Hobson’s choice; moral compromise


MY husband, my everything: Happier times with Gabby Anderson (Michelle Douglas) and Aaron Matshoba (Litha Bam). Photograph courtesy Auto and General Theatre on the Square.

“HAVE YOU SEEN Green Man Flashing?” was a statement uttered with urgency everywhere you went in 2004/5. It was a play that rocked South African society’s equilibrium when it first saw light of day. One of the first works from the pen of Mike van Graan, it fitted the idea of a cultural imperative which forced theatre attendance and was premised on the stuff that made dinner conversations meaty. Fourteen years later, does it still have the shock, the verve and the relevance it did then?

Directed again by Malcolm Purkey – it was his directorial debut in 2005 when he took up the position as artistic director of the Market Theatre – this is a work that brings together a number of important theatre cornerstones, which include it being a part of the high school syllabus in this country.

It’s a rippingly well developed story which poses a gut-wrenchingly hard conundrum about rape in our society. If you’re the victim, how willing might you be to allow your case to be split wide open under public scrutiny, particularly if you’ve been given a possible route out to a new life with the idea of making the blemish on the rapist’s reputation disappear? But more than this issue, it engages with layers of truths, trauma upon trauma in the name of political status, and ugly histories that don’t really go away, from either the private or the public context.

Staged at the moment at Auto and General Theatre on the Square in Sandton, the work is clearly articulated and riveting in its narrative energies and replays of sequences to inform and develop the story. Several directorial decisions enhance the work’s potency, but the set is enormously bland and odd casting decisions affect the play’s texture.

Further to that, punctuated with angry anti-apartheid posters, from the 1980s and earlier, the work’s backdrop offers tricks of lighting which do not make sense in the context of the story being told. You find yourself pondering which poster will be arbitrarily highlighted at the end of the next scene, as you have to force yourself back to listen to the dialogue.

And the word ‘listen’ is quite key to this – in fact, it could very easily have been a radio drama. You might, as you watch this work, recall Consider Your Verdict, a courtroom series broadcast in the 1970s on Springbok Radio, featuring legal conundrums tossed in the audience’s ear.

Cast-wise, many of the performances feel wooden; the characters are not feasibly three-dimensional and you find it hard to believe that the central protagonist Gabby Anderson (Michelle Douglas) is indeed the mother of a child. There’s a dispassionate harshness in her performance, which makes you question her love for her seemingly much younger husband Aaron Matshoba (Litha Bam) – with the exception of one key moment, where all resistance crumbles and credibility is fleetingly won.

But we digress: Green Man Flashing is a richly constructed work which presents mixed loyalties, unmitigated corruption and scary political priorities in the face of domestic realities in a fresh and new democratic South Africa. The finest performance in this production is that of Sechaba Morojele who plays Luthando Nyaka, the VIP security guard with a loose tongue and a sticky end. You want to trust him from the moment you see him, but his history and his smarminess prevail.

The work remains fabulously prescient in its blurry ideals of what is moral high ground, and scarily focuses on how political expediency can whitewash almost any heinous crime. It’s about the truths revealed in a court case, and the other truths which remain untold, as it presents and dissects deep layers of hate and distrust forged through apartheid impimpis, and a precarious teetering with sexist values. It’s compelling viewing, where the storyline remains king.

  • Green Man Flashing is written by Mike van Graan and directed by Malcolm Purkey. It features design by Denis Hutchinson (set) and Margo Fleish (costumes), is performed by Litha Bam, David Dennis, Michelle Douglas, Kate Liquorish and Sechaba Morojele until May 12 at the Auto and General Theatre on the Square in Sandton. Call 011 883-8606 or visit http://www.theatreonthesquare.co.za

Impeccable Crepuscule

Dignity, sophistication and love: Janet (Kate Liquorish) and Can Themba (Leroy Gopal). Photograph courtesy Market Theatre.

Dignity, sophistication and love: Janet (Kate Liquorish) and Can Themba (Leroy Gopal). Photograph courtesy Market Theatre.

It’s relatively easy to glamourise the 1950s. The fashions are beautiful and dignified. The architecture is poetic. The times were ripe with sex and possibilities: the world was on its knees after two major wars, and the cultural pendulum was swinging back: anything was possible. Truth be told, the period, in South Africa, in particular, was very far from glamorous. Apartheid was rife, and while the fashions were indeed beautiful and the Art Deco buildings of the time were indeed poetic, social and human values were rotten and injustice was like a cancerous rash spreading dully all over society. Enter Khayelihle Dom Gumede. This young man has taken a magnificent piece of prose by Can Themba and brought it to life on stage in a manner which not only celebrates the cultural nuances of the 1950s, but opens up the social underbelly of the period with a searingly sharp tool, aided by an exceptionally fine cast.

In short, Crepuscule is a doomed love story, based loosely on fact, between Janet (Kate Liquorish) and Can (Leroy Gopal). Not only was their love hampered by moral taboos of the time, she being white and he, black, but it flew in the face of their other relationships, to say nothing of the miscegenation laws of apartheid that got lascivious cops checking bed frames for evidence.

But in the hands of Gumede, this impeccable piece of theatre is so much more than this simple yet complicated love story. It’s an essay on shebeen culture, and a reflective and full representation of characters in all their dimensions.

There are no real villains in this tale: you might expect the cuckolded husband, Malcolm (Conrad Kemp) to be reflected upon as the classic colonialist, the tight-fisted white man who lacks social savvy and nuance, and is easy bait for mockery in the vernacular, but under Gumede’s direction and with Kemp’s own developed reflection of the role, a great level of empathy is evoked and honed.

Similarly, Themba’s mother, played with astonishing charisma and authenticity by Thami Ngoma reflects not only a woman resigned with disappointment at her son’s love choices, but one who loves her son and must respect him, and one who has the emotional sophistication to tease and contextualise her own feelings.

Further to each rounded character development, which also features the extraordinary Lerato Mvelase who can be a drunk man as well as she can be a shebeen queen, Liquorish and Gopal raise the stature of the characters they perform to historical and emotional icons. You will be seduced by the delicious crispness of the give and take between them, and the succinct and subtle yet ever so sexy representation of their relationship.

But more than that, you will be haunted and intoxicated by the interjection of song – Sophiatown standards – and dance, and physical theatre and movement that gives this work its life blood. With palpably gorgeous language and featuring some truly brilliant set decisions by the inimitable Nadya Cohen, the work is compact and edgy as it is completely engaging. In short, it is flawless: a work where every nuance is thought through and taken care of, a product which offers a portrait of Sophiatown that jives and beats and weeps and lives. See it.

  • Crepuscule by Can Themba, is adapted for stage by Khayelihle Dom Gumede, mentored by Kgafela oa Magogodi. It features design by Nhlanhla Mahlangu (musical direction and choreography), Nadya Cohen (set), Nomvula Molepo (lighting) and Thando Lobese (costumes) and is performed by Leroy Gopal, Conrad Kemp, Kate Liquorish, Nhlanhla Mahlangu, Lerato Mvelase and Thami Ngoma, at the Laager, Market Theatre complex in Newtown, Johannesburg, until August 2. Call 0118321641 or visit markettheatre.co.za

Of Rachel Corrie and tilting at windmills

Kate Liquorish is Rachel Corrie. Photograph courtesy Hearts and Eyes Theatre Collective.

Kate Liquorish is Rachel Corrie. Photograph by Suzy Bernstein.

With the ringing and tumbling of words and phrases over one another, this portrayal of 23-year-old Rachel Corrie, the young American activist who was killed by an Israeli bulldozer in 2003, while trying to protect a Palestinian family home from destruction, resonates with a resemblance to the Anne Frank production recently staged at this theatre. The writing is blissfully full of innocent cliché, but it encapsulates the glorious enthusiasm of a young person set on changing the world in which she lives, moored as she is in political rhetoric.

As the story unfolds, you are given insight into the sequence of events which led to this young woman’s violent death, starting from her outrageous precocity as a nine- or ten-year-old. Ultimately, though, you come away with a profound awareness of the interface between Rachel Corrie and the world, and how this grand narrative on which she embarked, fuelled by her mother’s sense of advocacy, found her sparring with monsters and giants out of her ken and so far out of her experience that the tale becomes bizarre and ludicrous and the young woman is reflected as foolish.

It’s an immensely text-heavy work, but it is brought to seamless life by Kate Liquorish who slips under the skin of Corrie and gives her sense of whimsy and girlish fickleness and fierceness earnest credibility. There’s a celebration of girlhood, of quirky intelligent adolescence in the material.

As the play touches upon the conflict in the Middle East, however, a lack of meaningful scrutiny pervades. Yes, the play is based on the real writings of the young woman, and this is its flaw: what we’re watching quickly becomes one dimensional for this reason. There’s no other engagement. There’s only Corrie’s voice and her insecurities and bravado and fear bouncing against themselves.

This is what you get in a monodrama, you might argue. But this play lacks edge. It lacks an undercurrent. It punts itself as heroic, but doesn’t deliver. You leave with an overriding sense of futility: young, privileged, white girl goes to a place to voice her opinion on an issue which is much bigger than she thinks. She gets in the way of a situation she doesn’t understand. And is broken by it. What value does this tale have?

The Anne Frank production staged at the Market Theatre earlier this year lacked the kind of potent context that would have established it factually. Similarly, this Rachel Corrie work floats away from brave and hefty outspokenness and becomes an essay of a young woman tilting at windmills.

Supported by a set which gives an understanding of the ugly violence of Corrie’s death, the design of the work offers an interesting interplay of values. The broken skeleton of a structure pervades the set throughout the play, even from Corrie’s home in Olympia, Washington. The maverick redness of her bedroom indicates carnage from the very first line of the play. There’s almost an overriding sense of Greek tragedy in its construction and layout. But almost.

You read in the programme notes that Corrie’s death sparked enormous solidarity activities in the Middle East, but you don’t see this in the work. Rather, you see an intelligent, but cowed young woman, pugnacious and scattered and deviant, getting herself into a situation which is simply too big for her.

While you also leave with supreme respect for Liquorish’s ability, this talented performer feels wasted on a work like this. If you know little or care less about the Israeli/Palestine situation, you walk away still knowing little or caring less. If you know a lot or have strong opinions about it, they won’t be swayed or twisted. My Name is Rachel Corrie doesn’t work as an advocacy play.

My Name is Rachel Corrie is taken from the writings of Rachel Corrie, edited by Alan Rickman and Katharine Vimer. It is directed by Jacqueline Dommisse with design by Paul Abrams (lighting); Illka Louw (set and costume); and James Webb (sound). Kate Liquorish performs it in the Barney Simon Theatre, Market Theatre Complex, until November 23.