Pandora’s suitcase

The Suitcase 2017

ALL we need is each other: Timi (Siyabonga Thwala) and Namhla (Masasa Lindiwe Mbangeni). Photograph by Iris Dawn Parker, courtesy of the Market Theatre.

WHEN A WORK touches you so deeply that elements in its direction have become part of how you see and speak about the world, you know that something’s been done right. In 2006, James Ngcobo directed the stage version of Es’kia Mphahlele’s tragic and beautiful tale The Suitcase. It’s back, returning from a recent United Kingdom tour, and while there are some radical changes to the form of the work, armed with many of the same performers and almost the same set, its magic is still mostly there.

It’s a tale of love and horror in a time of poverty which sees Timi Ngobese (Siyabonga Thwala) and his young wife Namhla (Masasa Lindiwe Mbangeni) coming to the big city to start a life together. It’s the 1950s and they come from a rural village. She’s Xhosa. He’s Zulu. And in the face of frowns from their respective families, they are rich with their love for one another. This love is so young and so real that it makes you weep: you instinctively know the universe is nestling sinister plots in the wings for them.

In the details of this work, love exudes from the way in which its fibre and texture are crafted. From the lambrequins — ornamental shelf hangings lending an irrevocable domesticity to otherwise bare spaces — that define the set and offer platform to the paper birds, to the manner in which the set enfolds a story within a story, that echoes the way in which the words fold into one another, the piece is eminently satisfying to watch. Also bucking the trend of forcing piped music into a production, the work features Bheki Khoza playing the guitar on stage, which complements the work with sophistication and delicacy.

Along the same kind of lines, the work also features three young women – Nokukhanya Dlamini, Gugulethu Shezi and Ndoh Dlamini – who bring interregna of song into the story. And this is a decision less sophisticated and delicate: Their sung interjections are highly amplified, and while the trio is generally in fine form and mostly harmonises well, the boldness of their presence tends to shove the emotional impact of the story down your throat rather vehemently. It no longer allows the events to simmer in a context of devastating subtlety as they did in the earlier version of the play.

Featuring quirky nuances, lovely stylisations of movement and sound, it’s a tale of bright shiny and naïve optimism and crushing, relentless disappointment as it is a heartbreaking cipher of the cruelty of apartheid values that shunned the black man from any modicum of hope.

Mbangeni absolutely glows in the mix of endearing naïveté and mature, scarred resignation she presents to the work. She performs opposite Thwala who reprised this role over ten years ago, and together they offer an energy of domesticity and love that is sweet and palpable. Desmond Dube and John Lata reflect the community surrounding the young Ngobesis, bringing humour and poignancy, the flavour of poverty and the bitter jokes that come of its challenges into the mix.

Not flawless, but deeply iconic as a piece of South African storytelling, this is a valuable, compelling theatre experience.

  • The Suitcase is written by Es’kia Mphahlele and adapted and directed by James Ngcobo. It features creative input by Wesley France (lighting), Nadya Cohen (set) and Nthabiseng Makone (costumes), and is performed by Ndoh Dlamini, Nokukhanya Dlamini, Desmond Dube, John Lata, Masasa Lindiwe Mbangeni, Gugulethu Shezi and Siyabonga Thwala, with Bheki Khoza on guitar, at the John Kani Theatre, Market Theatre complex until November 26. Visit markettheatre.co.za or call 011 832 1641.
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For Karabo, and all Karabos

inhershoes

MY sisters, myself: Nommangaliso Tebeka, Joyce Hopane and Nomasonto Radebe. Photograph courtesy Market Theatre.

TAKE AN AUDIENCE of 72. Divide them in two and range them facing one another across the stage. Strip them of their ability to sit in the auditorium because every seat in the space has been marked with the name of a woman, who is both present and absent because of this. This is the potent and ghostly start to Luyanda Sidiya’s new piece, In Her Shoes, a contemplation of women in a time of moral despair.

Manipulating the space and the audience, Sidiya boldly sets the tone for something utterly extraordinary; the work starts with a frightening level of aplomb and virtual perfection that makes you want to leave as soon as you’ve seen it because it feels so complete. The narrative is so violent yet so tightly told, the gestures so articulate and the element of fear so well understood and expressed that it feels as though you’ve sampled an elegant sufficiency, peppered as it is with primal screams and troubling potency.

Karabo Mokoena was just 22 when she tragically emerged on South Africa’s headlines. She was another desperately sad casualty in the domestic scourge against women that continues to leave this country reeling. Raped and murdered, the remains of this beautiful young student were burnt so badly, they were difficult to recognise. And the unfolding horror of the story revealed that the man who had perpetrated the crime had been her boyfriend. Much of the first part of In Her Shoes touches the life and values of Karabo and all the Karabos out there.

You weep for her. For her mother, for her sister, for what she represented to a South African community. But you cannot leave the theatre at that time. Firstly, because, you’re seated up there on the stage. And secondly, because this bit of perfection in dance and staging, wordless narrative and lighting, is but the prologue, and the work unfolds further from that point.

Sadly, this is, in many ways, its undoing: the focus is compromised and a story line is cast around a rural set of values, posing moral options for a young woman which is overshadowed and underplayed by sound that is amplified to such a tremendous extent that you feel the bones in your head beginning to shiver against one another. You feel your teeth take the sound’s frequency vibrate horribly and you fear your life blood may burst out in great spasms and arcs in protest.

You cannot help but wonder what this work would have been like in the absence of this immense, all-encompassing noise. While Sidiya’s use of the spoken voice in this piece diminishes its strength as a dance work, and pushes it into a literalness which overrides his extraordinarily fine choreography, some of the texts are magnificent, but still, the sound bears down on you, like an immense cloud, which blocks your ability to see these beautiful dancers as they should be seen.

  • In Her Shoes is choreographed and directed by Luyanda Sidiya. It features design by Billy Monama (musical director), Nomvula Molepo (lighting), Lesoko V. Seabe and Nommangaliso Tebeka (texts) and Keaoleboga Seodigeng (costumes). It is performed by Joyce Hopane, Nomasonto Radebe, Lesoko V. Seabe and Nommangaliso Tebeka, and a music ensemble comprising Phosho Lebese and Sibusiso Sibanyoni at the John Kani Theatre, Market Theatre complex, until August 13. Visit markettheatre.co.za or call 011 832 1641.

Lorca, butchered

Bloodwedding

BRIDE on a plinth: The sweetheart of one man, the passion of another, Carla Classen plays the central protagonist in Bloodwedding

BY ALL ACCOUNTS, the idea of Blood Wedding by Lorca conjures up a whole rich and gruesome terrain of achingly beautiful poetry, difficult emotional quandaries and an unrelenting tale of flowers and moons, sacrifice and tradition. It’s not clear why the direction of this production, Raissa Brighi chose to edit Lorca, but more so, why she chose not to hone her cast’s skills in articulation more tightly.

While Brighi’s introduction of African songs and traditional approaches to the idea of a wedding enhances the work, deepening it and giving it a rich local context, it is the cropping and changing in the work’s language which causes it to stutter and stumble – it’s not clear why more contemporary jargon have been at times inserted into the text: this mars the flow of language and forces the Lorca fluidity of form to lose shape and become humdrum, at times even comical.

Featuring some achingly beautiful moments, in the lighting and choreographic input into the work, this Bloodwedding is a very shouty affair with performers too lacking in the physical and contextual gravitas of the roles they embody. The mother of the groom, a fiery and fierce woman in the original text, who has lost her husband and her son, is played by Rachel Swanepoel, and while she works very hard at embracing the text and the gut-wrenching emotion, you can’t help but see her as a young girl. Has it to do with the physical presence of the performer and her body language? Either way, this young performer seems under-directed. Similarly with the father of the bride, Henri Strauss.

As the dialogue of the piece begins, your heart sinks: the piece begins with a fine and magnificently danced overture, one so powerful that you might have felt yourself  prepared to be watching a dance piece with no dialogue and a developed engagement with this text of family feuds, class issues and vendetta, through gesture and form. But no: the characters with their unmodulated voices maul the simple magnificence of the original.

Further to all of that, there are few things as damaging as a cellulitic bum cheek exposed erroneously in a dance move. The female dancers have their dignity inadequately taken care of in this work, which sees them wearing revealing underwear which detracts very emphatically from the main issue at hand. It is issues such as this that should have been more carefully addressed.

But as the piece unfolds, with the sensitive criss-crossing of lights that supersede nebulous and unfocused graphics across the space, something gem-like is still evident. There’s a choreographed fight sequence when the two husbands come head to head that will grab your attention and your emotions, and there’s an inspired use of the venue’s red brick walls that lend the piece a lusty bloody sense of reality. Not to forget an utterly superb an understanding of the malevolent and playful presence of the moon on a scooter that also redeems much.

The question needs to be asked, however, regarding the professional levels of this work. Yes, it was performed in the Market Theatre’s main theatre, which makes you believe that this is up there with everything else that has graced this stage, in terms of professionality. But it is acknowledged as having been produced by the Drama Department of the University of Pretoria. But what does this mean? The cast members and creative team are listed on the programme without reference to what year of study they are in, assuming of course, that they are students. Without such context, you must assume that they are professional. But, by the end of the work, you feel that this cannot possibly be the case.

  • Bloodwedding is written Federico García Lorca and adapted for this production by its director, Raissa Brighi with the assistance of Alice Pernè It features creative input by Eugene Mashiane (choreography), Baily Snyman (lighting), Jacinda Barker, Heleen van Tonder and Robin Burke (audio visual). It was performed by Carla Classen, Cassius Davids, MacMillan Mabaleka, Susan Nkata, Palesa Olifant, Henri Strauss, Rachel Swanepoel and Joffe Tsebe, at the John Kani Theatre, Market Theatre complex in Newtown until June 11. It will perform at Graeme College, during the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown on July 2 and 3. Visit www.nationalartsfestival.co.za

The ineffable, uncomfortable beauty of Robyn

butterflies

COCKING a snook: Elisabeth Bakambamba Tambwe (on screen) and Eric Languet (in the tutu) in Robyn Orlin’s “in a world full of butterflies, it takes balls to be a caterpillar … some thoughts on falling …” Photograph by Thomas Lachambre.

ONE THING YOU have to disabuse yourself of when you enter the audience of a Robyn Orlin work is that you’re safe, there in the dark, as you take your seat. That no one will interfere with you or embarrass you. And it’s such a powerful dynamic that it sets the world on fire and fills the Market Theatre to the rafters. Whether it fits into the safety precautions of a theatre filled with members of the public, is another whole question.

In truth, this shaky perception of your own safety, be it emotional or physical safety, is something you should hold onto in entering the space of any live performance. What they’re doing for you is about challenging many things, including your right to be there – and to be comfortable there, while a performer is baring their soul, their guts and their body to you. Sometimes in that order. Traditionally however, this is not the case. For the price of a ticket, you get to sit anonymously in a darkened room and see someone do something that might be extraordinary and revealing and painful. Whichever side of the audience spectrum you sit on, Orlin’s work casts shivers in your direction.

And what a privilege it is to see performers of the calibre of Elisabeth Bakambamba Tambwe and Eric Languet in this construction of two propositions, in a world full of butterflies it takes balls to be a caterpillar and … some thoughts on falling … , a work which is as much about caterpillars and falling as it is about the narrative of dance, and the way in which Orlin has the bravery to tear strips off traditional practice. And get away with it.

The work opens in a stage full of audience members and an auditorium covered in small brightly coloured pop-up tents. And as it unfolds to important songs such as Strange Fruit, sung by Nina Simone, you realise the poetry between a chrysalis and a pop up tent. Tambwe stretches, she sings, she prates, she embraces the stages with complete authority, engaging with her unbelievable costume in a way that dazzles. You don’t, however, know what to expect, and you laugh and you shiver at the things she does, with her dress, the webcam, the audience on stage, the tents, the reality of being a caterpillar, or ultimately a butterfly, and what it all means in the bigger picture.

She’s shooed away unceremoniously by Languet, in a trench coat. In a work that confronts balletic tradition as it comes face to face with the expectations of gender in dance and the constant fear of falling. Is he Icarus, the son of Daedalus, who flew to the sun with wings of wax and was melted and cast into the sea? Is he everyman who boasts hubris and suffers the indignity of a fall? There’s a conflation of values which entraps your thinking. He moves his ageing body like a sylph, a naiad, and you forget that he is human. You sit there in a spiral of thoughts, of realities, feeling afraid that he might fall on top of you as he has done to other audience members. You’re mesmerised by the magnetic focus of the webcam as you stare into the enlarged face of Tambwe.

There’s an ineffable, unspeakable and above all uncomfortable beauty that is breached in the concatenation in both their performance and with their different details that force you out of conventional thinking. The work feels too long and yet too short. Your head spins with the issues being tossed in your direction and you feel you can’t take any more, you can’t breathe… but alas, when it is over, there is a part of your heart that remains aflutter, there’s a part of your subconscious which murmurs, ‘did I really see that?’

But big kudos are due to the theatre itself and the organisations who made it possible for this work to travel: we don’t often get to see contemporary dance of this calibre in South Africa.

  • In a world full of butterflies, it takes balls to be a caterpillar … some thoughts on falling … is created by Robyn Orlin. Featuring design by Laïs Foulc (lighting), Birgit Neppl (costumes) sound (Cobi von Tonder) and Thabo Pule (technical direction), it was performed by Elisabeth Bakambamba Tambwe and Eric Languet on December 6 and 7 at the John Kani Theatre, Market Theatre complex in Newtown.

A Monteverdi potpourri and the power of wow

lamento

MY enemy myself: Lamento confronts the nuance that makes perpetrators victims, and victims, perpetrators. Photograph by Graham de Lacey.

IT’S NOT EVERY day that you’re privileged enough to see a staging of 17th century madrigals with real Baroque instruments played on a major Johannesburg stage. It’s also not every day that you get to see Monteverdi translated into isiZulu in the surtitles, with the timelessness of his tales woven into current South African narrative. Lamento, created by Kobie van Rensburg calls itself a pastiche in the self-consciously postmodern understanding of the term: blending new animation technology with a genuine respect for the authentic Monteverdi nuances, it’s an astoundingly beautiful experience.

In 2007, Philip Miller staged his extraordinary ReWind: A Cantata for Voice, Tape And Testimony. While Miller’s work remains in a category of its own in terms of the uniqueness of the perspective and the fresh boldness in his complicated yet clear weaving together of music values and political narrative, there’s a resonance here with Lamento. Divided into seven discrete scenes, the story it tells is tragic and heroic, political and prescient, balanced by diverse perspectives, but in truth, it becomes less of a concern to you in the audience, than the sheer beauty of the piece. This has, primarily, to do with the quality of the musical performances of the singers and instrumentalists dovetailed with the technological set.

The experience of hearing the beguilingly simple music language of Monteverdi, supported as it is with but six instruments and five performers onstage, is in itself enough to raise goosebumps. Sandwich it into an ensemble that involves blue screen technology and a whole array of tricks and idiosyncrasies and you get swept away on many currents simultaneously.

And that richness of diversity is the work’s popular selling point – not everyone loves the idea of  17th century proto-opera in Italian – but it is also, in a sense, its weakness: so much is happening at the same time, all the time, that you find yourself focusing on the music and allowing everything else to slip into lesser definition. So the narrative gets lost. The technology begins to feel a little gimmicky at times. And the humour feels forced. That is, until it’s brought to life again by the singers, who inject that spark of relevance and fire into this incredibly fine ancient music, thus becoming the secret ingredient which forces you to overlook flaws with a forgiving, nay, an adoring, eye.

Touching on everything from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to the Soweto Uprisings, Sharpeville, Vlakplaas and #FeesMustFall, it has a spot of Nkandla and a reference to selfies in it. On a level, when you contemplate the immensity it reaches and touches in confronting the sadness of violent loss in a political context, the soul of the work begs for it to be more abstract and more simple, and again, as these thoughts are articulated in your head, it is the singing voices which shift your perspectives away in a swathe of call and response songs.

If you think of The Magic Flute – Impempe Yomlingo, performed in Johannesburg in 2008 under the auspices of Isango Portobello, something similar happened there too. The work was an isiZulu translation of Mozart’s eponymous opera. Rather than a traditional western orchestra, it featured African musical instruments and African solutions to the opera’s drama. It was utterly magical, but it seemed to be bending over backwards in its attempts to pull out all the stops and redress every historical imbalance you can think of. And this conflation of magic and trying so hard to showcase everything possible is Lamento’s slight stumbling block.

See it for the novelty it offers, and while you’re wowing at the modern technology, you will quietly fall completely in love with Monteverdi. And the rest becomes incidental.

  • Lamento is written and directed by Kobie van Rensburg based on scenic madrigals by Claudio Monteverdi. Featuring design by Kobie van Rensburg (video, stage and set) and Michael Maxwell (lighting), it is performed by Nick de Jager (tenor), Bongani Mthombeni (tenor), Nombuso Ndlandla (soprano), Ronald Paseka (bass) Elsabé Richter (soprano) Sibusiso Simelane (tenor) and accompanied by the Lamento Ensemble: John Reid Coulter (harpsichord/organ), Waldo Luc Alexander and Jonathan Meyer (violins), Tessa Olivier and Frederike Scholtz (violas), Berthine van Schoor (cello) and Uwe Grosser (chittarone/Baroque guitar), at the John Kani Theatre, Market Theatre complex in Newtown, Johannesburg, until November 6. Visit markettheatre.co.za or call 011 832 1641.

Lest we forget

ubu

OH, Ma, have you forsaken me? Pa Ubu (Dawid Minnaar) faces some awful truths, cast by Ma Ubu (Busi Zokufa) onscreen. Photograph by Val Adamson.

WHEN 20 YEARS have elapsed after your first experience in the presence of true greatness, you might have forgotten the unequivocal brilliance that a work such as Ubu and the Truth Commission has brought to South African theatre. And indeed, more than 20 years on, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that brought exposure of the horrendous atrocities that were part of the secret political landscape and a semblance of closure to apartheid, might also have slipped into the nebulousness of memory. The value of the current staging of this work can not be understated.

Ubu Roi was an anarchic character penned in the late 19th century by French playwright Alfred Jarry. When it saw light of day onstage in Paris in 1896, it was nothing short of revolutionary. The character’s opening word was famously “Merde!” (shit) to the horror of Parisian audiences. The inflammatory nature of the work is celebrated as having lit the fuse for the anti-establishment movement Dada.

What William Kentridge, in collaboration with the Handspring Puppet Company and Jane Taylor, evolved in Ubu and the Truth Commission is a rich mêlée of every bit of sinister absurdity that Jarry’s Ubu represents, conjoined horrifyingly with apartheid’s values. And there opens a splendid miasma of everything from horror to hilarity and back in a production that will haunt you forever.

Busi Zokufa and Dawid Minnaar reprise their original roles of Ma and Pa Ubu respectively. He’s out there perpetrating brutality on black people. She thinks he’s cheating on her with other women. But the truth is revealed through the lies that he’s literally fed to the couple’s pet crocodile, Niles. In an impossibly fine mix of political association, fact, diatribe and fantasy, the truth and lies and terrors in the night which saw people being electrocuted and tortured, burnt to ashes and dismembered, in the name of the ‘Swart Gevaar’ are brought to the fore.

In the 1990s, when this work was emerging, Kentridge was working with hand-made film, and the rough edges we see in this work resonate impeccably with the narrative as it unfolds. Zokufa and Minnaar, supported by puppeteers Gabriel Marchand, Mongi Mthombeni and Mandiseli Maseti, are in impeccable form: the sense of possibility evoked by a shower that becomes the translator’s booth for the TRC, a suitcase that is the body of a three-headed dog, the vulture on stage, a cat that turns into a camera tripod and microphones that wriggle away from lies, not to forget the interplay of shadow, technology and performers is astonishing yet profound, witty and terrifying all at once.

Your head is consumed by the parallel language of apartheid and its transgressors, by the smooth and astonishing relationship between human being and wooden puppet, by the interfacing of translations central to the texture of the TRC and by the way in which this work, by all accounts, a terrible tale about a man whose soul is rotten by power, remains deeply entertaining and a resounding achievement. This is truly one of contemporary South African theatre’s most important classics, and the privilege of seeing it again in Johannesburg cannot be underplayed.

  • Ubu and the Truth Commission is conceived and directed by William Kentridge and Janni Younge, and written by Jane Taylor. It features design by Adrian Kohler (puppets), Wesley France (lighting), Warrick Sony and Brendan Jury (Music) and Robyn Orlin (choreography). It is performed by Gabriel Marchand, Mandiseli Maseti, Mongi Mthombeni, Dawid Minnaar and Busisiwe Busi Zokufa, at the John Kani Theatre, Market Theatre complex in Newtown, Johannesburg, until September 11. Call 011 832 1641 or visit co.za

Siva: Seven layers of dance perfection under Sidiya’s capable hand

Magnetic: Julia Burnham in Siva. Photograph courtesy cue.ru.ac.za

Magnetic: Julia Burnham in Siva. Photograph courtesy cue.ru.ac.za

You are led into the space by a series of lit thick short candles, evocative of the memorial-imbued candles of Jewish tradition. You encounter a woman being washed by another, in a ritual context that is achingly intimate even though it is cast in the thick of audience traffic. From this point, an emotional stillness is evoked; it is something that is carried through the duration of this exquisite piece, with respect and dignity, fire and heart.

As Siva, this year’s Standard Bank Young Artist work for dance choreographed by Luyanda Sidiya, unfolds, bringing together isiXhosa words, flames and some of the most extraordinary physical manoeuvring you might have ever seen, so something remarkable takes place. The work is premised on an understanding of godhead and religious ritual. The number seven features significantly in the work’s iconography.

It was conceived and birthed through the input and energy of both Moving Into Dance Mophatong under the leadership of Sylvia Glasser and Vuyani Dance Theatre, under the leadership of Gregory Maqoma, and here is the resolution of a dance language that melds African traditional aesthetic with contemporary dance rhetoric, taking the values of Glasser’s Afrofusion to a new level.

The work is enervating to look at: it sweeps you body and soul into its complex vortex as it stretches the notion of physical and anatomical possibility. The dancers become like magicians, drawing back to the roots of art making, as they segue with one another, in sequences that will make your head spin.

But more than all of this is the astonishing astuteness which with the work is created. It’s a large cast, comprising ten dancers and an ensemble of three musicians on stage. Like line work in a beautifully made drawing, each component of this work has his or her own place, there is no sense of messy collaboration, and yet, the whole is as complex and imposing as the intricate work of a grand orchestra.

And while each dancer operates with scalpel-like intensity, it is the performance and stage presence of Julia Burnham which sets the work on fire and captures its sense of magic, completely. Already quite a seasoned performer, demonstrating a great and brave repertoire for a diversity of approaches and a willingness to cock a snoot at boundaries, Burnham has, in this work, clearly come of age. She grabs your eye with a ferocity that doesn’t allow you to properly focus on the other dancers, even when she is at apparent rest. It has something to do with her immense sense of physical beauty and vulnerability, something to do with the utter skill in which she intertwines between her colleagues and lavishes within the movement and the sound.

And the sound is the other magic ingredient. Like the inimitable tenor and soprano saxophone of Norwegian Jan Garbarek, the music slithers in and out of the choreography, offering an understanding of dance and music and the magic in between that will haunt you, relentlessly.

The season for this magnificent piece was painfully short. It’s booked to travel to China in November. But between now and then, there are seasons pencilled in: seeing this piece should be a cultural imperative on anyone’s agenda. It will change your life.

  • Siva is choreographed and directed by Luyanda Sidiya. It features design by Xolisile Bongwana (musical direction); Gerard Bester (dramaturge); Oliver Hauser (lighting); Fried Wilsenach (sound) and Andrew Chandler (costumes). It is danced by Xolisile Bongwana, Julia Burnham, Roseline Keppler, Peter Lenso, Lulu Mlangeni, Phumlani Mndebele, Otto Nhlapo, Phumlani Nyanga, Nomasonto Radebe and Edwin Ramoba, and features performances by musicians Phosho Lebese, Tebogo Mokoena and Mpumi Nhlapo at the John Kani Theatre, Market Theatre complex, August 12-16. Watch this space for announcements of other seasons for this work.