Hypocrisy’s crowning glory

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A heady mix of irreverence, theatricality placed in a set simple in its magnificence, that is ramped up all the way and features contrivance pushed to the giddy hilt, Tartuffe is a tightly focused, beautifully choreographed tribute to Molière, which indulges in such an array of over-the-top shenanigans, you become embroiled in the madness and don’t want it to end.

Featuring actors physically large and small, from Vanessa Cooke as the maid Dorine to Neil McCarthy as Orgon, the beguiled father of the house, it’s an impeccable celebration of overstated gesture, eavesdropping and intrigue in the face of utter unabashed hypocrisy. A tale which enjoyed credence in the 17th century, it remains remarkably prescient in contemporary culture: Tartuffe (Craig Morris) is the charlatan smarmily secreted in the church’s moral values for his own benefit. He slips into the confidence, the heart and the intimate family values of Orgon, to almost devastating – but utterly hilarious – effect. But fear not, there’s a grim and sinister twist in the tale that lends it a devilish tone.

There are some strange anachronisms in the language:  the work was originally written in rhyming couplets and has by and large been translated as such in this version. This is a quality which sometimes causes the flow of the poetic metre to stumble and feel uncomfortable. Nevertheless the couplets that do work and the clarity of their articulation will hold you focused and keep you staving off your own laughter, because the hairpin turns of the plot need to be heard to be properly appreciated.

Capitalising on the physical attributes of her cast, director Sylvaine Strike works like a true caricaturist, making the simple gesture of walking up three steps into a sonata, and the act of crossing one’s legs a sonnet.  Indeed, Madame Pernelle, played by Morris is virtually all mouth, and her presence evokes Lewis Carroll’s Queen of Hearts, to excruciatingly funny proportions. Monsieur Loyal, the lawyer, played by William Harding, takes immoderate to another whole level with his size, his sausage and his utterly ingratiating quality which might call up characters such as Dickens’s Uriah Heep, in your mind’s eye.

The music, which represents a pastiche of sound and tunes from the 1920s, is, however, too heavy handed in its approach and it does tend to crush the scenes it infiltrates, jarring and bouncing off the venue’s walls at times. The heaviness of the sound is balanced with acuity with the madly flexible bodies of the cast, however, and this tale of hypocrisy and love, sex and trust is something you wont want to drag yourself away from.

  • Tartuffe is written by Molière, translated from the French by Richard Wilbur and directed by Sylvaine Strike. It features creative input by Sasha Ehlers and Chen Nakar (set), Sasha Ehlers (costume), Oliver Hauser (lighting), Dean Barrett (music composition) and Owen Lonzar (choreography). It is performed by Adrian Alper, Vanessa Cooke, Khutjo Green, William Harding, Vuyelwa Maluleke, Neil McCarthy, Craig Morris, Anele Situlweni and Camilla Waldman at the Fringe, Joburg Theatre, Braamfontein, until June 25. Visit tartuffe.co.za
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Zandile: a play that must be seen

MoMo Matsunyane is Zandile. Photograph by Ruphin Coudyzer

MoMo Matsunyane is Zandile. Photograph by Ruphin Coudyzer

Gogo. These two syllables, under Gcina Mhlophe’s pen in the classic South African play Have You Seen Zandile?, embrace everything that a loving, hard working grandmother is about: Vulnerable, pugnacious when necessary, and above all, capable of real love. On stage 28 years ago this astonishingly fine work comes back to full fresh life in a glorious production, which honours the play’s roots and heart yet offers its own fabric and texture.

On a microcosmic level Have You Seen Zandile? is a tale of eight-year-old Zandile and her Gogo in Durban and of how she is spirited away to the rural area of Transkei by her mother, to be raised in the traditional rubric: she cannot be educated, must marry young, must work her body hard in the field. It’s a tale of deep love stamped on by financial dearth, political complexity and heart break. And it’s about broken dreams and ultimately broken hearts.

Carried with dignity and such beautiful authenticity by MoMo Matsuyane and Zethu Dlomo, the work reflects the dynamic of little girls – it opens with Zandile as an exuberant eight year old, and takes us through her teen years. With just a tweak to her hairstyle and costume, and considerable adjustments to her delivery, Matsuyane, an utterly extraordinary performer, embraces with such rich truths all the values of being a child: from the way in which she draws or speaks to the flowers to the beautiful artlessness of how she declares her dreams for a beautiful future.

Dlomo, too, in the role of the mother, grandmother and Lindiwe, a school friend, is able to beautifully manipulate her body to embrace the age of the character she is performing, fleshing out the susceptible yet gutsy Gogo with heart and soul, as she paints a reflection of the child’s mother with severity and coldness that comes of hurt. Mhlophe has constructed all her characters with a genuine human fondness, enfolding everything from myths and horrors of menstruation from within a pre-puberty sensibility to the age-specific games that children play.

Indeed, the games form a considerable part of the absolutely wonderful set, which utilises the blackness of the theatre space as immediate blackboards. Chalk drawings of stick figures and fishes and a house with a pointy roof and flowers with smiles adorn the space with the gritty realism of childhood happiness. There’s also a brilliant set which forms part of the work. Part cupboard, part screen, it reflects the moon and the grass as it is a repository for important things like letters from a child.

Have You Seen Zandile? is one of those unequivocal theatre moments, which bring together script, design, direction and performance with an impeccable sense of respect for the discipline, the work and its history, but not without a rambunctious sense of fun and real emotion. A lot of the dialogue is not in English, but if you do not speak isiXhosa, you are not left out. There’s a melding of language with movement, a kneading of gesture with word that makes for an imminently legible and totally consuming play. You leave this theatre knowing exactly why it is considered a classic.

  • Have You Seen Zandile? is written by Gcina Mhlophe, directed by Khutjo Green and designed by Wilhelm Disbergen. It is performed by MoMo Matsunyane and Zethu Dlomo at the Barney Simon Theatre, Market Theatre complex, Newtown, until October 26.

Boykie and Girlie: Engaging classic couple stakes

Contemplating life, the universe and everything, Boykie (Robert Hobbs) sits on the most comforting seat of all. PHOTOGRAPH BY EVANS MATHIBE.

Contemplating life, the universe and everything, Boykie (Robert Hobbs) sits on the most comforting seat of all. PHOTOGRAPH BY EVANS MATHIBE.

With direct points of homage to the likes of Samuel Beckett, Athol Fugard and Ariel Dorfman, Boykie and Girlie is a fresh new piece of theatre which sparkles with its own beauty, but lacks punch in its denouement.

Meet the eponymous characters: he’s a writer waiting for work, for inspiration, for something to give his life a level of cohesion. Dressed in a ‘Time of the Writer’ t-shirt which has been rather self-consciously made holey, he’s hungry, starving for something to give meaning to it all. She’s a self-made lawyer, holding the relationship together financially, pragmatically. Their almost anonymous names, denoting their gender more than much else, lend them a universality which is quite breath-taking, making you think, on various levels of other classic couples, like Athol Fugard’s Boesman and Lena. Overlooking the specifics of their issues, they are in a sense every couple.

Robert Hobbs opposite Khutjo Green simply sing in relation to one another, and as they breathe performed life into this beautiful script, replete as it is with cutting and barbarous insult and acrimony that comes of familiarity, the combination of performers, words and context are simply delicious to watch unfold. They’re backed by a fabulous set which casts a nod in the direction of Ariel Dorfman’s Delirium, staged in South Africa a few years ago, replete as it is with an ostensibly functional toilet onstage.

There’s a realistic grubbiness to the work which in exploring this well-established relationship between two adults, doesn’t relent in unpicking petty malice that becomes borderline threatening in its approach. Do they love each other? Certainly. Will he leave her? Will she leave him? Probably not. But the viciousness of their repartee at times reaches almost tidal proportions in its ebb and flow. The choreography of the work is splendid.

But the project in entirety is hurt by the narrative’s lack of a meaningful denouement. When you watch Green opposite Hobbs, you get this happy but almost frightening sense that this could go on forever: it’s both a positive and a negative realisation, simultaneously. The work is strong and impassioned enough to hold its own for a considerable time – way beyond its designated hour – but, conversely, there are no great revealing elements to puncture the plot enough.

There’s a moment of theatrical experimentation involving donkeys and casting a self-critical eye at the performance art arena and its habits, which is glorious but under-exploited, and ultimately the work leaves you hanging: as the clapping and bowing begins, it leaves you feeling vaguely cheated of a theatrical or narrative nub to hold on to.

Boykie and Girlie has the potential of slipping into the realm of the classic South African couple, representing the quintessential values and contradictions of being a mixed-race couple in this hurly burly world, but the writing just doesn’t go far enough.

  • Boykie and Girlie written and directed by Allan Horwitz, features Khutjo Green and Robert Hobbs, and performs at the Wits Downstairs Theatre until August 1, and in the Nunnery on August 2. It is part of this year’s Drama For Life SA Season.