Incendiary youth: SA style

MyChildren

MY opinion is correct! Student debate with Isabel (Christine van Hees) and Thami (Phumlani Mdlalose), while Mr M (Msuthu Makubalo) goads them on. Photograph courtesy National Children’s Theatre.

A WHITE HIGH school girl lies on her belly on a school bench to read a spot of King Lear as she munches on an apple.  There’s a sense of ‘how things should be’ in everything from her school uniform to her engagement with what is obviously homework. A black high school boy filters a petrol-soaked piece of cloth into a bottle as he fingers a cigarette lighter.  The chasm in values breaks your heart, but says it as it must be said if you’re engaging South African values. Indeed, it’s difficult to get into the shoes of another person, and easier to judge their circumstances with the harshness of your own perspectives. Particularly if you’re a half-formed teenager, even a very bright one. This is something that the cast and the audience discover in Athol Fugard’s My Children! My Africa!. It’s being reprised by the National Children’s Theatre as a touring programme for high schools, and the prescience of this work cannot be understated even if you are all done with high school.

It’s a play about the raw and bleeding discrepancy between haves and have nots that is so central to the complexities of South African existence. Cast in the mid 1980s, in the Eastern Cape, it showcases the fire and passion of black youth attempting to address the horror and shame of apartheid, counterpoised with the traditional educational values of white privilege. And it is here where we meet Isabel (Christine van Hees) and Thami (Phumlani Mdlalose), the respective cream of their own communities, in a debating match that’s something of an experiment, bringing together the energies of youth from contexts not that far from one another, geographically, but a million miles apart in every other way.

The teacher is an elderly man, fondly known as Mr M (Msuthu Makubalo) and while he’s the catalyst for the experiment, his values too are informed and potent. But in being of the previous generation he is intensely vulnerable.

The tale is not an easy one, peppered as it is with language that we just don’t use anymore, as it is a cipher of the kind of extreme violence that set our country on fire, literally in the mid 1980s. This play, which enjoyed its stage debut at the Market Theatre, with Kathy-Jo Wein and Rapulana Seiphemo opposite John Kani in 1989 is one that reaches beyond adults and to the youth in the audiences. It’s about choices and literature, the fury of impotence and how your well-intentioned parents can embarrass you into silence. Or your substitute parents can incite you into violence.

It is creatively staged, with a simple set that can be broken into metaphors of violence easily, but it isn’t clear why the decision was taken to erase the play’s interval. It’s a meaty work with lots to consume and the gap in the telling of the tale is a necessary one, particularly for younger audiences.  Also, a valuable decision is taken in the cast changing into their costumes on stage. This lends a reflection that these are indeed performers, and the manner in which they adopt the age-specificity of their roles is strong and cogent.

Mdlalose plays the young firebrand from the ‘location’, who, armed with an intellect that surpasses most, is subject to the indignities of Bantu Education because he is black. It’s a crucial role, but his articulation is not always understandable, which is a pity as the text is rich with 1980s realities. He’s beautifully supported by the performances of van Hees and Makubalo who lend the texture of the age of their characters as much as they give the text vehemence.

It’s a play that will change your perceptions and your mind, and make you realise that student shenanigans in the 20-teens are as hot and relevant as they were nearly 40 years ago. Or vice versa.

  • My Children! My Africa! is written by Athol Fugard and directed by Siphumeze Khundayi and Francois Theron. It features creative input by Sarah Roberts (set and costumes) and Jane Gosnell (lighting) and is performed by Msuthu Makubalo, Phumlani Mdlalose and Christine van Hees in a touring programme hosted by the National Children’s Theatre, in Parktown. The theatre will be staging a couple of public performances toward the end of May. Visit their website, or call: 011-484-1584.

My African queen

AntonyandCleopatra

HERE is my space: Mark Antony (Ben Kgosimore) with Cleopatra (Sanelisiwe Yekani). Photograph courtesy National Children’s Theatre.

THERE’S NOTHING QUITE like a foray with the world’s most famous illicit lovers, told by young voices to young audiences. It’s like being witness to the passing on of the baton to another generation of theatre makers and it might give you goosebumps, when you see Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra under the directorial hand of Neka da Costa. It’s currently on a programme touring schools, where the work is part of the national syllabus.

When you watch this troupe of performers, you wouldn’t be wrong to think of actors such as British performers Robert Lindsay and Dorothy Tutin, to say nothing of South Africa’s David Dennis and Camilla Waldman, for instance, who earned their stripes in Shakespearean trope as well as everything else. These young South African thespians continue to prove their robustness and versatility in redefining no less than the work of the Bard himself – you’ve seen them on the stage in a range of other capacities in the last couple of years, including contemporary storytelling and Greek tragedy.

The rendition of this work is gently and judiciously cut by Shakespeare specialist Rohan Quince to fit into time-based parameters and it runs just on 90 minutes with no interval. Interjected with a local drum beat, songs of mourning and gladness that reach from a South African heart and a peppering of ululation, it’s a piece which skirts and weaves the notion of Africanness in the ethos of Egyptian queen Cleopatra (Sanelisiwe Yekani) with competence and intrigue, but without feeling forced.

Indeed, Yekani embraces the complexity of Cleopatra with finesse and authority. She’s sly and manipulative, passionate and beautiful and as the central focus to the work, she holds it together with magnificence and utter potency. In short, she’s dangerous. Ben Kgosimore is a superb Mark Antony, the emperor who is her lover, a tough guy who is embroiled in a morass of political marriage, friends and foes. He’s vulnerable yet macho, sophisticated yet impressionable. And this royal couple takes things to the max from their passionate lovemaking and display of anger to their strategising, to their suicides.

In the role of Caesar, Cassius Davids shimmers with a focused performance which is utterly convincing and Campbell Meas in several roles, including Agrippa and Cleopatra’s hand-maiden lends tight focus and articulation to the work. Neo Sibiya, in a range of gender-ambiguous support roles also commands a sense of authority which makes you sit up and look.

Squeezed into a tiny space which is electrified into clean narrative lines with the device of freezing movement, and some highly innovative prop choices, the work is deftly made. There’s a battle scene and a scene of ships at war which will make you feel you’ve skipped the bounds of possibility and are now sitting in the folds of a dramatic fresco.

Having said all of that, the work is bruised by its shoutiness. And yes, while much of the drama necessitates exclamations in bold, not all of it does, and what you might find is something a little similar to how the NCT’s production of Coriolanus two years ago was flawed. The declamatory accents of everyone most of the time tends to collapse a sense of nuance in the dialogue.

It is, however, an immensely strong and invaluable resource for learners all over the country, because there’s nothing quite like seeing the work in flesh and blood – and local, young flesh and blood, at that. And also, because under astute direction, this complicated piece’s story is clearly evident.

  • Antony and Cleopatra is written by William Shakespeare and directed by Néka da Costa. It features design by Sarah Roberts (set and costumes) and Jane Gosnell (lighting) and is performed by Cassius Davis, Ben Kgosimore, Kevin Koopman, Campbell Meas, Sibusiso Mkhize, Neo Sibiya, Megan van Wyk, Carlos Williams and Sanelisiwe Yekani in a season that is touring several schools countrywide, until May 22. It is a project of the National Children’s Theatre. Call 011 484-1584 or visit www.nationalchildrenstheatre.org.za

Pixie dust and make believe

magicalmoon

TRANSFIXED by our big sister, Wendy. Michael (Danny Meaker) and John (Daniel Keith Geddes), little boys who love stories. Photograph courtesy National Children’s Theatre.

ARE THERE STILL children in this world who make forts out of blankets and cushions, from which they conduct complex battles and adventures? Do children in this day and age still go on wild adventures in their own back yards, where they lie on their backs and peer at the moon and pretend they can fly? This is a play that with an incredibly sophisticated understanding of the potency of childhood, articulately explores make believe, and in doing so, it takes the JM Barrie tale of Peter Pan by its horns and doesn’t let go, not for a minute.

It’s a fascinating scenario. Barrie lived in the latter part of the 19th century, dying 37 years into the 20th. The yarns he wrote are wild and manic, but the English he used reflects his times, and is often prohibitively detailed for young readers to access. Mike Kenny – like others before him, including Walt Disney in 1953 – has taken the thread of Peter Pan and with a solemn nod to Barrie and a wink to the children in the audiences, set it free, in contemporary language with beautiful songs.

And Francois Theron and his creative team in turn, have taken this lead even further, dotting it with a deliciously idiosyncratic set, magnificent choreography and music on the part of the cast that lend an element of sheer perfection to the work. The cast, headed by Nirvana Nokwe-Mseleku as Wendy Darling, the authoritative big sister, and Daniel Keith Geddes in the role of John, the middle child – as well as Captain Hook, give it an edge that will set your child’s heart on fire. Supported by Danny Meaker as Peter Pan – and Michael, the youngest Darling child – and Phiphi-Gu’mmy Moletsane in the role of Tinkerbell, the oft sulky fairy, the work sings with synchronicity and wisdom.  It has to do with a mix of the sense of possibility and that of ordinariness that can bring a crocodile with a ticking clock in his tummy into the context of lost boys who fell out of their prams and mermaids who are beautiful but not nice.

Touching on everything that is central to what being a child means, the work is rough and tumble all the way, punctuated by the ‘aarghs’ of pirates, a beloved absent daddy’s beloved dressing gown, and some delicious cameos with a ukulele and a mouth organ. It engages with gender issues and power struggles, with the fear of growing up and becoming something or someone else – and in the process forgetting the fairies in the garden. It’s a tale of madcap adventure in the confines of your big sister’s love and care and creativity and one which opens your heart to the what ifs that dot the horizon. Along the same kind of lines as The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe staged some months ago by this theatre, the work lacks forced contrivance. It is premised on the children themselves and the magic in their hearts. And this becomes a gift to your child, something he or she will never forget.

  • Underneath a Magical Moon is adapted for stage by Mike Kenny, based on Peter Pan by James Barrie. It is directed by Francois Theron and features creative input by Cathrine Hopkins (musical direction), Tandi Gavin (choreography), Sarah Roberts (set and costumes) and Jane Gosnell (lighting). It is performed by Daniel Keith Geddes, Danny Meaker, Phiphi-Gu’mmy Moletsane and Nirvana Nokwe-Mseleku until April 15 at the National Children’s Theatre in Parktown, Johannesburg. Call 011 484 1584.

Scrooge! Glorious Scrooge!

Seussified

WHAT a little turkey for Christmas! So says Mrs Cratchit (Nieke Lombard) and her husband, Bob (Alessandro Mendes), feeling the pinch, courtesy of Scrooge. Photograph courtesy National Children’s Theatre.

WHAT DO YOU do with a fine and classical tale of Christmas told in Dickensian language, if you want to add a bit of sprite to its shenanigans and a bit of verve to your audience engagement? That’s easy. You Seussify it. So says American theatre-maker Peter Bloedel with his pen as much as his passion for things that make the name Dr Seuss shimmer with recognition, eclecticism and general cartwheeling madness. This fine and beautifully directed work offers the whole package –  with a sniff of classical Seussical self-deprecation, in rhyming couplets, electric green hair and hilarity; and a glut of Dickensian shlock.

It’s all rolled together by a delicious team of performers and designers, under the directorial eye of Francois Theron with Daniel Geddes adding a twinkle of choral energy while he also performs the main character. In short, A Seussified Christmas Carol is everything you would expect from Dr Seuss, and from Dickens, only more, because you get both for one ticket.

The charm, delight and flippancy departments in this work go full out in giving linguistic faux earnestness to the idea of Seussical grammar, and they don’t stoop in showcasing the talent of Blaine Shore. A newcomer to this theatre, his stage presence — be it in the role of Old Fesswig, the dead Jake Marley or other characters — is bold and clear and lends an energised, camp, fleshed out and nuanced insight into the insanity of what Seuss means to his fans.

Ebenezer Scrooge is the kind of bloke that offers insight into why Christmas is a time of goodwill to all beings, kindness and joy to the world. And that’s simply because he’s the utter corollary. With his fingerless gloves, his elaborate dressing gown and his penchant for real miserliness he embodies the notion of meanness down to the tips of his slippers. And who’s he mean to? Bob Cratchit (Alessandro Mendes), for one – his loyal employee. Bob’s a man who has the short end of the stick, but sees it all as a half full glass. Is he simple? No. He’s kind. And he’s poor.

Stepping aside from the notions of Victorian poverty as reflected in Dickens’s 1843 Christmas chestnut, Bloedel injects the kind of rhyming charm which would enthral Dr Seuss himself, and you get delicious, bold and well-formed performances from everyone, including the child performers on board, collectively ramped up with the presences of electric green hair, Seussical red and white stripes and wild, almost callous hilarity. While some of the articulation is not as clear as it could be, the gist of the work is upheld with the kind of Seussical tempo that first put the National Children’s Theatre on most people’s must do lists close to 10 years ago.

With inventive and hilarious language that pokes fun at many things, both historical and contemporary, it’s a tale of an emotionally short-sighted man, four ghosts and the value of holding a mirror up to one’s heart. It might make your heart brim over a little, but it’s all in a good cause.

  • A Seussified Christmas Carol is written by Peter Bloedel and directed by Francois Theron. It features design by Daniel Keith Geddes (choral arrangement and vocal direction), Sarah Roberts (set and costumes), Stan Knight (set construction), Jane Gosnell (lighting) and is performed by Cassius Davids, Jessica Foli, Daniel Keith Geddes, Nieke Lombard, Nomonde Thande Matiwane, Alessandro Mendes and Blaine Shore, in collaboration with three alternate children’s casts co-ordinated by Liz-Mari Botha: Group 1: Joshua Hibbert, Onkagile Kgaladi and Vuyile Zako; Group 2: Brayden Steenhoff, Kaih Mokaka and Shayna Burg; and Group 3: Asher Steenhoff Paidamoyo Mutharika and Aaralyn Muttitt; and understudy Erin Atkins. [This review is premised on the performance featuring Group 2] until December 23 at the National Children’s Theatre in Parktown. Call 011 484-1584 or visit www.nationalchildrenstheatre.org.za
  • There are currently three productions on the boards right now, which deal with Charles Dickens’s great classic: this play, A Christmas Carol directed by Elizma Badenhorst, which is reviewed here, and the film The Man Who Invented Christmas, directed by Bharat Nalluri, which is reviewed here.

Victory in true style for Mr Toad

mrtoad

OUT, damned opportunists! Mr Toad (Gamelihle Bovana) and his buddies save Toad Hall from the weasels and stoats. From left Badger (JT Medupe), Water Rat (Bradley Nowikow) and Mole (John Tsenoli). Photograph courtesy National Children’s Theatre.

IF YOU GREW up under the spell of Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, you will remember that there was always a delicious ferocity about Mr Toad, with his short squat body, his big toady eyes and his enormous mouth. It’s difficult to recall whether it was the wild yet sedate original illustrations of EH Shepard that conveyed this, or Grahame’s impeccable descriptions. Either way, and even if you are not a Wind in the Willows groupie, the fact is that Gamelihle Bovana in the title role of this production of The Adventures of Mr Toad conveys this fabulous mix of bravado and vulnerability, courage and sheer character: he’s a toad to melt your heart.

Indeed, Francois Theron’s rendition of this great classic about friendship and naughtiness, scary forests and bad weasels, as well as comforting cups of tea in moments of great stress and comeuppance for breaking the law, is one of those works which leaps off the stage and into your child’s awareness. For one thing, it is beautifully cast. The three fellows – the pedantic and short-sighted Mole (John Tsenoli), the adventurous and proper Water Rat (Bradley Nowikow) and the wise old Badger (JT Medupe), who has a low tolerance for misbehaviour – form a gorgeously formidable phalanx of dependable friends on which the maverick Toad can rest.

With a complex tale of adventure and prison, the hijacking of a 15th century manor by weasels and ultimate victory, it’s a work that features language that doesn’t patronise; while a very young audience might find some of the words unfamiliar, it’s a show replete with such a beautiful understanding of music and movement, gesture, colour and the rhythm of sound, that the story remains strong even if its subtleties are lost for the tots.

Structured around turn-of-the-century British properness, the adventure, focused on the lives of river folk is as anthropomorphic as possible. There’s a resonance between the costumes and concept that informed this theatre’s production of A Year With Frog and Toad some seasons back, and also an element of the hilarity that brought Martin Rosen’s interpretation of Richard Adams’s Watership Down to filmed life in the 1970s, where rabbits prate away like real English gentlemen.

The set, complete with utterly ingenious elements that are hinged on the horizontal and enable a whole landscape to be magically erected, embraces the work magnificently and with great simplicity. In the first half, we’re introduced to the foursome and get to understand the challenges of having the Toad, he of old wealth and inherited luxuries as a buddy: he’s a faddish bloke, who gets bored easily, but who also takes things to their giddy limit.

In the second part of the work, you will be swept off your feet by Senzesihle Radebe as the magistrate in full command, with a voice to match.

Beautifully structured and gem-like in its crafted quality, where all the elements fit together unmistakably well, it’s a play that is about the novelty of the motor car as it is about the majesty of Toad Hall. In short, this is a work which will leave you glowing with its unequivocal sense of humanity and decency as it balances with an unbridled sense of moral irresponsibility and naughtiness. An utter delight.

  • The Adventures of Mr Toad is based on the book The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame and directed by Francois Theron. Featuring creative input by Piers Chater Robinson (lyrics and music), Neil Brand (musical arrangement), Clint Lesch (musical supervisor), Jodie Renouf Davimes (choreography), Stan Knight (set), Jane Gosnell (lighting) and Sarah Roberts (costumes), it is performed by Gamelihle Bovana, Philip Hanly, Kirsty Marillier, JT Medupe, Garth Meijsen, Bradley Nowikow, Senzesihle Radebe and John Tsenoli, and three alternate children’s casts: Pascalle Durand, Christina Moshides and Keisha van der Merwe, Telaine Tuson and Naledi Setzin; and Emma Martin, Erin Atkins and Julia Johnson, at the National Children’s Theatre in Parktown until July 23. Visit nationalchildrenstheatre.org.za or call 011 484 1584.

Same differences, different sameness and the glory of being seven

Freckleface

SAGE advice of a wise mommy: Megan van Wyk and Kirsty Marillier see the other side of freckles. Photograph courtesy National Children’s Theatre

There’s an almost audible click, that the audience can hear, when performers in a show collaborate with a generous and real spirit of enthusiasm. And there’s almost an audible click when a cast sings with a production, not only in the literal sense, but also because they really get it. The rarity of both these things happening in a production takes your breath away because it is flawless: Freckleface Strawberry The Musical is a simple tale about bullying and friendship which is told with a deft directness, a sparkly sense of self and a true spirit of collaboration, enabling everyone on the creative team to give of their very best.

Led by Kirsty Marillier, who is cast so perfectly, she has the whole stage in her hand from the get go, this delicious little tale of the horrors and pleasures of being different takes you immediately into the rough and tumble of a seven-year-old context. It’s a story of bicycle riding and the tooth fairy, of gentle malice born of observation that is enabled to grow into something wretched, and of dreams that little boys and girls are allowed to have. While it is a little heavy handed on how the idea of marriage and babies represents unequivocal success, everything else about this autobiographical tale rings real, and the work never teeters into utter saccharine.

We’re all a little bit of a Freckleface, with our personal idiosyncrasies and our silent envy of other people’s perfections. This play very beautifully embraces those insecurities which are part of the human condition, with the interlocked narratives of eight children and a baby brother who wears a colander (Brandon Loelly), sparked into life with dreams and nightmares, the advice of a wise mommy and the part time sanctuary of an itchy woollen mask. It’s about vocalised ambitions to be the best and unspoken ones about fearing that you’re never good enough, and conjoined with its lyrics and its choreography, this production fits with as satisfying a ‘click’ as the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.

And everyone, literally everyone – Teekay Baloyi, Megan van Wyk, Dihan Schoeman, Caitlyn Thomson, Senzo Radedbe, Brandon Loelly and Megan Rigby – simply glows in this work. The crowning skill remains in the hand of director, Francois Theron because no one shines brighter than anyone else, and the flow of the story is delicate and robust enough to bring its message across. While the eponymous little redhead remains at the front and centre of the tale, she remains one of the kids in the best possible way. This rendition of the play – it was performed at this theatre in 2014 – will leave you with a different understanding of your own differences, but also with an awareness that you’ve just witnessed something deliciously perfect.

  • Freckleface Strawberry The Musical is written by Julianne Moore and directed by Francois Theron. Featuring design by Stan Knight (set), Rowan Bakker (musical supervision), Shelley Adriaanzen (original choreography), Phillida Le Roux (staging), Sarah Roberts (costumes) and Jane Gosnell (lighting), it is performed by Teekay Baloyi, Brandon Loelly, Kirsty Marillier, Dihan Schoeman, Caitlyn Thomson, Senzo Radebe, Megan Rigby and Megan van Wyk, it is at the National Children’s Theatre in Parktown, until April 13. Call 011 484 1584 or visit nationalchildrenstheatre.org.za/

How a handful of penguins can change your day

popperspenguins

PENGUINS Ahoy: Mr Popper (Samuel Hyde) with two of his wild young birds. Photograph courtesy facebook.

WHAT WOULD YOU do if you discovered your house to be filled with curious exotic birds from Antartica, who want nothing more than snuggling in your freezer or eating more raw fish than you can afford? Mr Popper (Samuel Hyde), a bit of an irresponsible adult, if ever there was, gets to bring havoc into the domestic bliss of his Stillwater home as he gets to experience real heartsore in taking adult decisions. Mr Popper’s Penguins, a favourite of American children, which debuts in South Africa, blends a range of personal challenges with strong light and colour, an overload of cuteness and some really homely values.

On many levels, it’s an ideal end of year family show, bringing together all the issues of responsibility and wildness, dreams and possibility, exploration and history and the exploitation of Hollywood into one story. But scripted in the 1930s, as it is, it tends to exude a lot of social blandness which might make contemporary children feel a little impatient or confused. Do young parents address one another as “Momma” and “Poppa” respectively, still? Perhaps not. Replete with all the fabulous attention to detail of set designer Stan Knight, and costume designer Sarah Roberts, which keeps you enthralled and looking at all the different elements, the work on the whole lacks the kind of tight choreographic cohesion we have seen in this theatre in the past and this hurts its overall fabric and texture.

From a sound perspective, Sanli Jooste in her role of the mommy of the tale often fights vocally with the piped music: and the casualty? Her lyrics. You can’t hear what she’s singing. When the idea that she’s going to be performing on a piano is mentioned, you may smile with gladness, feeling relief that a real instrument will adorn the stage, but sadly the cleavage of her mimed piano performance and the music itself resonates illogically.

It is, however, the children in the role of the eponymous birds themselves that lend the work the charm and specialness that really makes this production worth seeing. While you may have expected more “penguinnish” choreography in the stereotypical understanding of how a human child becomes a penguin, these little ones have been well tutored and carefully directed in the different idiosyncrasies that wild birds forced into a domestic context would generally manifest. Sizwe Sibotshiwe’s heart melting moment when he acknowledges his sheer unadulterated loneliness is the unequivocal gem moment of the piece, but it is the squad of five penguins that capture the froth and nuance of the piece, and lend it fire.

  • Mr Popper’s Penguins, featuring lyrics by Jody Davidson and music by Brett Schirer is based on the novel by Richard Atwater and Florence Hasseltine Atwater, and directed by Francois Theron. It features design by Clint Lesch (musical direction), Chantal Herman (choreography), Sarah Roberts (costumes), Stan Knight (set) and Jane Gosnell (lighting). It is performed by Bethany Joy Harding, Samuel Hyde, Thokozani Jiyane, Sanli Jooste, Naret Loots and Siphiwe Nkabinde, with a child cast comprising Clarise Bard, Dionysia Bizos, Danella Cassel, Larona Christopher, Hannah Cohen, Simone Greehy, Joshua Hibbert, Maya Izaki, Summer Kerwin, Katarina Lee-Cook, Rachel Lee-Cook, Aaralyn Muttitt, Gabriel Poulsen, Tannah Proctor, Mathew Rusznyak, Sizwe Sibotshiwe, Kgahliso Solomon, Aisha Thokoane, Litha Tuku, Thando Tuku and Kayleigh van Wyk [the children who featured in the performance upon which this review is premised were Larona Christopher, Hannah Cohen, Summer Kerwin, Aaralyn Muttitt, Tannah Proctor and Sizwe Sibotshiwe]. It performs at the National Children’s Theatre in Parktown, until December 23. Call 011 484 1584 or visit nationalchildrenstheatre.org.za

The wisdom of Pippi

pippi

WHAT: Me worry? Not a chance. Pippi (Yarden Dagan) confronts the establishment: the welfare officer Mrs Prysselius (Sandy Bota) with the cops, Klang (Graeme Wicks) and Kling (Marvin Molepo). Photograph courtesy artslink.co.za

NOËL COWARD ARTICULATED it first in his 1935 song: Children on stage are complicated. They haven’t the work ethic of professionals. They can lose their hold on their character when they recognise people in the audience. Their parents can be the thing that pushes them into the limelight. They can grow irritatingly precocious, show off and bruise their role. But when you discover a child capable of graciously sidestepping all those clichés, you’ve got to hold tight: Eleven-year-old Yarden Dagan captures this spunky maverick with a maturity beyond her years and an ability to seduce the audience which simply makes this show fly.

Not that the adult casting for this work is shabby or lacking in any way. Indeed, headed by Luciano Zuppa, who plays an utterly delightful Captain Longstocking and Thunder, one of the incompetent crooks; and Sandy Bota, as the inimitable Mrs Prysselius who blends prissyness and bossiness with a real ability to jive, the work is bold and beautiful and beggars comparison with the version that this theatre produced some years ago.

It’s got to do with the magic ingredient of the children themselves, and the astute wisdom of the play’s director, Francois Theron, to know when and where it is appropriate to cast the littlies. This Pippi Longstocking is a sheer delight: in terms of how the work engages the audience, how the child herself is able to give this naughty little girl who was invented in the 1940s contemporary flesh and blood that is unapologetically rooted in Sweden and unapologetically about thumbing a nose to convention.

But something has to be said for that wig alone. Complementing a fantastically detailed body of costumes by Sarah Roberts, the characteristic red Pippi wig with plaits akimbo almost deserves a credit of its own. Poking into the eyes of the neighbouring kids, Tommy (Matthew Rusznyak) and Annika (Rufaro Shava), it’s cheeky and raucous and completely solid in how it embraces Pippi’s values and personality.

Like the Harvey Comics character Little Lotta, in a sense, Pippi Longstocking is amazingly strong. She’s also super-likeable for her peers, has total disdain for regimented order and pattern and is feared and detested by the adult community, for this reason. Indeed, the work presents the adults in it as considerably unsophisticated in their values. Pippi is a wild child, who arrives out of nowhere in suburbia, to live alone with her pet monkey called Mr Nielson and a horse in her kitchen. Her mother is an angel in heaven and her father is a pirate on the high seas. And armed with these credentials, and a big bag full of pirate gold, she’s an anomaly who can sing, dance and makes up life as she goes.

And the message: that life is about a lot more than following the rules or slipping into a puddle of self-pity. It’s about acting on instinct, about not being afraid to make mistakes and be vulnerable. And it’s about loving honestly and deeply.

  • Pippi Longstocking – The Musical is adapted for stage by Staffan Götestam, based on the eponymous children’s book by Astrid Lindgren. It is directed by Francois Theron and features design by Dale Scheepers (musical director), Nicol Sheraton (choreography), Sarah Roberts (costumes), Stan Knight (set) and Jane Gosnell (lighting). It is performed by Zoe Beavon, Sandy Bota, Marvin Molepo, Genevieve Olivier, Roberto Queiroz, Graeme Wicks and Luciano Zuppa, and three child casts, comprising Hannah Cohen, Yarden Dagan, Simone Greely, Khensani Mabaso, Gabriel Poulson, Matthew Rusznyak, Rufaro Shava, Max Stern and Ricci Waksman [this review is based on the work featuring Yarden Dagan, Matthew Rusznyak and Rufaro Shava] at the National Children’s Theatre, in Parktown, Johannesburg, until October 16. Call 011 484 1584 or visit nationalchildrenstheatre.org.za

Forever gems and smiles to set the world aglow

khokho

WHAT comes around … Cruelty and ugliness become synonymous when Hyena (Sandi Dlangalala) meets Fudukazi the tortoise (Nomonde Matiwane). Photograph courtesy artslink.co.za

Occasionally, very occasionally, a creative work seems to make itself. Is it about the universe taking control? Or God? Perhaps it is about having done a thing so often you go into autopilot and don’t think about the hugeness of what you are doing. Either way, when this kind of small miracle happens, everything, but everything, fits into place, in such a way that you can almost hear it click. This level of theatrical brilliance is what you experience in Khokho’s Treasure.

A couple of years in development, this work, which began as Under the Baobab Tree is a clever cipher for a range of African stories. An old man, beloved by the community in which he lived, has died. His legacy is contained in a big suitcase. And what can it be? Is it money? Is it jewels? Rather than anything crassly material, the suitcase is a repository of triggers to stories, songs and memories. And Francois Theron and his cast take the possibilities of these values and shine them up to an astonishing level, which will touch you – and your child – deeply.

Stripped of cliché, the stories are told with a developed sense of empathy and a generosity of spirit. The cast, including established NCT performers such as Suzaan Helberg and Nomonde Matiwane, and newcomer Kealeboga Tshenya, is young enough, yet mature enough, to inject a fine level of wit and self-deprecation into the range of characters that inform the material, which makes you love each and every one, not only for his or her good qualities, but for his or her flaws too. Arguably the highlight is a new tale by Gcina Mhlophe, about Fudukazi, the magic tortoise, epitomised in beautiful detail by Matiwane, who is not afraid to lend such heart to her performance that you weep out of love for the hapless beast.

But something must also be said for Helberg’s smile. This young actress, who plays the gogo and narrator of the work, in her very competent and linguistically flawless performance, exudes a sense of happiness which is so uncontrived and so giving that you get swept up in its glow. Indeed, the positive energy of this work is infectious, as it sidesteps triteness. Not all of the five stories told are happy ones, but each of them presents an energy that gives cultural miens – and South Africa’s different languages – a place. From Afrikaans to Ndebele, isiXhosa to Sesotho, there’s an easy and legible flow of the idea of cultural relevance, be it with a blanket in hand, or under the spell of Nomhle, the African Cinderella, be it in a soccer tournament or on the rural hills of KwaZulu-Natal.

Brightly coloured and direct, Khokho’s Treasure could be an ambassador to all that it good and hopeful in this beautiful land of ours. And while very little tots might become restless before interval, because of the work’s length, as a creative manifestation, it’s as good as it gets.

  • Khokho’s Treasure is adapted and directed by Francois Theron and features design by Stan Knight (set and costumes), Nicol Sheraton and Phillida le Roux (choreography), Jane Gosnell (lighting) and Dale Scheepers (musical direction). It is performed by Sandi Dlangalala, Sibusiso Nhlapo Ferguson, Suzaan Helberg, Nomonde Matiwane, Mark Tatham and Kealeboga Tshenye at the National Children’s Theatre in Parktown until September 3. Visit nationalchildrenstheatre.org.za or call 011 484 1584.

Startled by Coriolanus

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#MartiusMustFall! A young cast tells the dense tragedy of Coriolanus. Photograph courtesy reviewonline.co.za

IT’S RATHER AN odd kind of name to be trending around senior high school students at the moment. Coriolanus is arguably one of Shakespeare’s densest and more difficult works. With no witches or ghosts, monsters or weather patterns to give it verve, it’s a tragedy of political violence and class struggle which resonates with the political morals of our own times, and it’s also this year’s and next year’s English matric setwork for South African schools affiliated to the Independent Examinations Board. This production casts the National Children’s Theatre in a previously unexplored framework: that of the teenaged audience.

And all these elements are to the theatre and the production team’s credit. The pared-down set, and cleverly adaptable costume changes lend starkness and boldness to this rendition. The young enthusiastic cast and their dry-mouthed passion in articulating the tale is infectious and your focus is caught and held very quickly. The play, featuring some astonishing fight choreography, is geared to adapt easily to a range of different venues and to travel easily, but, it seems, having seen the work at the intimate theatre of the NCT in Parktown, the cast has not been adequately prepped in modulating their volume in different spaces.

While it may be all fun and dandy to bang sticks on the floor of a high school stage and shout with great volubility into the faces of youngsters who are studying the work, doing something similar to adult audiences in a tiny space hurts not only the play’s clarity, but the audience’s ability to engage the material. The cajoling of a mob could have been as effective – if not more sinister – had it been conducted in a whisper, in this venue, for instance.

It’s a curious thing: a porous reflection on the theatre’s fourth wall is understood to loosen up the material and render it more casual but offer a more developed understanding of the characters being performed, because responding to audience members effectively changes the nub and current of the performance. Each night. Noble goals, indeed. But it makes some rather astonishing assumptions on the robustness of said audience members. There’s a give and take that happens in this context which puts you, in the audience, who has paid for your ticket, at a disadvantage. This feels wrong: Don’t shout into my face. Move me with your conviction and your skill and your supreme understanding of what you are doing.

The play is sensibly cut to a workable duration of 90 minutes or so. But Coriolanus is not marketed as one of Shakespeare’s more ‘sexy’ works, for a range of reasons. The material, dealing with everything from the ethics of honouring your parents to remaining true to what you believe in, is replete with nuance that takes it back to ancient Rome where it is set. It is dense with cultural references and this young cast doesn’t play a strong role in clarifying the work’s narrative spine. Pieces like Just Antigone and (After) The Flies, for instance, meshed complex historical works with a contemporary understanding, as well as audience engagement, without compromising the material or the focus. But in spite of some hashtag-evocative chants throughout the work, Coriolanus doesn’t offer you any of that loose, wise astuteness, and you leave the work not really entertained or even informed but still startled.

Having said all of that, the difficulty of the initiative must be taken into account. This is a tremendously talented group of creative professionals. Their articulation of Shakespeare’s words is uncompromised and beautiful and their interaction onstage is sophisticated and bold. It’s just their friendliness to an audience that needs more sharpening.

  • Coriolanus by William Shakespeare is co-directed by Rohan Quince and Nicola Pilkington. It features design by Sarah Roberts (costume and set), Jane Gosnell (lighting), Stan Knight (set construction) and Ryan Dittman (combat choreographer). It is performed by Cassius Davids, Emma Delius, William Harding, Maxx Moticoe, Emilie Owen, Thapelo Sebogodi, Carlos Williams and Sanelisiwe Yekani, and is performing a travelling season under the auspices of the National Children’s Theatre, which will be touring to high schools nationally. Call 011 484 1584 or visit nationalchildrenstheatre.org.za