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.

 

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Quintessential Giselle in Masilo’s hands

Giselle

MET his match: Albrecht (Kyle Rossouw) feels the wrath of the flywhisk of Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis (Llewellyn Mnguni). Photograph by John Hogg

IF YOU’VE EVER questioned the true value of the arts in this world, you need to see Dada Masilo’s Giselle. Summarily, and without hesitation it will strip you of any doubt. You might emerge crying from the experience and emotionally shattered, but you will be sure that what you just experienced was unadulterated magic and relentlessly transformative.

The ballet of Giselle is one of dance’s anomalies. It was composed by Adolphe Adams, today a relatively unknown composer, in 1841, and it rose to balletic prominence as one of the genre’s unequivocal commercial classics. It boasts the collaborative input of the headline creatives of the day, in Théophile Gautier, Heinrich Heine and Victor Hugo. In truth, and in structure, it’s not that different from various other romantic tales of the time: peasant girl meets boy. They fall in love. He’s the wrong boy, according to her mom. He finds another. She goes mad with grief and dies of a broken heart. And then she becomes a virgin demon in hell, where she gets to persecute the boy who jilted her. With various variations on the theme, it’s a well-trod story.

What Dada Masilo does with it is something completely extraordinary. For one thing, she vigorously strips it of blandness, with the emotional content of the work stitched boldly into its choreography, it is akin to what Yael Farber has done with Ibsen’s Miss Julie in her Mies Julie (2012), or what Mark Dornford-May did with Bizet’s Carmen in his U-Carmen eKhayelitsha (2005). Indeed, there are a couple of moments in the work’s first half in which you expect the dancers to roll out a Carmen sequence or even to roll a cigarette or two: there’s a kind of African folksy level of nuance that filters through the material, seamlessly.

But as it unfolds, this work takes on its own tough and exquisite character, not stinting on emotional input. Masilo takes the lead, and unlike some of the works that she’s performed and choreographed over the last couple of years, it sees her enfolded in its intricacies with integrity and thoughtfulness: her skill as a dancer and as a character are showcased impeccably. Indeed: this is the Dada Masilo that audiences fell in love with nearly 10 years ago. She’s alive with an electricity that makes you want to put brakes on your ability to watch: the dancing is lithe and virile; it’s rapid and fierce and it will leave you completely breathless.

And while Masilo still has that ability to grab your eye and not let it go, even if she is dancing a routine with the company, it’s an exceptionally fine company, featuring dancers such as Liyabuya Gongo and Kyle Rossouw, to name but a few, who will make you sit up and look with great care: you might not have paid a lot of attention to these dancers in the past, thinking them generally a competent part of ensemble work. Dada Masilo’s Giselle is a coming of age work, not only for Masilo, but for the whole company.

The work features simple and devastatingly effective costume design and a clear sense of colour coordination, placing the Wilis – the evil demons from the underworld – in a deep red which is not gender specific as it is infused with traditional African associations. It also is underpinned by a piece of music by Philip Miller that lends even the lightest most ostensibly romantic moments deeply sinister undertones that cannot be ignored. Featuring a wide range of sound and a multitude of styles of vibration and concatenation, it’s a score which coheres with an utter perfection with the work on stage, allowing the dancers themselves to vocalise particular moments which exacerbate the sense of local colour, as they reflect the nuances in the story beautifully.

The only flaw in the work is the choice of William Kentridge’s drawings as a projected backdrop. They’re magnificent drawings, but once the performers appear on stage, you cannot actually see the drawings: and when you do manage, with great difficulty, to steal your eyes away from the dancers to look upon these charcoal landscapes, the image has changed: there’s a lack of coherence here – why these images are used and why they change in a sequence is not clear. Thankfully, in the second act, which takes place in hell, there are no arbitrary landscapes that might threaten your focus on the dancers.

This work is unequivocally the crowning glory of Masilo’s career so far. It will, in the next few months, continue taking her around the world, including to La Biennale de la Dance de Lyon in France, and Sadler’s Wells in London, next year: if you are intending to go to Grahamstown this year for the National Arts Festival, this piece alone is sufficient impetus to justify the cost, the difficulties of being in the Eastern Cape in winter, and the vagaries of the road trip. If you aren’t but are in Johannesburg in late July: this is one of the unequivocal headlines of the 969 Festival.

  • Dada Masilo’s Giselle is choreographed by Dada Masilo and features creative input by William Kentridge (drawings), Philip Miller (music composition), David April (directorial assistance), David Hutt, Songezo Mcilizeli and Nonofo Olekeng (costumes) and Suzette le Sueur (lighting). It is performed by Nadine Buys, Zandile Constable, Liyabuya Gongo, Thami Majela, Dada Masilo, Ipeleng Merafe, Llewellyn Mnguni, Khaya Ndlovu, Thabani Ntuli, Kyle Rossouw, Thami Tshabalala and Tshepo Zasekhaya. It performed for a short season at the UJ Theatre in Auckland Park, Johannesburg, and travels to Grahamstown where it will perform at the Rhodes Theatre on June 29, 30 and July 1 (Visit nationalartsfestival.co.za) Thereafter, it performs at The 969 Festival, hosted by Wits University, in the Main Wits Theatre on July 29 (Visit https://www.inyourpocket.com/johannesburg/969-festival_2173e )

Lorca, butchered

Bloodwedding

BRIDE on a plinth: The sweetheart of one man, the passion of another, Carla Classen plays the central protagonist in Bloodwedding

BY ALL ACCOUNTS, the idea of Blood Wedding by Lorca conjures up a whole rich and gruesome terrain of achingly beautiful poetry, difficult emotional quandaries and an unrelenting tale of flowers and moons, sacrifice and tradition. It’s not clear why the direction of this production, Raissa Brighi chose to edit Lorca, but more so, why she chose not to hone her cast’s skills in articulation more tightly.

While Brighi’s introduction of African songs and traditional approaches to the idea of a wedding enhances the work, deepening it and giving it a rich local context, it is the cropping and changing in the work’s language which causes it to stutter and stumble – it’s not clear why more contemporary jargon have been at times inserted into the text: this mars the flow of language and forces the Lorca fluidity of form to lose shape and become humdrum, at times even comical.

Featuring some achingly beautiful moments, in the lighting and choreographic input into the work, this Bloodwedding is a very shouty affair with performers too lacking in the physical and contextual gravitas of the roles they embody. The mother of the groom, a fiery and fierce woman in the original text, who has lost her husband and her son, is played by Rachel Swanepoel, and while she works very hard at embracing the text and the gut-wrenching emotion, you can’t help but see her as a young girl. Has it to do with the physical presence of the performer and her body language? Either way, this young performer seems under-directed. Similarly with the father of the bride, Henri Strauss.

As the dialogue of the piece begins, your heart sinks: the piece begins with a fine and magnificently danced overture, one so powerful that you might have felt yourself  prepared to be watching a dance piece with no dialogue and a developed engagement with this text of family feuds, class issues and vendetta, through gesture and form. But no: the characters with their unmodulated voices maul the simple magnificence of the original.

Further to all of that, there are few things as damaging as a cellulitic bum cheek exposed erroneously in a dance move. The female dancers have their dignity inadequately taken care of in this work, which sees them wearing revealing underwear which detracts very emphatically from the main issue at hand. It is issues such as this that should have been more carefully addressed.

But as the piece unfolds, with the sensitive criss-crossing of lights that supersede nebulous and unfocused graphics across the space, something gem-like is still evident. There’s a choreographed fight sequence when the two husbands come head to head that will grab your attention and your emotions, and there’s an inspired use of the venue’s red brick walls that lend the piece a lusty bloody sense of reality. Not to forget an utterly superb an understanding of the malevolent and playful presence of the moon on a scooter that also redeems much.

The question needs to be asked, however, regarding the professional levels of this work. Yes, it was performed in the Market Theatre’s main theatre, which makes you believe that this is up there with everything else that has graced this stage, in terms of professionality. But it is acknowledged as having been produced by the Drama Department of the University of Pretoria. But what does this mean? The cast members and creative team are listed on the programme without reference to what year of study they are in, assuming of course, that they are students. Without such context, you must assume that they are professional. But, by the end of the work, you feel that this cannot possibly be the case.

  • Bloodwedding is written Federico García Lorca and adapted for this production by its director, Raissa Brighi with the assistance of Alice Pernè It features creative input by Eugene Mashiane (choreography), Baily Snyman (lighting), Jacinda Barker, Heleen van Tonder and Robin Burke (audio visual). It was performed by Carla Classen, Cassius Davids, MacMillan Mabaleka, Susan Nkata, Palesa Olifant, Henri Strauss, Rachel Swanepoel and Joffe Tsebe, at the John Kani Theatre, Market Theatre complex in Newtown until June 11. It will perform at Graeme College, during the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown on July 2 and 3. Visit www.nationalartsfestival.co.za

Haunted by Prettina

YouSuck

SEVENTY per cent pretty: Klara van Wyk is Prettina. Photograph by Lauren Buckle.

BLENDING TENDERNESS WITH bravado, prickliness with utter vulnerability, Klara van Wyk has crafted a character which warrants status as the poster girl of contemporary high school bullying. Her work, You Suck and Other Inescapable Truths is a piece of advocacy theatre which stands its own ground in a regular theatre, but which will haunt you and make you remember bruises that you inflicted as a child – and/or the bruises and scars that were inflicted on you during those very same years. Beautifully constructed and performed with the clownish acumen you might have seen in van Wyk’s representation of Chalk Girl in collaboration with Jemma Kahn some years ago, this is one of those pieces that irrevocably is the voice of an era.

Prettina considers herself almost material for the ‘A’ group. She believes she’s 70% pretty and nearly there in terms of the popular set of the high school which she attends. Granted, she’s awkward in some ways. And she has a strict mom and she’s not really sure of the value of her Afrikaans heritage, other than as a stumbling block. But she knows the ropes of hip-hop, is an expert in the odd cultural skill of Eisteddfod, and can sing. And furthermore, she can see through the flaws of the class queens with ease, and there’s no reason why she shouldn’t be one of them.

Until she finds out why, that is. Rendered with the kind of dead-pan irony that evokes Nathaniël’s storytelling, the work is at once utterly breath-takingly hilarious and totally tragic. You want to embrace Prettina and tell her that there is so much more out there in the world, and yet, you cannot help roaring with (albeit utterly empathetic) laughter at her social faux pas. And the reason for this is as simple as it is complicated: You, too, are Prettina. Or you have been shades of her in your own way. And that’s true, whether or not you like to admit it, an inescapable fact which ramps up your laughter even more – even if it serves to camouflage old tears of rage and injustice.

There’s a deeper thread underlying the work, however, and structurally, this is supported with a level of brilliance that runs through it like a thread of quicksilver. It has to do with a mouse. And that mouse is present from the very first line in the script, as the lights come up, infused with prescience, like in a Greek tragedy. Constructed with a denouement that will give you goose bumps and make your hair stand on end, You Suck doesn’t pander to an audience. It is an unrelenting piece of potency which holds up the phenomenon of social media bullying to a very frightening mirror: this is the flailing voice of youth in our contemporary times. And it’s weeping, silently. Whatever else You Suck does, it will make you sit up and take notice – particularly if there are young children in your life.

  • You Suck and Other Inescapable Truths is written by Klara van Wyk and directed by Francesco Nassimbeni. Featuring design by Francesco Nassimbeni (set) and Richard de Jager (costumes), it is performed by Klara van Wyk, on demand at Western Cape schools. It will also enjoy a commercial run at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, June 29-July 9. Contact klara@gmail.com

A broken train passed this way

immortal

THE train that couldn’t: Jenna Dunster plays one of the few survivors of the Blaauwkrantz train disaster. Photograph courtesy Cuepix. Photograph by Madeleine Chaput.

AS SHE APPEARS on stage brokenly and almost distractedly singing words and phrases from the Christian hymn which begins “Immortal, Invisible, God only wise…”  Jenna Dunster in the role of Hazel Smith hauntingly sets the scene. The set of Immortal is sparse, but for some large stones and a diagrammatic reflection of the ill-fated Blaauwkrantz Bridge, the other ‘character’ in this play.

It’s a fresh and candid reflection on a very famous Grahamstown story which in 1911, saw a train, heavily loaded with both passengers and stones freshly quarried for the building of the city’s Anglican cathedral, fall from the bridge crossing a gorge between Grahamstown and Port Alfred. Seven-year-old Hazel was one of the few survivors of this tragic accident and playwright Peter Terry casts the whole horror of the experience through her eyes.

The work elegantly and without artifice sheds a sensitive light on what life was probably like for an average family living in the British colonies during late Victorian times, and Dunster does a fine job of articulating seven-year-old foibles and fascination for the beach and her siblings. It’s the calm before the storm: If you read the blurb in the programme or know a smattering of Grahamstown history, the plot of this work would be known to you. The challenge then, for the creative team that evolved this project was roughly threefold: the context, the build-up to the horror and the aftermath.

The context is handled with a sophisticated reflection on the way in which the Eastern Cape is drenched with the historical blood of much internecine and tribal warfare, and hauntingly beautiful echoes of the Xhosa beliefs and rituals are depicted as rising from the ravine, lending the work spiritual rumblings far more uncontrollable and unknowable to a Victorian context than the sedate churchly manners observed by the colonialists occupying the land. The Xhosa gods of the area become implicit presences and witnesses.

As the accident becomes immanent in the telling of the tale, the work is enhanced with an extremely successful use of sound that makes you gasp with the shriek of the train in anticipation of catastrophe. Throughout the work, the sound, the rhythm of the train on its tracks, the noise of a fall are handled agonisingly and beautifully, painting the sense of the landscape in your mind’s ear. But the build-up of this catastrophe through Dunster’s performance at this point feels rather bland.

You don’t find yourself gripping the edge of your seat tightly, or notice your knuckles turning white as the catastrophe hits. When Hazel loses her loved ones quite literally before her eyes, you do not feel the sense of brokenness that you think you should. The prosaic nature of the work at this point begins to bruise the overriding potency of the story’s construct.

And what we’re left with is an aftermath that doesn’t really leave you with the potency with which the work began. Yes, there’s a dramatic element in which Hazel turns her eyes, wretched with grief back at the church and condemns these ‘stones of God’ which took away her family. And indeed, it will make you rethink the historical sanctity of Grahamstown’s defining Cathedral of St Michael and St George which adorns the city’s central square.

But the ordinariness of Hazel Smith’s life after the accident, dovetailed with the accident itself and the dramatic context of the ravine, pales into inconsequence, and while the structure of the work promises a symmetry of how the piece began so hauntingly, this is not an opportunity grabbed by the throat, and the piece seems to end mid-thought.

It’s a lovely work with a great heart and soul, but there’s a little fire missing from it. In reading the piece’s programme notes, you expect to go home in a state of emotional shock and political fire. You don’t.

  • Immortal is written by Peter Terry and directed by Chris Weare. It features design by Andrew Botha (set and costumes) and Kieran McGregor (lighting) and is performed by Jenna Dunster, as part of the Wits 969 festival for 2016, in the Wits Amphitheatre, which ended on July 24.

Taking on giants: a play that could wow the world

Photograph by Sanmari Marais.

Photograph by Sanmari Marais.

If you’re seeking fine excuses to go to the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown this year, seek no further: Jenine Collocott and Nick Warren have once again been putting their very fine heads together, and this time have yielded a theatrical essay on Mandela’s childhood which soars with all those good values of clean narrative lines, superb physical theatre and humour mingled with pathos.

Making Mandela recently enjoyed a short season, aimed primarily at school children, staged at the State Theatre in Pretoria. The work was a little rough in terms of an unresolved-feeling ending, but the conveying of the meat of the narrative is held with a firm hand and a trusty heart by Jaques de Silva, Mlindeli Zondi – whose body language and mien resonate so strongly with that of a young Mandela you will do a double take – and Barileng Malebye.

There is the kind of implicit trust and muscular give and take between performers that you would anticipate in a trapeze act in the circus: the three click so powerfully and so well together that as they toss and manipulate the story between them, skirting age, geography, personalities and time, it never loses its momentum or sparkle. If anything, it feels too short and you wish that the whole tale of Mandela’s life, in close detail could be handled by this supremely talented cast.

And of course, there are the masks. Collocott and Warren have evolved a signature mask-making approach to grand narratives involving many characters and few cast members that draws impeccably from old masked theatre traditions. Their masks are potent and wise, witty and sinister, yet irrevocably human, and your eye is held as your heart judders to a halt around the values being articulated by individual characters.

You fall in love with the conveying of Mandela’s aged mother, widowed and alone as she leaves her son to be raised by clan royalty and you weep with gladness at the interface between the testosterone-filled young Mandela bursting with enthusiasm for life, and his ‘brother’ Justice, the son of the Thembu chief.

You don’t get a more potent narrative than Mandela’s life story. Charmed from its goat-herding roots in the village of Mvezo in the eastern Cape to the man’s peaceful demise surrounded by loved ones in his own bed, well into his 90s, it’s a story which has people into funding a horrible opera that was staged last year and is a major draw-card and a very steep – virtually paralysing – challenge in several respects for any serious creative practitioner.

Collocott and Warren have kneaded this story between them over some years, highlighting some aspects and casting others into shadow as they must, and here lies the rub in the work. If you have been living for the last several years on another planet and see this work without an internal knowledge of who Mandela grew into, a lot of the piece’s nuances might escape you.

The piece needs more development from a narrative perspective, but if this team get it right, they have the intellectual and skills-based wherewithal to develop an embrace of this story that is so big and so direct that it will wow not only Grahamstown festivalgoers, but the world.

  • Making Mandela is written by Nick Warren and Jenine Collocott and directed by Jenine Collocott. It stars Jaques de Silva, Mlindeli Zondi and Barileng Malebya, with scenography by Duncan Gibbon and sound design by Peter Cornell. It will be performed at this year’s National Arts Festival in Grahamstown.