Fiona gives Poison wings

blondepoison

REGRETS, I’ve had a few: Fiona Ramsay plays Stella Goldschlag. Photograph courtesy http://www.artslink.co.za

CAN SOMETHING AS thoroughly written about as the European Holocaust still engage a contemporary audience with a modicum of freshness? Or are we, as a society so limp with Holocaust fatigue in our histories and fictional accounts that another Holocaust play trotting out narratives we know well, has scant impact? This is a question you might ponder, with Blonde Poison. But unequivocally, as you watch the work, the authority Fiona Ramsay exudes across this tale of betrayal and hate, beauty and ugliness, is the ingredient that makes the work tick.

As it opens with the ripe and gravelly German accent of Stella Goldschlag and the story begins to elegantly unfurl, taking us back to Berlin in the 1930s under Janna Ramos-Violante’s expert direction and Ramsay’s utterly tight and masterful portrayal, you’re not quite sure of Stella’s identity. She’s blonde. She’s very German, but she’s too blasé in her condemnation of Jews and her knowledge of Jewish cuisine not to be a Jew herself. This self-assurance, this element of jazzy pizzazz gives her the edge and forces her over it, in the name of self-preservation.

The interface of sound and voice overs and the elements of the set, are tightly woven into the narrative, which casts an understanding of context that is sophisticated as it is descriptive and evocative, never leaning toward gimmick. The texture of the play is strong and the language powerful, but still, as the text teeters around that “parachute moment” in war when morals have to be cast aside in the name of saving your own life, you’re left feeling that you know this story. You know how it will end.

You know there will be a tremendous amount of loss and death on the way. And you know that you’ll feel your emotions pushed and pulled in different directions as anti-Semitism and the murder of Jews comes under the proverbial loupe. And in having this sense of knowledge, you lose an aspect of horror. You’ve been down these paths before. You’ve shouted and cried before. You might not do it again.

In short, the play casts a cardboard cut-out reflection on the morality of history. Ramsay is too sophisticated a performer to slip into this kind of one-dimensionality and she lifts and stretches the work, through her presence in it, way beyond its potential. So, what you get is an extraordinary theatre experience, premised on a fairly ordinary play, but populated with such astute performance and design skill, that any flaws in the predictability of the work become forgivable.

  • Blonde Poison is written by Gail Louw and directed by Janna Ramos-Violante. Featuring design by Alex Farmer (lighting) and Stan Knight (set construction), it is performed by Fiona Ramsay with voice overs by James Alexander, Janna Ramos-Violante and Tim Wells at the Auto and General Theatre on the Square in Sandton until February 4. Call 011 883-8606 or visit theatreonthesquare.co.za
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The scintillating horror of Doubt

Unrelenting: Sister Aloysius (Fiona Ramsay) and Sister James (Janna Ramos-Violante) hold moral authority in a place of worship. Photograph by Germaine de Larche, courtesy Auto & General Theatre on the Square.

Unrelenting: Sister Aloysius (Fiona Ramsay) and Sister James (Janna Ramos-Violante) hold moral authority in a place of worship. Photograph by Germaine de Larche, courtesy Auto & General Theatre on the Square.

What would you do if you suspected something appalling was happening in your midst, where an innocent child’s well-being was at stake, and the issue was a disaster you think you might have the power to avert? This is the kind of dilemma embraced in James Cuningham’s stage version of John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer prize-winning play Doubt: A Parable.

It is not so much the 2008 film version featuring Philip Seymour Hoffman and Meryl Streep that this play evokes, but Jean-Jacque Annaud’s 1986 interpretation of Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose, in its engagement with the blind and stubborn faith of the establishment, played with unforgettable vehemence by Feodor Chaliapin Jr as Jorge and Volker Prechtel as Malachia, the priests who guard the sanctity of the library.

It is this fierce and dark tone created by the stylised set in juxtaposition with severe costumes and utterly honed performances by Fiona Ramsay and Janna Ramos-Violante that embraces the moral contradiction of the play that will haunt you. Ramsay, in particular, embodies the sense of a die-hard old nun without a glimmer of light in her outlook; terrifying to contemplate, but magnetic to behold. Her slight frame embodies something so massive and catastrophic clutching so tightly to the one-upmanship of religious sway, it is unforgettable.

Ramos-Violante is the younger nun, the foil to the tale. Opposite Ramsay’s Sister Aloysius, her Sister James is small fry, a woman easily threatened by the authority of church hierarchy in a misogynist world.

The prescience of this work, set as it is on the cusp of a kind of collapse of innocence of Western culture – just after the assassination of President JF Kennedy – cannot be overlooked, in our world of increasing religious fundamentalism, but also one of increasing social transparency, which sees the unravelling of so much horror that traditionally happened behind closed doors – and where the presentation of young boys and priests in the same sentence leads one to believe the worst.

And yet, unlike Aisling Walsh’s Song for a Raggy Boy (2003) which confronts the same issue, the subtlety in Cuningham’s direction and the collaborative energies of the cast, is almost more devastating, offset as it is by an utterly sterling cameo performance by Mwenya Kabwe as the child’s mother, which is pivotal to the whole work.

Doubt is a cleanly composed, terrifying piece of muscular, unpretentious theatre, unforgivably tight in its use of language, but also completely developed and three-dimensional in how it describes the dilemma. You don’t leave the environment armed with a healthy dollop of homophobia and self-righteous hatred of the establishment of the church education system. But you do leave in an emotional state of turbulence that might keep you awake.

  • Doubt: A Parable, written by John Patrick Shanley is directed by James Cuningham and designed by Tina Le Roux (lighting), Vaughn Sadie (set) and Margo Fleish (costumes). It is performed by Mwenya Kabwe, James MacEwan, Janna Ramos-Violante and Fiona Ramsay, at the Auto & General Theatre on the Square in Sandton, until August 15. 0118838606 or visit co.za

When the Old and the Beautiful becomes the Dark and the Lovely

Doing it in the dark: Tony Bentel on the piano, with Fiona Ramsay on vocals. Photograph by Germaine De Larch.

Doing it in the dark: Tony Bentel on the piano, with Fiona Ramsay on vocals. Photograph by Germaine De Larch.

Picture the scenario: the scene is cast, with a fabulous director, a seasoned duo of performers and a tuned piano. Chairs are placed, the tone is set. And then the power goes down. “It’s scheduled!” yell some. “It’s not!” yell others. But still, it’s dark as pitch, and the show’s about to start.

This is what happened for the opening performance of the second season of The Old and the Beautiful, tonight, a song and piano work which tears apart and glories what it means to age. And in spite of incipient darkness, acts of God or other irritating lurgies, the show must always go on, and it did: against the velvety blackness of the night, the wavering harsh circle of a torch or two and in the glow of some strategically placed candles, the performers gave a very privileged audience a taste of the full production.

It was perfect. Glorying in the gravelly, ‘telegram from hell’ kind of work of Marianne Faithfull, the breathless and breathtaking ‘Maybe this time’ from the 1972 film of Cabaret and a piece from the rich experimental heady days of Johannesburg’s Market Theatre, the work is funny and subtle and humble with its self-deprecating pizzazz moments, but one in which the centre is firmly cast with a great deal of soul. And a hefty dollop of cynicism.

Watching this in the dark with the performers – Fiona Ramsay on vocals and Tony Bentel on piano – unable to rest on any gimmicks by way of amplification and lighting, you realise the value of true commitment to a discipline. And it makes you shiver. And weep.

Nine years ago, in 2005, a production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, featuring Bill Flynn as Bottom, suffered a similar indignity. It was load-shedding season at the time and half way through the work, the power was out and pandemonium began to break out in the theatre. But the tale wasn’t allowed to end with disgruntled audience members blindly feeling their way home. No: director Dorothy Ann Gould clapped her hands and announced that the show would go on, in the garden. It was a midsummer’s night. And the magic was real.

Similarly, the Old and the Beautiful began its December season with priceless and classy aplomb. It’s a true gem of a work, bringing together the considerable talents of Bentel and Ramsay. You might not be privileged enough to see it in the utter dark, but see it, you should: a delicate and gritty reflection on the fabric that make us all human and vulnerable.

The Old and the Beautiful is compiled and performed by Fiona Ramsay and Tony Bentel and directed by Janna Ramos-Violante. It performs at POP Arts, Maboneng, in central Johannesburg, until December 7.

Constellations and the games people play

Janna Ramos-Violante and Ashley Dowds in Constellations. Photograph by Suzy Bernstein.

Janna Ramos-Violante and Ashley Dowds in Constellations. Photograph by Suzy Bernstein.

This play is about cosmology and bee hives; it’s also about life, loss, love and death; taking chances and letting go. It is about the games people play. But above all else, it is about celebrating the veteran directing chops of Alan Swerdlow, revealing him at his most intelligent best.

In Constellations, he directs two of this country’s arguably more underrated performers: Ashley Dowds, who never seems to age and who has recently served as an eminently watchable foil opposite the ilk of Brenda Sakellarides and Keren Tahor; and the charming Janna Ramos-Violante, who we’ve oft fallen in love with in her capacity as director and performer over the years.

Honoured as the London Standard Weekly newspaper’s play of the year in 2012, this quiet, wisely pared down work grapples with relationships with a rapier-like pen that casts its words in a curiously unusual rhythm, which quickly disabuses you of the promise of a soppy love story. It has that illusion of cynical lightness that director Sylvaine Strike achieved with Pregnant Pause in 2009, but also that touch of magic conveyed by Athena Mazarakis and Craig Morris in Attachments (1-6), a danced essay about love.

Neither dance piece nor pregnancy romp, Constellations is about the brain’s frontal lobe as the seat of language. It touches the terror of genetic inheritance. It is constructed through a series of exchanges, which in the vein of the technique of Irish playwright Samuel Beckett are repeated and re-used as a metaphor for the kinds of games people play in conversation and the things they say and say and say again, without ever saying what they mean.

The medical curve ball in the work’s denouement will grab you by your humanity. The tentative conversational choreography around marriage and life and death and communication are handled with a devastatingly subtle hand. Suddenly, you are forced to look at both Mary Ann (Ramos-Violante) and Roland (Dowds) in new and increasingly more sophisticated if not tragic lights. It’s not very different from watching a cast pebble make rings in a puddle.

But it is the light directorial hand, the presence of an off-pink cardigan, a bench and a trellis and the gentle diversion from logical chronology that doesn’t let any aspect of this tight work run away with you. It’s almost farcical in its repetition of lines, almost annoying in how the give and take rests on a few words re-articulated, but it never reaches farcical proportions, nor annoying ones. It holds fast onto the issues at hand. It contains all the elements: happiness, cruelty, confusion, pain and horror, but it enfolds its contents with a sympathetic yet acerbically sophisticated knowledge of the interface of humour with tragedy, leaving you at peace and sated. A beautiful, beautiful work.

  • Constellations by Nick Payne is directed by Alan Swerdlow and performed by Ashley Dowds and Janna Ramos-Violante, at The Studio, Montecasino Theatre, Fourways, until September 28.