Nearly 2 500 ways to seize the day

LeisureSeeker

ALMOST in heaven: John Spencer (Donald Sutherland) and his wife Ella (Helen Mirren) on the trip of a lifetime. Photograph courtesy http://www.miamifilmfestival.com

LET’S FACE IT: our inimitable icons of stage and screen are aging. They’re still beautiful, they’re still sexy and they still have what it takes. Thank goodness the film industry is capable of recognising this and of granting performers such as Judi DenchMeryl Streep, Annette Bening, Julie Walters and Vanessa Redgrave plum roles in which they can celebrate the inevitability of aging. The Leisure Seeker is another gem of this sort, giving voice to delicious performances by Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland as an elderly couple who go rogue on their children, for one last fling.

Ellen (Mirren) and John Spencer (Sutherland) have had a rich, full life. He was a teacher of English literature with a particular penchant for Ernest Hemingway. They’ve two adult children. And they have a 1975 RV which has seen many a holiday with them. But here they are. Neither are in the first flush of health, but life’s for the grabbing and they decide to do a drive from Boston to Florida Keys to see Hemingway’s house.

That’s a drive of nearly 2 500km for the pragmatic. If you’re elderly, with fading memories and bits and pieces that no longer work as they used to, that’s almost the recipe for catastrophe. And catastrophic this is, particularly from the other end of a cell phone like to their children, Jane (Janel Moloney) and William (Christian McKay).

But amid the realities of incontinence and fervour, knee-jerk responses and utter hilarity, this is by all accounts, the journey of a lifetime. Mirren and Sutherland sparkle unforgettably in this beautiful yet thoughtful celebration of what it takes to grow old. The dialogue is crisp and bristly and the context real in terms of how the power is inverted when the parents are old and the children, grown, putting the giggles on the side of grandparents, and the punitive frowns on the side of the kids.

Narratively, the plot wanes a bit in terms of it feeling like adventure upon adventure and reading like a bit of a shopping list, characterised by an “and then … and then … and then” rhythm, but by and large, it’s a laugh and a cry at every stop in the road.

Irresponsible? Absolutely! But life is short and it’s completely for the living. It’s a Thelma and Louise kind of a tale which ends as it must, leaving you with a wet face, but a smiling one.

  • The Leisure Seeker is directed by Paolo Virzi and is performed by a cast headed by Helen Abell, Nicholas Barrera, Lilia Pino Blouin, Carl Bradfield, Robert Walker Branchaud, Roger Bright, Andrea C. Brotherton, Gabriella Cila, Danielle Deadwyler, Adam Drescher, Marc Fajardo, Dick Gregory, Carlos Guerrero, Ryan Clay Gwaltney, Wayne Hall, Joe Hardy Jr, Lucy Catharine Haskill, Rusty Hodgdon, Joshua Hoover, Denitra Isler, Dana Ivey, Ariel R. Kaplan, Jessie Sasser Kloos, Ahmed Lucan, Burk Madison, Dov Mamann, Elijah Marcano, Christian McKay, Matt Mercurio, Joshua Mikel, Helen Mirren, Kirsty Mitchell, Janel Moloney, Lindsey Moser, Robert Pralgo, Chelle Ramos, Jerald Jay Savage, David Silverman, Mylie Stone, Leander Suleiman, Donald Sutherland, Karen Valero, Sean Michael Weber, Ben White and Geoffrey D. Williams. It is written by Stephen Amidon, Francesca Archbugi, Francesco Piccolo and Paolo Virzi, based on the eponymous novel by Michael Zadoorian. Produced by Marco Cohen, Fabrizio Donvito, Benedetto Habib and Bryan Thomas, it features creative input by Carlo Virzi (music), Luca Bigazzi (cinematography), Jacopo Quadri (editing), Ellen Jacoby (casting),Massimo Cantini Parrini (costumes) and Richard A. Wright (production). Release date: March 30 2018.
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When Gloria met Peter

Film Stars

ROMEO and Juliet: Gloria Grahame (Annette Bening) and Peter Turner (Jamie Bell) embrace their love, their lives and the Bard. Photograph courtesy http://www.austinchronicle.com

IT’S A GREAT rarity for a child actor who wows his audience to go away and come back to the industry all grown up and wow some more. This is exactly what you get in Paul McGuigan’s film Film stars don’t die in Liverpool, which features Jamie Bell as Peter Turner. This unique love story which is based on the true story of American film actress Gloria Grahame (1923-1981), penned by Turner himself, is the kind of film that will give you hope for the future of this society – and its filmmaking culture – it’s elegant and beautifully constructed with strong messages and gritty performances. And like any other love story, it’s about giving with a full heart and letting go, but there are so many delicate edges to it, you will want to watch this film over and over again. Forever.

Seventeen years ago, Jamie Bell was the child who defined Stephen Daldry’s Billy Elliott (2000), a story about a Northern England boy, the son of a miner in the riotous 1980s who wanted to do ballet. Today, he’s an adult, but the maverick fire in his belly and his ability to embrace complex social issues is as refined and beautiful now as they were then.

Again, we’re in the 1980s, with all its dance moves and analogue culture, in this wild romance. And the girl in the love story? It’s none other than Annette Bening, who is magnificent as a Grahame in her fifties. The love is passionate and unconventional, and Peter’s mum is played by the inimitable Julie Walters. Indeed, with Vanessa Redgrave playing Grahame’s mother, this film offers a full house of fabulous actresses over 60 and it celebrates them in ways that make you value the elderly in your own community.

But more than all of this, Film stars don’t die in Liverpool offers the kind of perfection that very few films can. Featuring a mature understanding of silence and wall paper patterns, of subtlety and finesse, along the lines of Hal Ashby’s 1971 Harold and Maude, which remains arguably one of the finest Holocaust films ever; it’s about exploring your lover’s body and finding truths which she can never tell you. It’s about what happens when marriage doesn’t seal your love, giving your lover’s relatives priority over you when it comes to death.

You know how this film will end by the very virtue of its title, but the predictability of the work is not the point. This is a film that embraces the brevity of life with fierceness and verve. It heightens the bar for the possibility of telling a story of this nature, enormously. It’s a film that makes you feel like you’ve stepped back into the glamour and magic of 1950s Hollywood, with all its illusions of sincerity, its stars and its unbroken dreams.

  • Film stars don’t die in Liverpool is directed by Paul McGuigan and is performed by Lee Adach, Anna Afferr, Tim Ahern, Lasco Atkinds, Rick Bacon, Frances Barber, Joey Batey, Roy Beck, Gintare Beinoraviciute, Jamie Bell, Annette Bening, Suzanne Bertish, Leanne Best, Michael Billington, James Bloor, Edward Bourne, Mark Braithwaite, Michael Brand, Tom Brittney, Joanna Brookes, Jade Clarke, Kenneth Cranham, Paul Dallison, David Decio, Stephanie Eccles, Karl Farrer, Helen Iesha Goldthorpe, Vaslov Goom, Stephen Graham, Leon Grant, Leila Gwynne, Alan Wyn Hughes, Alex Jaep, Bentley Kalu, John Kinory, Isabella Laughland, Adam Lazarus, Ify Mbaeliachi , Gemma Oaten, Luana Di Pasquale, Gino Picciano, Vanessa Redgrave, Jason Redshaw, David Soffe, Alexandra Starkey, Asmeret Tesfagiorgis, Glynn Turner, Peter Turner, Jay Villiers, Julie Walters, Nicola-Jayne Wells, Susan Westbury, Patricia Winker and Charlotte Worwood. It is written by Matt Greenhalgh, based on the eponymous memoir by Peter Turner. Produced by Barbara Broccoli and Colin Vaines, it features creative input by J. Ralph (music), Urszula Pontikos (cinematography), Nick Emerson (editing), Debbie McWilliams (casting), Jany Temime (costumes) and Eve Stewart (production). Release date: March 22 2018.

Five little girls and Mamiwata

Crucifixion

THERE’S SOMETHING INESTIMABLY exciting about a new production that is conceived of, written and brought to life by a group of practitioners that is fast becoming recognised as a repertory group in the classical tradition. Why? Simply because you have seen their work in the past, and know that you’re in safe hands when it comes to exceptionally fine theatre that tweaks the edges just that little bit to keep your focus riveted.

Think of British director Alan Bleasdale and the performers of the ilk of Julie Walters, Robert Lindsay, Lindsay Duncan and David Ross from the mid-1990s, who put together an unrivalled level of collaboration with classics and new work that even made it to South African tv screens, in the form of miniseries Melissa and Jake’s Progress. While you’re thinking of this splendid work, think of this very ensemble, headed in this production by Jovan Muthray and Mlindeli Zondi, who are quietly redefining theatre making in this country, one production at a time: their relentless energy promises the Bleasedale equivalent in South Africa.

But let’s not digress. The Crucifixion of Amagqwirha is a tale woven around the values espoused in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (1953). But it is moored in contemporary South Africa, and amidst a rich concatenation of superstition and self-belief, members of a community who are young and ambitious and others who are old and hold onto tradition, and little girls who are vanishing with no explanation. And there’s also speak of the ghostly presence of Mamiwata, a creature, believed to be half woman, half snake, who patrols deep and quiet waters.

Blending shadow puppetry that engages the sinister in a manner so much more direct and fearsome than actors on a stage can project, the work is beautifully balanced and hard hitting in terms of social foibles and mob mentality.

But it is the performance of Nyakallo Motloung, Sanelisiwe Jobodwana, Campbell Meas and Star Anka that unequivocally capture the fierce yet tender bravado of little girls, while they embrace the elderly and punctuate the broader, scary tale with home truths and real South Africanisms. The work will take you from laughing out loud to shivering in your shoes, at the eerie prospect of the things out there that we cannot fathom.

The energy of the entire ensemble in creating this piece is palpable; there’s a give and take in dialogue and thinking which brings to mind the feisty dynamism in their work, Just Antigone, performed last year. When the four little girls are debating issues, it’s there. When the elders of the community are calling for a witch hunt, it’s there too.

The only downside of this extraordinarily beautifully crafted work is that it enjoyed but one performance at this festival. It deserves legs in many more contexts.

  • The Crucifixion of Amagqwirha is written and designed by the ensemble. It is directed by Jovan Muthray and Mlindeli Zondi and features creative input by Jovan Muthray and Mlindeli Zondi (lighting) and Binnie Christie (puppets and set). It was performed by Star Anka, Sanelisiwe Jobodwana, Campbell Meas and Nyakallo Motloung at the Downstairs Theatre on July 21, as part of the Wits 969 Festival. Visit webtickets.co.za or visit Wits 969 on facebook.

Never forget to smell the roses

oskar

LITTLE boy, frightened: The inimitable Sandra Prinsloo is Oskar. Photograph courtesy Montecasino Theatere.

LOVE, LOSS AND growing old are inescapably part of the human condition. Put these three elements in a children’s cancer ward, and you might expect to yield a narrative which is hackneyed and clichéd. Indeed, you already know how the story ends. But in the loving hands of consummate professionals – from the writer, Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, to the translator Naómi Morgan, to the director Lara Bye and the performer, Sandra Prinsloo – Oskar en die Pienk Tannie is a play so beautifully crafted with such an astute sense of self, that it will rock your emotional equilibrium.

Oskar is a ten-year-old boy. He has leukaemia. Moored in a children’s hospital with a community of friends, including “Popcorn”, “Braaivleis”, “Einstein” and “Blue Betty”, kids with equally scary medical problems, he’s intelligent and sentient enough to understand that his prognosis is not good. But there’s God, who he writes to, and the eponymous “Pienk Tannie”, called Ouma Rosa, a hospital assistant, who tells him tales of women’s wrestling and carves out legends for him to hold onto and laugh at. She’s a little coarse round the edges, but overwhelmingly pragmatic. She takes no shit, has  “passed her sell-by date” and exudes the type of complex humanity you might remember in Julie Walters’s portrayal of Mrs Wilkinson in the 2000 film called Billy Elliot.

Filtered with a deep understanding of language, of human convention and the dramatic emotional extremes and unrelenting egocentricity of a prepubescent child, not to forget the horror of loss, this is an extraordinary work in which the magnificent Prinsloo paints a whole world out there, armed with just a table and some well-managed lighting.

But more than that, this is a one-person play and Prinsloo takes on the fierce vulnerability of the child as well as the gruff love of Ouma Rosa, and the myriad of other characters, with complete candidness. You are never allowed to forget the tragic circumstances of Oskar, but as the work unfolds, you get to hold onto dreamed up legends, which can make 12 days into 120 years, and projects a whole rich trajectory of dreams onto something that in the real world is curtailed and broken by sadness.

And yes, it’s in Afrikaans, but arguably the force of the narrative and the simple complexity of the writing supersedes language barriers and within the first few lines of the play you become so consumed by its magic and texture, that the medium turns universally understandable.

A beautiful six-tissue production, which will leave you with hope in your heart and an imperative to look for wonder the world every single day, Oskar en die Pienk Tannie is a delicate piece constructed with know-how and wisdom, but above all, with uncringing directness.

  • Oskar en die Pienk Tannie is written in French by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt and translated into Afrikaans by Naómi Morgan. It is directed by Lara Bye and performed by Sandra Prinsloo, at the Studio Theatre, Montecasino theatre complex in Fourways, until September 25. Visit montecasinotheatre.co.za

Oliver brings the sheen and texture of Industrial Age London to Parktown, seamlessly

"He asked for more?!" with Samuel Hertz as Oliver, Kayli Elit Smith and Miles Petzer as Mr and Mrs Bumble and Ben Kgosimore as the Beadle. Photograph courtesy www.jozikids.co.za

“He asked for more?!” with Samuel Hertz as Oliver, Kayli Elit Smith and Miles Petzer as Mr and Mrs Bumble and Ben Kgosimore as the Beadle. Photograph courtesy http://www.jozikids.co.za

Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist is one of those stories that has been consumed by the children’s theatre industry, thanks in part to the eponymous West End and Broadway musicals of the 1960s featuring glorious songs by Lionel Bart. It’s also been deemed a children’s story because the main protagonist is but 9 years old. In truth, the tale is a quirky one, bringing together the harsh contradictory morals and deeply violent behaviour endemic to the squalor of 19th century English society. In this version of the work, Francois Theron yields a sterling mastery that balances between the heaviness of the original piece and how the musicals injected sweetness and readability into it.

Part of the work’s sublime success is through the creation of its texture; the stuff of which Industrial Age London is made. From the signage on the walls to the raggedy and posh curtains which signify the set change, life is germinated and fleshed out in the set, costumes and the casting of the work.

Showcasing Kayli Elit Smith in the role of Nancy, opposite Luciano Zuppa as the inimitable Fagin and Ben Kgosimore, the core of the story is embraced with a sense of crafted verity that will keep you spellbound, whether you are five years old and have a scant understanding of the work’s tensions, dynamics and trajectory, or you are fifty and have read the original 15 times. Smith has a powerful stage presence and she gives the fragile, tragic heroine Nancy the spine and guts to make her leap out of the book and onto the stage.

Zuppa projects a roly-poly Fagin, offering insight into the sinister nuances that such a character upholds. He’s fun, yet immoral, bad yet it’s difficult to pinpoint his level of evilness, in contradistinction, for instance, with Kgosimore’s Bill Sykes, who is so chillingly cold, his very presence makes your hair stand on end.

There’s a satisfying interplaying of cast members and the children are beautifully co-ordinated to sing and dance and interact with the theatre’s appurtenances which brings grubby suburban London into Parktown, seamlessly. On opening night, Gabriel Poulsen was Oliver. He embraces the realities of this small boy in a world rotten with other people’s greed that rendered him an able cog in their evil plans, with an integrity that belies his extreme youth.

But more than all of this, the story of the workhouse foundling Oliver Twist is told from the inside out and the novel only reveals the grand narrative at the end, where you encounter Agnes Leeford and understand who Monks is. Arguably, the only version of this work which turns it upside down is the 1999 mini-series of the work, written by Alan Bleasdale and featuring such luminaries as Robert Lindsay, Julie Walters and Keira Knightley, among others. And what is revealed when the audience is put in the know, while the narrative unfolds, is the fabric of the story is robust enough to take such a turn about.

Sadly, this is where the National Children’s Theatre’s version stumbles a little: it sticks to the original sequence of events and omits the more graphic ones. Granted, the tale is harsh and terrifying. Murder is part of the tools used to tell it. It would be inappropriate to present this level of horror to young audience members, but Theron has begun his version with the child telling his own story: this adds an inestimable value and depth to the material, but is not followed through in the second half of the work. Rather, after interval, we fast-forward through Twist’s tribulations in coming to terms with his extraordinary childhood. Nancy is magicked off the scene and Oliver becomes a child adopted and everyone lives happily ever after: if you know the narrative well, or have been watching the play carefully, a couple of untied threads peek through.

Overall, this is forgivable: The Adventures of Oliver Twist is an exceptional production that blends sweetness with harshness in a way that never jars. But be warned, the tale wriggles and squirms and diversifies and changes tack frequently. It’s not all song and dance and children under the age of 8 might become restless or bewildered.

  • The Adventures of Oliver Twist, based on the novel by Charles Dickens is adapted and directed by Francois Theron with design by Rowan Bakker (musical supervisor); Nicol Sheraton (choreographer); Graham Brown (set); Willie van Staden (scenic set up); Jane Gosnell (lighting) and Chriselda Pillay (costumes). It is performed by Teekay Baloyi, Ben Kgosimore, Miles Petzer, Schoeman Smit, Kayli Elit Smith and Luciano Zuppa, with four alternative child performers playing Oliver: Samuel Hertz, Gabriel Katz, Gabriel Poulsen and Max Stern, and three alternate child ensemble casts comprising: Claire de Korte, Lethabo Mwase, Boitumelo Phaho, Kathryn Price, Paige Schmidt and Isobel Shires; Kathleen Clark, Tlholego Mabitsi, Tlhopilwe Mabitsi, Tlhotlego Mabitsi, India Milne, Julia Smith and Casey Watson; and Nandipha Backler, Yarden Dagan, Pascalle Durand, Talitha Komen, Tyler Komen and Ricci Waksman. It is at the National Children’s Theatre in Parktown until July 19. 011-484-1584 or nationalchildrenstheatre.org.za