All for the love of a gentle monster

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I see you: Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) opposite the creature (Doug Jones). Photograph courtesy http://www.indiewire.com

YOU MIGHT SIT there in the auditorium watching Guillermo del Toro’s film The Shape of Water, and quietly begin to think you’ve stepped into a time-zone. This beautifully crafted fantasy love story is like a rendition of 1950s schlock horror tradition ramped up all the way. It’s a delight to watch from beginning to end and contains all the fabulously one-dimensional stereotypes that leave you in no doubt as to who the good guys and the baddies are.

Set in the early 1960s in the mad little heart of the Cold War, the piece presents the American guys opposite the Russians in a quest for scientific advancement. At the heart of all of it, is a kind of amphibious beast with an utterly beautiful texture and a guileless face. Played by Doug Jones, he’s the quintessential colonialist’s dream: exotic and unknown, he’s kept as a government secret and both sides want to do a spot of vivisection to see what he’s made of.

That is, until Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) discovers him.

Endowed with a peculiarly self-deprecating physicality, fitting a mute, damaged and introverted young woman who is almost completely alone, and works a strange routine, where her job, alongside her pal Zelda (Octavia Spencer) is to clean the latrines of the facility, Elisa is the “Fay Wray” in this quirky love story. And it will wring your heart in the finest of ways.

There follows a delicious tale of discovery and boiled eggs, of explicit white male malevolence, homophobia and racism, and a rip-roaring adventure which sees rotten fingers tossed on the lounge carpet, a smashed up teal Cadillac which will make you roar with schadenfreude and some monster sex, not to mention the seductive use of Glenn Miller’s wonderful swing standard I know why. Oh, and water, there’s lots of water.

It’s as poetic an extrapolation of the genre as you can imagine and the sentiments sing with the kind of monster narrative that saw Wray in the arms of King Kong more than 80 years ago, and left audience members weeping. Replete with the dark green Art Deco tiles on the walls everywhere, and the insane nuances of Hawkins with her other friend in all the world, Giles (Richard Jenkins) a gay graphic designer who mourns his lost hair, the work is completely delicious, offering as it does, insight into the complexities of Cold War society with all its crude and petty races for new technology, and its deep biases and tendency toward social violence.

Featuring a lovely little cameo with Michael Stuhlbarg (of A Serious Man fame), as the Russian Dr Robert Hoffstetler, aka “Dimitri”, who recognises the ability of the monster to communicate and indeed to love, it’s the kind of film that will leave your heart dancing with a mix of nostalgia for comics and how stories were told, and a love of the underdog monster who is neglected or ousted by social etiquette.

  • The Shape of Water is directed by Guillermo del Toro and features a cast headed by Evgeny Akimov, Stewart Arnott, Nigel Bennett, Shaila D’Onofrio, Madison Ferguson, Deney Forrest, Diego Fuentes, Allegra Fulton, Karen Glave, Jayden Greig, Jonelle Gunderson, Sally Hawkins, David Hewlett, Richard Jenkins, Doug Jones, John Kapelos, Marvin Kaye, Morgan Kelly, Cameron Laurie, Dan Lett, Wendy Lyon, Brandon McKnight, Sergey Nikonov, Vanessa Oude-Reimerink, Alexey Pankratov, Martin Roach, Nick Searcy, Michael Shannon, Lauren Lee Smith, Octavia Spencer, Michael Stuhlbarg, Cody Ray Thompson, Edward Tracz, Dru Viergever, Danny Waugh and Clyde Whitham. Featuring a screenplay by Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor, it is produced by J Miles Dale and Guillermo del Toro and features creative input by Alexandre Desplat (music), Dan Laustsen (cinematography), Sidney Wolinsky (editing), Robin D Cook (casting), Paul D Austerberry (production design) and Luis Sequiera (costumes). Release date: January 19 2018.
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Knocked out by King Kong

king-kong

TOP of the world: King Kong (Andile Gumbi) stands his ground. Photograph by Jesse Kramer.

IT WAS THE show that launched the international careers of such performers as Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba and the Manhattan Brothers. King Kong. It’s been labelled iconic and groundbreaking, and frissons of its great potency filtered through the ether long before the Fugard Theatre’s season of this show took to the boards. A tale of love and boxing, with exquisite harmonies and clarinet riffs to make you weep, it saw light of day in 1959, changed the game plan of what musical theatre was in this country and has not been performed in entirety until now. Does this version do this glamorous history and all the urban myths around the work justice? In short, it doesn’t.

Skating on the momentum of the 1959 production of the show, this version of it has some truly beautiful moments and some utterly delicious performances, but you watch it and quietly wonder whether part of the work’s original charm did not perhaps have a lot to do with the novelty of being a show from apartheid-riddled Africa. Was it not perhaps the exoticism of the moment that gave Makeba and others their ticket to a real career?

Richly enfolded in the complicated beauty of the 1950s, in terms of clothing style, dance ethos and an energy of simmering protest peppered with a lot of racial legislation, this tale based on the life of boxer Ezekiel Dlamini is a cautionary one of hubris and talent. It’s a yarn that reflects on petty jealousies and the vulnerability of an ego in a world beset with tsotsis and small-town shebeen queens. It’s a series of love stories, interwoven with boxing successes and failures and one in which an idol is lionised and then destroyed by his own society.

But the work is less about the wows of the story. Billing itself as a jazz opera, it does, indeed feature, some beautiful music, which has shifted into classic South African status, and yet, as a musical entity, it doesn’t hold together tightly, and feels a little more like a play with music incidents.

Looking beyond the song and dance sequences, the performers are not supported by the creative team in a way that enhances their physical presence on stage. Whether it is odd lighting decisions, costumes with the dowdiness factor ramped up as far as possible, or peculiar staging instructions, something is lost in the capacity of performers such as Andile Gumbi (who plays the eponymous boxer) to hold the audience. You will love looking at him – he’s physically beautiful, but there’s something amiss in how he connects with the stage, the work and the audience. The more you look at him, the more it’s clear that this omission is not his fault; it rests on design decisions.

This is not the case, however, when it comes to Sne Dladla in the role of the barber, Pop, who tells the story. Known as a stand up comic in his own capacity, Dladla reveals a smooth sense of poetry in his delivery that you might not have experienced before; he embraces his character with a full heart that will have you yearning for more lines for him. Similarly, Dolly Louw, a member of the female ensemble. She exudes such delightful presence every time she’s on stage, that your heart and eyes drift in her direction and remain with her, lapping up her enthusiasm.

Lerato Mvelase in the role of Petal, the thwarted young lady with a very fond eye indeed for the King, is another case in point. Armed with an utterly magnificent voice, a dowdy cardigan and some horn-rimmed specs, she’ll make your ears prick up, but keep you guessing in terms of her stage persona. Opposite a magnificently voiced Nondumiso Tembe in the role of slinky, sexy Joyce, and balanced by the powerful vocal presence of Ntambo Rapatla as Miriam, there is beautiful harmony in the work, but it is not exploited visually.

Indeed, there are times when you look at this production and cannot see anyone in it. The lighting design is centralised and overall constantly leaves cast members in the dark. There’re moments where their singing voices reach with loneliness from darkened corners, taking time for you to realise who is actually performing.

But the biggest problem with this work which looms in your face throughout, is the set. As you take your seat in the theatre you might have a moment that teeters with your sense of orientation: it looks like you are in the Fugard Theatre.

And there’s the rub: the Fugard boasts a stage that is considerably smaller than that of the Mandela. It’s less deep, more vertical. The set, like a huge rusted machine with many different doors and hiding places, is very in-your-face. And clearly, it comes directly from the Fugard, with nary an alteration. Indeed, as such, it squeezes the breathing space out of the stage itself. And while there are moments where nuance is evoked in the pockets of the set, by and large, something is lost in the telling of this tale of greed and misfortune, ice creams and vulnerability, simply because everything is hammering on your eyeballs from the same distance.

Having said all of this, the live band, the boxing ring scenes and much of the choreography hold this work together with a compelling energy. You will leave the auditorium whistling the production’s theme songs, but not with the kind of fire in your heart or belly that comes of having seen true greatness.

  • King Kong: Legend of a Boxer is written for stage by Pat Williams based on the book by Harold Bloom, and directed by Jonathan Munby and Mdu Kweyama. It features creative input by Todd Matshikiza (original music), William Nicholson (additional lyrics), Charl-Johan Lingenfelder (additional music arrangements), Gregory Maqoma and Richard Lothian (choreography), Paul Wills (set), Tim Mitchell (lighting), Birrie Le Roux (costumes), Sipumzo Trueman Lucwaba and Charl-Johan Lingenfelder (musical directors) and Mark Malherbe (sound). It is performed by Sne Dladla, Rushney Ferguson, Andile Gumbi, Ben Kgosimore, Dolly Louw, Barileng Malebye, Lungelwa Mdekazi, Namisa Mdlalose, Aphiwe Menziwa, Athenkosi Mfamela, Given Mkhize, Lerato Mvelase, Sibusiso Mxosana, Siphiwe Nkabinde, Edith Plaatjies, Sabelo Radebe, Ntambo Rapatla, Tshamano Sebe, Sanda Shandu, Nondumiso Tembe, Shalom Zamisa and Joel Zuma, supported by a live band: Sipumzo Trueman Lucwaba (band leader/bass), Blake Hellaby (keyboard), Siphiwe Shiburi (drums), Billy Monama (guitar), Lwanda Gogwana and Joseph Kunnuji (trumpets), Zeke le Grange (tenor sax), William Hendricks (alto sax, clarinet) and Siya Makuzeni (trombone) at the Mandela Theatre, Joburg Theatre complex in Braamfontein, until October 8.