Blood in the water, a sjambok on the wall

AfricanGothic

STAINED sheets and the wrath of Mamma: Frikkie (Zak Hendrikz) and Sussie (Liezl de Kock). Photograph by Jan Potgieter.

THE POTENTIALLY SINISTER and foetid context of what goes on — or used to go on — behind closed farm doors in grim and unbending religious South Africa comes under close and gory scrutiny in Reza de Wet’s riveting tale of incest and dirt, horror and gamesplaying. It’s as much a psychological tale of trauma as it is a foray into really graphic representations of violence, sinister complicity and the space between twisted imagination and terrifying reality. With a sterling cast headed by the inimitable Liezl de Kock as Sussie, the work will bleed into the very interstices of your nightmares, but promises to retain its status as a classic of South African theatre making.

Diepe Grond, the work in its original Afrikaans, saw light of day at the Market Theatre in the mid-1980s and some 30 years later, premised on an English translation of the work by de Wet herself, it doesn’t miss a beat in terms of the grim filth of a mixture between staunch Afrikaans righteousness infiltrated with an unwavering sense of religious value, and a clear understanding of what is evil, juxtaposed with moral values that have had their sanity and their heart torn out by the roots.

Sussie and Frikkie Cilliers (Zak Hendrikz) live in abject filth. There is dirt everywhere. It’s in baking tins and disused food cans and all over the table. You can smell the detritus of their body fluids on the stained mattress, in your mind’s nose, as you look at the careful and rich detail of this set. The chamber pot and the basin of water constitute their bathroom. The nanny, Alina (Thembi Mtshali-Jones) is a maternal yet sinister presence, but she is moulded to fit a traditional understanding of domestic maid in an apartheid South African context. But this is dirt and domesticity with a history that has become frozen by an event.

The set embraces everything, with the dun-coloured screen that allows for shadow against muted light and indicates another room in the house, the raw wood made of what seems to be shards of railways sleepers, and the bed itself. The only anomaly is the shiny surface of part of the construct that seems to contradict the rustic values of the space.

These ruins of what was once a farm house, with the children’s mother and father at its helm is the source of a mysterious and destructive relationship between the family and the dearth of water in the land, as well as a repository for hideous secrets. Which brings Mr Grové (Mpho Osei-Tutu) into the mix. He’s a lawyer, a young black educated man, with a job to do. A will to ratify. Information to relate. He has no idea what he’s in for.

There unfolds the kind of madness that you may recognise from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 film Psycho, which sees the characters becoming caricatures of their parents with the flick of an eyebrow, the lilt of a word, the gut-wrenching depth of a screech of pain. And you may think of Yael Farber’s harrowing Mies Julie that too deals very explicitly with the mess and rot behind farm doors in apartheid South Africa. But African Gothic stands its own ground and leaves you feeling wrecked for other reasons. The stories that are told between these siblings, and the stories that are alluded to present an understanding of abuse and madness that will keep you riveted to your chair, throughout.

Having said all of that, the work is not completely flawless. There is a sound track which seems to operate on a loop, and sinister music interjects in places where the machinations of the performances say it all with much more muscle. While the blood-curdling giggles of hyenas in this sound track work, it is the music which strips the here and now from the piece and forces you to remember that this is just a play. Further to that, it is something as small as hairstyle and a physique that affects some of the energy of this piece. Hendrikz’s hairdo is fashionable and primed, blond, curly and tapered, and it clashes with the values of Frikkie’s context and his abjection. Similarly, his body is ripped. And tanned. And we see much of it, which is not necessarily a thing to complain of – but in the context of Frikkie, you expect something baser, something paler and thinner, something you don’t want to look at, but do, as we see with de Kock.

All in all, the work is a violent firestorm of political emotions which reflect an understanding of the land and of life in the isolated reality of a disused rural farm, where jackals bay and the wind seeps willy nilly through the walls, where the spilling of blood is present everywhere and the innocence of utter cruelty is splayed out like a springbok. It promises to be one of those cultural imperatives that continues to raise the bar in theatre-making in this country.

  • African Gothic is written by Reza de Wet and directed by Alby Michaels. It features design by Oliver Hauser (lighting and audio visual), Sarah Roberts mentoring students (production), Jo Glanville mentoring students (costume and props), Nadine Minnaar (set), Franco Prinsloo (sound), Madeleine Lotter-Viljoen (costume construction), Caitlin de Villiers (props construction) and Christelle van Graan (make up). It was performed by Liezl de Kock, Zak Hendrikz, Thembi Mtshali-Jones and Mpho Osei-Tutu in a brief season at the University of Johannesburg’s Con Cowan Theatre. This represents phase four of a 13-month project; the fifth phase promises to see the work hosted on national and international stages in 2018/9.
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Lessons from the moon

Manandhisdog

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

Thwarted gems; stones in my shoes

black

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.

 

The terrifying secrets that bind us

scorched

LOVE and loss in Lebanon: Wahab (Mpho Osei-Tutu) with Nawal (Ilse Klink). Photograph by Jan Potgieter, courtesy artslink.co.za

SOUTH AFRICAN AUDIENCES are not generally privy to strong theatre works that engage meaningfully with a Middle Eastern narrative, clean of the clutter of political positioning. Standard Bank Young Artist for 2016, Jade Bowers, brings you Scorched a play written by Wajdi Mouawad in 2003 and in many respects, the narrative muscle of this work holds it all together. Beautifully written, it is a complex tale of the atrocity of war, the bond of family and the immutability of maths, cast in the Lebanon wars of the 1970s that presents hairpin narrative twists and turns in its denouement that will simultaneously frighten and replenish you.

With an ingenuous and haunting pared down set, featuring an astonishing fine use of suitcases and red thread that demonstrate a foray into not only the predicament of the alien, but also into the ritual of burial itself, set designer Nadine Minnaar presents an eloquent, sophisticated reflection on what it means to be a civil war refugee. Death and the inability to belong, are issues that are allowed to segue together magnificently in the manipulation of the suitcases, which become so much more than repositories of possessions.

Further, Bowers has cast a guitar and mandarin player in the form of Matthew MacFarlane who lends the work the precise, gentle and sometimes witty interplay of sound and texture that makes the piece sing and never forces it to bend in the direction of fashionable harsh electronic sound that would have crippled the delicate dynamics at play here.

But beyond all of these elements, Scorched boasts a script replete with the kind of rich and subtle weaving of contemporary narrative with legendary notions that filters through the novels of Turkish writer and Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk, playing with the preciousness of ancient tales and giving them a relevance you can taste like blood on your lips. It’s a mix of values that makes your head spin as you are plummeted into the rich aesthetic of Middle Eastern story-making.

Sadly, most of Bowers’s cast of seven, a couple of days into the work’s brief Johannesburg season, seemed to be trying so hard in shouting out their words and overacting, that this almost three-hour long work becomes rather bamboozling. There is a great focus on the minutiae of travel and conversational details, which feel like they muddy the flow of the story, at times.

But then, you get sucked into the plight of Nawal Marwan (Ilse Klink), a woman who has loved and lost and held quietly to terrible secrets. You lose yourself in how this character has been scripted, and how her twin children, Janine (Cherae Halley) and Simon (Jaques de Silva) deal with the mysteries of her life, but it is the harshness of the set which seems to come back to bite the work ultimately.

With the exception of Halley’s genteel and focused performance, and some moments of singing by Ameera Patel, so utterly refined that it makes your hair stand on end, the characters, embodying a multitude of roles, seem to be attempting to compensate for the emptiness of the set, by making unnecessarily grand gestures with their bodies and often shouting in a way that hurts the subtleties of this beautifully evolved and emotionally devastating work.

It’s a pity – this piece brings together some of the cream of South African theatre talent, including Klink and Mpho Osei-Tutu, but they seem to struggle with the rather brutal concrete space that the theatre offers.

  • Scorched is written by Wajdi Mouawad and directed by Jade Bowers. It features design by Nadine Minnaar (set), Oliver Hauser (lighting), Camille Behrens (costume construction) and Matthew MacFarlane (music) and is performed by Gopala Davies, Jaques de Silva, Cherae Halley, Ilse Klink, Mpho Osei-Tutu, Ameera Patel and Bronwyn van Graan at the University of Johannesburg, in Auckland Park until August 5. Visit jadebowers.com