not a virgin. It transpires that her virginity becomes the suggested sacrifice that must be made to appease the gods in the name of much-needed rain.

Thus follows a tale of fantasy and religious-evocative gesture, but one bruised by too much enthusiasm — the kind of enthusiasm that packs the work so full of references, that it leaves scant space for the simple act of breathing. As a result, everything is brought into the mix, including envelopes of what seem to be seeds cast among the seating, sugar and water for the audience to dip its collective hands into and a pervading sense of ceremony, much of which becomes a red herring as it is not caught up with clarity in the work’s logic. Indeed, even the title of the work becomes sensational in its sense of taboo.

While Hannah Van Tonder in the title role, represents all the voices of this community, which reach back through generations, sometimes her diction is a casualty to too much speed. She is, however, beautifully choreographed, and the work takes on its own dance momentum, which is almost more compelling than the words themselves.

The value of this play which engages a fantasy ceremonial past cannot, however be understated. As it stands, it feels like a young draft in the development something that warrants growth and maturity.

  • The Cursed Vagina is written by Hannah Van Tonder and Paul Noko and directed by Paul Noko. It features design by Thulisa Phungula (music) and Teresa Phuti Mojela (choreography) and is performed by Hannah Van Tonder, in the Amphitheatre, as part of the So So1o Festival hosted by Wits University. The work performed on October 5 and performs at the Nunnery on October 7. Visit www.wits.ac.za/witstheatre or www.webtickets.co.za

Poppie and her beastly baes

MyKoek

TAKING the cake: Poppie Plaatjies of Khomasdal, Windhoek (Abby Molz). Photograph courtesy Obett Motaung.

A YOUNG WOMAN’S quest for acknowledgement and the kind of basic ordinariness that comes of marriage and babies in a world fraught with abuse, sexual interference, utter loneliness and other irrevocable and intimate disruptions is the focus of this compelling one-hander. But this ain’t no pity party. Poppie Plaatjies comes home from work, where she is a Checkers cashier, discards her high-heeled shoes and her push-up bra in the same dismissive sense that a man would discard his tie – but with more complex manoeuvring, and tells us her tale.

Abby Molz becomes the character with a ferocity that is potent and emotional and the performance she yields is strong and three-dimensional. She offers an insight into Poppie’s life and universe in a way that will make you consider the socioeconomic realities of the Afrikaans-speaking Coloured community of Namibia and South Africa. It’s not dispassionate, but it will leave you with the sense of a whole evolved world, all its grit and filth intact.

The character’s sex is important to the machinations of the story: it features in the title – koek being Afrikaans slang for vagina – and throughout the gestures she makes and the narrative that unfolds. It’s about brothers and lovers, old men and violent men, it’s about her mother’s boyfriends and the way in which she is putty in their hands. But ultimately, it is about the lone voice of a chronically vulnerable young woman fraught with fragile bravado and aware of the complexity it takes to be human in a world which has conspired to break you because you’re a girl and that’s what the culture allows.

Molz’s performance is, however, slightly bruised by her miming in parts of the piece, which reveals a sloppy engagement with the imagined objects at hand. You’re often not sure exactly what she’s doing as she mimes the kitchen chores or pages through a magazine. She irons with a gusto that would break any iron – mimed or not – and she twists things in a way that renders their identity blurred.

The work is scripted with a literalness and a sense of the predictable, but in being so, it comprises a rich and palpable texture that does credit to the medium of the monodrama and the slice of life it promises. Molz’s is certainly a name to watch, in this industry.

  • My Koek is Moeg (My Cake is Tired) is written by Nashilongweshipwe Mushaandja and directed by Obett Motaung. It was performed by Abby Molz on September 29 and October 1 in the Amphitheatre, as part of the So So1o festival, hosted by Wits Theatre. Visit wits.ac.za/witstheatre

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.

Thwarted gems; stones in my shoes

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MY history, my disappoinments: Ameera Patel in Black. Photograph by Jan Potgieter (NAF).

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.