Blood in the water, a sjambok on the wall

AfricanGothic

STAINED sheets and the wrath of Mamma: Frikkie (Zak Hendrikz) and Sussie (Liezl de Kock). Photograph by Jan Potgieter.

THE POTENTIALLY SINISTER and foetid context of what goes on — or used to go on — behind closed farm doors in grim and unbending religious South Africa comes under close and gory scrutiny in Reza de Wet’s riveting tale of incest and dirt, horror and gamesplaying. It’s as much a psychological tale of trauma as it is a foray into really graphic representations of violence, sinister complicity and the space between twisted imagination and terrifying reality. With a sterling cast headed by the inimitable Liezl de Kock as Sussie, the work will bleed into the very interstices of your nightmares, but promises to retain its status as a classic of South African theatre making.

Diepe Grond, the work in its original Afrikaans, saw light of day at the Market Theatre in the mid-1980s and some 30 years later, premised on an English translation of the work by de Wet herself, it doesn’t miss a beat in terms of the grim filth of a mixture between staunch Afrikaans righteousness infiltrated with an unwavering sense of religious value, and a clear understanding of what is evil, juxtaposed with moral values that have had their sanity and their heart torn out by the roots.

Sussie and Frikkie Cilliers (Zak Hendrikz) live in abject filth. There is dirt everywhere. It’s in baking tins and disused food cans and all over the table. You can smell the detritus of their body fluids on the stained mattress, in your mind’s nose, as you look at the careful and rich detail of this set. The chamber pot and the basin of water constitute their bathroom. The nanny, Alina (Thembi Mtshali-Jones) is a maternal yet sinister presence, but she is moulded to fit a traditional understanding of domestic maid in an apartheid South African context. But this is dirt and domesticity with a history that has become frozen by an event.

The set embraces everything, with the dun-coloured screen that allows for shadow against muted light and indicates another room in the house, the raw wood made of what seems to be shards of railways sleepers, and the bed itself. The only anomaly is the shiny surface of part of the construct that seems to contradict the rustic values of the space.

These ruins of what was once a farm house, with the children’s mother and father at its helm is the source of a mysterious and destructive relationship between the family and the dearth of water in the land, as well as a repository for hideous secrets. Which brings Mr Grové (Mpho Osei-Tutu) into the mix. He’s a lawyer, a young black educated man, with a job to do. A will to ratify. Information to relate. He has no idea what he’s in for.

There unfolds the kind of madness that you may recognise from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 film Psycho, which sees the characters becoming caricatures of their parents with the flick of an eyebrow, the lilt of a word, the gut-wrenching depth of a screech of pain. And you may think of Yael Farber’s harrowing Mies Julie that too deals very explicitly with the mess and rot behind farm doors in apartheid South Africa. But African Gothic stands its own ground and leaves you feeling wrecked for other reasons. The stories that are told between these siblings, and the stories that are alluded to present an understanding of abuse and madness that will keep you riveted to your chair, throughout.

Having said all of that, the work is not completely flawless. There is a sound track which seems to operate on a loop, and sinister music interjects in places where the machinations of the performances say it all with much more muscle. While the blood-curdling giggles of hyenas in this sound track work, it is the music which strips the here and now from the piece and forces you to remember that this is just a play. Further to that, it is something as small as hairstyle and a physique that affects some of the energy of this piece. Hendrikz’s hairdo is fashionable and primed, blond, curly and tapered, and it clashes with the values of Frikkie’s context and his abjection. Similarly, his body is ripped. And tanned. And we see much of it, which is not necessarily a thing to complain of – but in the context of Frikkie, you expect something baser, something paler and thinner, something you don’t want to look at, but do, as we see with de Kock.

All in all, the work is a violent firestorm of political emotions which reflect an understanding of the land and of life in the isolated reality of a disused rural farm, where jackals bay and the wind seeps willy nilly through the walls, where the spilling of blood is present everywhere and the innocence of utter cruelty is splayed out like a springbok. It promises to be one of those cultural imperatives that continues to raise the bar in theatre-making in this country.

  • African Gothic is written by Reza de Wet and directed by Alby Michaels. It features design by Oliver Hauser (lighting and audio visual), Sarah Roberts mentoring students (production), Jo Glanville mentoring students (costume and props), Nadine Minnaar (set), Franco Prinsloo (sound), Madeleine Lotter-Viljoen (costume construction), Caitlin de Villiers (props construction) and Christelle van Graan (make up). It was performed by Liezl de Kock, Zak Hendrikz, Thembi Mtshali-Jones and Mpho Osei-Tutu in a brief season at the University of Johannesburg’s Con Cowan Theatre. This represents phase four of a 13-month project; the fifth phase promises to see the work hosted on national and international stages in 2018/9.

Oh, the things you can do with humble tools!

heartshotel

The world in a swath of brown paper: Liezl de Kock in Heart’s Hotel. Photo by Gemma Middleton, courtesy CuePix.

DO YOU REMEMBER casting shadows of animals made of your own little fingers and hands, on the wall, when you were a small child? The thrill of that level of interpretative magic which makes something unexpected happen in the context of ordinariness is something we as human beings should never allow ourselves to forget. And thanks to utterly remarkable theatre practitioners such as Toni Morkel, Liezl de Kock and James Cuningham, we won’t.

It is always such a splendid privilege and treat to get to see Morkel perform. She lends a blend of sinister humour which is unique and completely magnetic. Ditto for Liezl de Kock, who Johannesburg audiences last saw opposite Andrew Buckland in the wonderful Crazy in Love. When you hear that these two inimitable physical theatre giants are collaborating in a work, your only real questions should be where? And when? Hearts Hotel featured as one of the pickings of this year’s Wits 969 Festival, and hopefully it will enjoy legs, further down the line.

And while all the names on paper shine and sparkle in your mind’s eye, they certainly don’t disappoint in their performances in this quirky apocalyptic tale of motherly love, new beginnings, terrors in the night and a very poisonous scorpion. It’s a work that brings together the rich and simple idea of play in such provocative ways it will singe your heart and leave you aching for more.

When you weep at a death that is evoked with the smoothing out of wrinkled paper, or gasp at the way in which distance and nearness are conveyed by shadows alone, you become susceptible to an easy melding of different realities, and you get sucked into a work of such creative magnitude that it will shift your values. Hearts Hotel comprises a whole range of low-tech theatre crafts, from shadow puppetry to mime. It reflects ideas such as destruction by fire, great distances travelled on foot, big waves in the ocean and the playfulness of a baby with succinct gesture and great wisdom, that will make you laugh with glee and surprise.

Such a range of richness is carried by an economy of tools but a generosity of creative energies that you will feel like a child being exposed to great classics for the very first time.

The language in the work smacks of something East-European in its flavour and sense of tradition, but nothing is pinned down. The devilish horned hats also fit into something which you might not know, but will recognise as a time worn custom, replete with its own rituals and choreography.

Perhaps the only casualty in this work is the looseness of the grand narrative, which holds it all together and is not consistently easy to follow. But in the bigger picture of the work, it’s not a catastrophe – even if you’re not savvy of the apocalyptic nature of the piece, or the madness of the situation in the empty abandoned hotel, even if you do not understand where the curious stranger fits in, or where there be scorpions in this hostile landscape, you will still be swept away by the humble and soaring texture of its unequivocal generosity of magic.

  • Hearts Hotel is directed by James Cuningham assisted by Binnie Christie. It is performed by Liezl de Kock, Toni Morkel and Christelle van Graan as part of the Wits 969 festival for 2016, in the Wits Downstairs Theatre, which ended on July 24.

Buckland and De Kock tell of life, the universe and everything with a mop in a veil

Like father, like daughter: Leon (Andrew Buckland) and Ginny (Liezl de Kock) share a guffaw. Photograph by Bazil Raubach

Like father, like daughter: Leon (Andrew Buckland) and Ginny (Liezl de Kock) share a guffaw. Photograph by Bazil Raubach

With a hefty dollop of Beckett, some irrepressible clowning and a simple bittersweet tale peppered with absurdities, kangaroos and chameleons, not to mention an extraordinary set that comprises the skull of a gnu, a plastic shopping trolley and doodads that will make you laugh and cry, Andrew Buckland and Liezl de Kock have woven an intricate story of fatherhood with an insane backstory and context that makes tragedy comical and vice versa. If you’ve ever loved someone to the point of distraction, you will empathise with this niftily written and magically performed production.

Leon (Buckland) is a man who doesn’t commit well. He sidles out of relationships on the pretext of going shopping and from the first vignette, you love him and hate him for being so charming and delicious and yet so unreliable as a partner. In the first couple of sequences, Buckland makes you remember why for decades he had Johannesburg audiences in thrall: he’s an incredibly sophisticated clown who with his face, body and words, pushes the boundaries between tragedy and comedy to a point that is almost unbearable. And then, when you cannot laugh or cry one sob more, he relents, unwinds and starts all over again. Language and gesture are his playground and his tools and he gives life to nonsense, obscenity and blasphemy which in turn make it sophisticated, untouchably hilarious and profound.

De Kock – who plays Leon’s daughter Ginny – is grist for Buckland’s mill: the give and take between the two performers is generous and trusting yet brutal and direct. Where he ends, she takes up. Where he trips, she falls. It’s like watching a complicated game of tennis, but one that involves a mop and rake, lipstick and an absent mother.  They face a nothingness as do Fugard’s Boesman and Lena. They confront dreams in impossibility as do Beckett’s Estragon and Vladimir. Knotted together with one of the most well loved musical standards of all time, Somewhere Over the Rainbow as a theme that runs surreptitiously and delicately through the work, this production has undergone wise and resolute tweaks since last it was staged in Grahamstown.

Crazy in Love is a balm to South African theatre: In its short duration, it demonstrates how many stories can be told in a single burst of creative fire, how the sky is the limit, and how performers can take a basic and simple idea and let it run into a forest of possibilities that touch life and death, tragedy and hilarity, disappointment and freedom with unrelenting quirkiness. It’s an essay on life, love and madness and in the telling it is coupled with some of the most outlandish creativity you could dream up.  By the same token, it gives credence to building a shrine of nonentity as it describes the need for a young person to leave home and strike out on her own.

In touching all these values, the work offers sometimes harsh, sometimes poetic insight into the challenges of loss, of raising a child alone, of alcoholism and numbing poverty. Metaphors aplenty encrust this stage, but the bottom line is the pathos-littered tale of searching for a somebody that can make one’s life feel complete – even if that somebody and that search are exercises for their own sake.

  • Crazy in Love is co-created by Andrew Buckland and Liezl de Kock and directed by Rob Murray. It is performed by Andrew Buckland and Liezl de Kock and features set, costume and prop design by Jayne Batzofin and lighting design by Rob Murray. It is at the Barney Simon Theatre, Market Theatre complex in Newtown, Johannesburg, until April 12. 011 832 1641.