Mind the gap: an essay on elegant dishonesty

betrayal

AWKWARD reminiscences: Jerry (Tom Fairfoot) and Emma (Carly Graeme) meet in a pub. Photograph by Philip Kuhn.

IT’S THE SILENCES and gaps between words and the construction of the unspoken beat in this intriguing Pinter work, that lends it its potency and dramatic verve, but it is this potency mixed with extremely classy performances, an understated set and an unequivocal elegance that gives it the edge that keeps you focused. However, as the play reaches closure, you might question yourself as to whether there can be such a thing as just too much elegance and too many manners.

And as the name dictates, Betrayal is a tale of complicity and untruths. Of secrets and lies. And of revelations.  Emma (Carly Graeme) is married to Robert (Antony Coleman). She’s a gallerist. He’s an editor of a poetry journal. They have two small children.

And for a period of seven years, Emma has had a lover. He knows. Her husband, that is. She knows he knows. But does the lover know she knows he knows? Without the classic English understatedness, this narrative could descend into farcical humour, but it’s kept tight and succinct, demure and hilarious in its own capacity.

We meet Emma and Jerry (Tom Fairfoot) in a pub. They’re excruciatingly awkward with one another, but as they hem and haw and blurt out long sentences of memories of their friendship, and then retract them, you quickly realise this was no ordinary association. Love came into the mix.

But then it left.

This is a tale of how men and women dialogue over the deed of love, sex and relationships. It’s beautiful in its elegance, somewhat anachronistic in its costume choices – this is, after all, a period between 1968 and 1977 as the projection tells us – and the clothes the characters wear are a lot more refined than the period dictated. That said, the Bauhaus-style furnishings that quietly comprise the set are as fitting and as versatile as necessary: they’re just right.

One of the biggest challenges of a play of this nature is the danger of the work descending into blandness. Indeed, once you’ve figured out all the different levels of betrayal articulated from scene to scene, there seems little else, and the plot is exactly that – an unravelling of several intrigues. Looking at it in this capacity, the conclusion of the piece seems unsatisfying: but this is less a criticism of the work invested in it than a reflection of the original.

What happens next after the philandering partners have owned up? Why, that’s another whole story, you might suggest. Betrayal is an elegant, eminently watchable and utterly competent work to watch.

  • Betrayal is written by Harold Pinter and directed by Greg Homann. It features design by Homann (set) and Oliver Hauser (lighting), is performed by Antony Coleman, Jose Domingos, Tom Fairfoot and Carly Graeme until July 1 at the Auto and General Theatre on the Square in Sandton. Call 011 883-8606 or visit http://www.theatreonthesquare.co.za
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Feverish for that acid green sedan

saturday

GETTING on his boogie shoes: Daniel Buys as Tony Manero. Photograph courtesy http://jozistyle.joburg/saturday-night-fever/

PICTURE THE SCENARIO. It’s the mid-1970s in the boroughs of New York City, and white working class teenagers are dancing themselves wild because there’s nothing else to do to keep body and soul together, other than joining the church or getting a low-key boring job. The opening chords – both musically and visually – of the current production of Saturday Night Fever, punctuated with classic songs from the Bee Gees articulates this with aplomb.

But it is the inadequate balance of sound and vocals, some truly grotesque choreography and underwhelming performances that leaves the production wanting. And yes, it’s a dated show, reflecting petty racisms and sexisms of teenagers in America from 40 years ago, but it’s still deemed an iconic classic; had it been performed with slickness, its sense of anachronism would have been forgivable.

Further, if you’re a die-hard Bee Gees fan, you, too, might be disappointed while you wait to be swept away on a swathe of nostalgia by your favourite tunes penned and originally performed by brothers Barry, Maurice and Robin Gibb in that distinctive falsetto.

Shows recreated in the last couple of years under the Broadway rubric, such as The Jersey Boys, which performed in South Africa in 2013, directed  by West Hyler, or Dream Girls of 2011, under the direction of Brittney Griffin, were performed in such a way that a song could freeze the moment, cause tears to fall and grown men and women to dance, weeping with love, in the aisles, whether or not they were alive when that music was fashionable. This doesn’t happen in this rendition of Saturday Night Fever. Rather, the music seems toned to be beneath the rather flimsy tale of the dreams of a poor boy to find the girl and the dance moves he deems his.

So, what happens is you struggle to hear the dialogue. The microphones attached to the performers’ foreheads force the sound out at such a level, that the words reverberate in the vast shell of the venue and smash against one another, becoming by and large inaudible. The dancing, with lots of really bizarre lifts and front splits for the women, is neither elegant nor erotic. Does it evoke the ethos of disco chaos of the seventies? Maybe. Certainly the costumes fit the era carefully, with the girls’ leotards and boys bell-bottoms – and of course the inimitable white three-piece suit which John Travolta brought into common fashion parlance with the 1977 film.

Daniel Buys in the starring role of Tony Manero has the voice and the moves, but lacks the sense of authority that a performer like Travolta exuded in this work. Instead, you find yourself trying to remember which one’s the one, when he and his buddies are out on the street.

Having said all of that, Matthew Berry playing the hapless Bobby C, one of Tony’s boys opposite Kiruna-Lind Devar as Pauline, Bobby C’s sweetheart arguably create several moments in this show which redeems the trek to the State Theatre. Beautifully cast, both of these young performers embrace the nuances of their – albeit tiny – roles, with fullness, sensitivity and dignity. They sing beautifully and liaise with conviction.

And then, there’s the acid-green 1970s sedan on the set, which is such a remarkably lovely idea that it should have been written about in the programme. Its elegant unpretentious curvaceousness, even the way in which its boot no longer closes properly, lends a tone of the time and flavour of the era which is irrepressible.

Indeed, the machinery of the set of the State Theatre is another element to this production which takes your breath away. Comprising numerous elevators in a variety of sizes, to say nothing of structures which move in on cue and on wheels, the world of the underbelly of New York is brought with all its dirty sham, drudgery and dreams, onto this stage in Pretoria in a manner so beautifully co-ordinated it rips your attention from the dynamics on stage. Here, you get to see inside Tony’s house, with his upstairs bedroom. There’s the park, and the apartment of Stephanie Mangano (Natasha van der Merwe) who grabs Tony by the libido, the bridge central to the tale and the disco venue itself.

Sadly, the State Theatre remains a conundrum for the regular theatre patron, and this old bastion of culture feels like a building site. The downstairs parking leaks and many bays are not accessible because the building’s in disrepair as a result of neglect. There are bits and chunks of the venue that are defined by shrill warnings to the public to stay away because they are unsafe, and huge electrical cords hang in disarray across the opera venue’s walls – a venue which remains as oblivious to safety needs of theatre venues as it was when it was first opened in 1981.

  • Saturday Night Fever based on the eponymous Paramount/RSO film and the story by Nik Cohn was originally adapted for stage by Robert Sligwood and Bill Oaks. It is directed by Greg Homann with design by Rowan Bakker (musical direction), Weslee Swain Lauder (choreography), Denis Hutchinson (set and lighting), Sarah Roberts (costumes) and TrevOr Peters (sound). It is performed by Joanna Abatzoglou, Matthew Berry, Cameron Botha, Vanessa Brierly, Daniel Buys, Kiruna-Lind Devar, Londiwe Dhlomo, Keaton Ditchfield, Toni Jean Erasmus, Devon Flemmer, Zane Gillion, Nurit Graff, Nathan Kruger, Sebe Leotlela, Clint Lesch, Brandon Lindsay, Phumi Mncayi, Bongi Mthombeni, Raquel Munn, L J Neilson, Mark Richardson, Phillip Schnetler, Craig Urbani, Natasha van der Merwe, Steven van Wyk and Charmaine Weir-Smith, and an off-stage band under the direction of Rowan Bakker and Drew Rienstra: Donny Bouwer (trumpet), Jason Green (bass), Maureen Marler (‘cello), Dan Selsick (trombone), Kuba Silkiewicz (guitar), Brian Smith (reeds), P W van der Walt (drums), Daline Wilson (violin), at the Opera Theatre in the State Theatre complex, Pretoria, until October 9. Call 012 392 4000 or visit statetheatre.co.za

And now for something completely shapely

shape

MUSCULAR MAYHEM: Stuart (Craig Hawks), Stella (Camilla Waldman) and Vusi (Nyaniso Dzedze) test their steel. Photograph courtesy artslink.co.za

Whatever else we may be, South African society has become virtually paralysed by the godalmighty demon of political correctness. Enter writers Steven Sidley and Kate Sidley. Not playwrights, but highly skilled and creative professionals, they have put all the mumbo jumbo of new fitness lingo and a whole gamut of potentially derogatory terminology into a splinteringly fine theatrical mix which braces like a tonic.

Featuring scalpel-like retorts which tear into the South African context with utter hilarity and scant mercy, the text ripples with wisdom and poetry, but more than just that, it’s a well-developed, satisfyingly structured piece of brand new theatre that should not be missed.

The context is an upmarket gym in Johannesburg. The characters, Stella (Camilla Waldman), Stuart (Craig Hawks) and Vusi (Nyaniso Dzedze) are carefully fleshed out stereotypes that reflect astutely on a viable cross-section of South African society. Well-crafted, they’re characters you would recognise in any gym: The do-gooder human rights worker, in her late 40s, Stella is trying to bounce back from a divorce. Stuart is an advertising executive labelled ‘sensitive’ by his parents when he was a child, who is vehemently still fighting to win back his masculinity and as much casual sex (with girls) as he can get. Vusi is a young maverick, with a privileged education and a street savvy that will make your head spin.

The gym, premised physically and contextually between the universal emblems for male and female lavatories, fits into the core of this niftily constructed and delicious work. It’s the context for not only an utterly hilarious extrapolation of the bleak and grotesque mysteries of the male or female cloakrooms, but it’s also the repository for some astonishingly blunt and fabulous political incorrectness, in the field of everything from fat-shaming to homophobic jibes and crude racism. Armed with all the tools of our confused society, this play never teeters into abject silliness or even offensiveness: the writing is crisp, the performances convincing and tight, and the whole narrative completely compelling.

The work features a “disembodied voice” played by Zimkitha Kumbaca, which does lend a small red herring to it, however: Kumbaca sits in the audience; the stage presence of her voice begins as a public address system, but slips into the folds of the characters’ conversation. While it is scripted to say some really pertinent things, its existence is not meaningfully developed. Is this an inner dialogue that the audience is privy to? Is it the voice of conscience? You don’t get to find out.

While Shape won’t have the longevity of a classic, or the universality to travel the world, it goes admirably head to head with a refreshing boldness for any curious South African, grappling sensibly and wittily with the verbiage and garbage and potholes in which we find ourselves today. And it will make you laugh. A lot. In spite of – or because of – the morass into which South Africa has tumbled.

  • Read this piece on Shape as well, here.
  • Shape is written by Steven Boykey Sidley and Kate Sidley and directed by Greg Homann. Featuring design by Denis Hutchinson, it is performed by Nyaniso Dzedze, Craig Hawks, Zimkitha Kumbaca and Camilla Waldman at the Auto & General Theatre on the Square in Sandton until April 16. Call 011 883 8606 or visit theatreonthesquare.co.za

An unsilencable voice: a fine tribute to a great South African

Enormity: Ralph Lawson plays Alan Paton. Photograph courtesy State Theatre, Pretoria.

Enormity: Ralph Lawson plays Alan Paton. Photograph courtesy State Theatre, Pretoria.

He sits in a beautiful space, filled with books and he contemplates the relentless enormity of loss. This simple gesture is the delicate pivot to A Voice I cannot Silence, a new South African play which gives flesh and poetry to a reflection on the life of Alan Paton (1903-1988), arguably, one of this country’s most important novelists and educators – and the writer of Cry the Beloved Country (1948).

It’s a three hander, cast with great effect around Paton’s words, paying tribute to his second marriage with a woman called Anne Hopkins – played magnificently by Clare Mortimer – who first came into his life as a secretary. Hinged on his political opinions and gestures, his life, his foibles and vulnerabilities, the play is nothing short of a masterpiece: honed with a great level of respect and dignity, the work, in the hands of lesser performers might have been text heavy, but with Lawson in the central role opposite Mortimer, with Menzi Mkhwane reflecting on the children that passed through Paton’s hands,  text is nimbly cast between performers in a way that evokes the quick give and take of shuttlecocks in badminton.

Indeed, the Englishness of Hopkins is splayed wonderfully across the work, offering an understanding of three very diverse cultures and political positions in a country rooted in racist values and suffocating its own potential with legislation. And indeed, this is a very dignified and respectful play, but the poetry of the language, the construction of the work, the presence of birds, bullfrogs and crickets and the thoughtful weaving together of diverse ideas yields a piece which is delicate and crisp, whilst it remains formal. Never boring, deeply incisive, this is a really special play.

And while Paton is given empathetic three dimensionality as a principal, a politically conscious individual and a crotchety yet lovable ageing icon, the unfathomable void that great loss brings is filtered through this work with a deft hand and an impeccable sense of delivery. If you have known loss in any capacity, these words will talk directly to your pain.

Similar in structure to Athol Fugard’s The Shadow of the Hummingbird, performed in Johannesburg last August, this work offers an even greater sense of reflection. Never stooping to hero-worship or hollow self-deprecation, the piece is a portrait of a great man, which is deeply touching in so many ways, from his sense of self to the heartbreaking tales of the youngsters Paton worked with as a reformatory warden who transmogrified into a principal, touching and enriching their brokenness.

The only issue with the set was the occasional glaring of the desk lamp into the face of the audience, which is distracting. Having said that, the production works beautifully in the generous space of the State Theatre’s Momentum theatre – that small space without wheelchair access at the end of a long corridor and a narrow flight of stairs – but the bigger context of the theatre complex is far from welcoming to the general public: there’s a crass and disturbing haphazardness in the environment which feels disrespectful. Know, however, that A Voice I Cannot Silence is so wisely made, performed with such an intense and rich understanding of the value Paton brought to the South African narrative, that if you’re travelling from Johannesburg to see the work, it will not be a 50km driven in vain.

Hopefully this play will have considerable legs nationally, in the not too distant future. It’s an important and beautiful reflection of one of South Africa’s heroes.

  • A Voice I Cannot Silence is written by Greg Homann and Ralph Lawson. It is directed by Greg Homann and features design by Nadya Cohen (set), Michael Broderick (lighting) and Evan Roberts (soundscape). It is performed by Ralph Lawson, Menzi Mkhwane and Clare Mortimer at the Momentum Theatre, State Theatre complex in Pretoria, until October 24. Visit statetheatre.co.za