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.
The guys: Lionel Newton, James Cairns, Antony Coleman, Iain Paton and Ashley Dowds. Photograph by Ruphin Coudyzer.
If you were white, young and English-speaking in the 1960s, 1970s or 1980s in South African suburbia, you may’ve been privy to a particular lexicon of words like ‘tit’ (nice), ‘jislaaik’ (an expression of wonder), ‘kotch’ (vomit) and ‘boghouse’ (toilet). We were under cultural embargo. Apartheid was rife. The army had every young white man in its cross-hairs. And the culture of the time was tinctured by the bravado-filtered-hypocrisy specific to white South Africa in the run up to the first democratic elections in 1994. This alphabet of idiosyncratic values was embraced by playwright/performer Paul Slabolepszy; what a treat it is to see one of his classic dramas grace our stages again. Paying tribute to the late Bill Flynn who originally reprised the role of powder-blue-safari-suited Eddie, who whips up the comic element of the piece with astonishing savvy and is played now by James Cairns, this play is simply brilliant. It serves you a slice of nostalgia, rich with triggers to make you laugh, cry and remember, its sophisticated comic timing defines serious moments forever. Five guys in their mid-forties arrange a stag party. They were schoolmates 25 years ago. Each is a sensitively crafted, beautifully performed stereotype, which you recognise instinctively. Eddie is not overburdened, with his hilarious blend of stability, ineptitude and folly. He’s a rising damp specialist with a wife and kids. His earnest doggishness protects him from the nuanced bigger picture. Roux (Antony Coleman) is a loser to his fingertips, in his green shirt and striped wide tie. He’s living in his garden shed while his marriage crumbles. Ashley (Ashley Dowds) is the one who ‘made it’. Though he drives a flashy car, he has skeletons in his closet. With his combed, neatness, he’s the one you creditably picture as the boy who’d rather read than be in a rugby scrum. Many-married Dave (Iain Paton) is the foil for their party: it’s the eve of his third wedding. And then there’s Kyle (Lionel Newton). His teenaged swearing and fornicating credentials earned him his peers’ awe. Today, in a t-shirt under a dressy jacket, with his cigarette clasped between index finger and thumb, he reels from a life lived in the shadow of one-upmanship. Pale Natives is a coming of age story, not structurally very different from Cairns’ play ‘Dirt’. In crafting it, Slabolepszy held up a mirror to white South Africa on democracy’s cusp, rotten as it was with embedded racism and homophobia. He’s spiced heavily it with slang, an interface with local ad slogans and songs like Procol Harum’s A Whiter Shade of Pale, and others from the 1960s. In flaying open ordinary society, the play reveals poetry in the unlikeliest of situations. Not only about a stag party, it touches the core of life and death, success and failure. Armed with invectives against privilege, cigarette smoke and hard liquor, it never slips to sweetness, but runs with delicious fluidity that belies its two-hour length.
Pale Natives, written by Paul Slabolepszy and directed by Bobby Heaney is at the Market Theatre until May 11 (011)832-1641.