Hobson’s choice; moral compromise

GreenManFlashing

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
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Arm wrestling with giants

the meeting (south africa) 2017

BATTLE of values: Malcolm X (Brendon Daniels) arm to arm with Martin Luther King (Aubrey Poo). Photograph by Iris Dawn Parker.

THEATRE IS TRULY a magical medium. In casting fictional glances at real characters, it can unstitch the raw underbody of a myriad of political what-ifs and set your beliefs on edge. Playwright Jeff Stetson has woven a conversation between US Civil Rights heroes, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King with historical perspicacity and empathy for both sides that is so powerful, you may forget to breathe as it unfolds.

In the hands of a lesser writer, this idea may have degenerated into a simple war of political platitudes and lost its electric edge, to say nothing of its rich balance. Instead, it shines. The characters are three dimensional, and speak with the kind of blood red conviction that will sway your own opinions hither and yon. Under the directorial hand of James Ngcobo, it is a defining theatre experience. The play features an audio-visual sequence projected on each side of the theatre that punctuates the play without messing with its values, as it draws in local and contemporary references with a deft hand and a sure knowledge of how history turns on its own maddening momentum and society sees the same things unfold.

Cast in a similar historical conflation of values we saw in Hinterland by Duncan Buwalda  and directed by Caroline Smart in 2015 which pondered an association between Cecil John Rhodes and Sol Plaatjies, and Mountaintop, staged at the Market Theatre in 2013 written by Katori Hall and directed by Warona Seane, The Meeting presents historical what-ifs with an informed perspective. It’s compelling theatre at its very best.

But it is Brendon Daniels in the role of Malcolm X that gives the work the unquestionable authority it warrants. Aubrey Poo as King tends to be pompous and fruity with his Southern drawl which sometimes becomes a bleat, but the words in his mouth exude levity and fierceness. The play counterpoises the desire for peaceful confrontation with that of violence, in the face of a society bruised and scarred with racism, but one which pivots on arm wrestles and a little girl’s rag doll.

Designed on a set which stands at table-height, the work takes place in the anonymous bland comfort space of a 1960s hotel room in Harlem. Almost staged in the round, the work does, however lean more toward the audiences in the front and right of the performance than those on the left.

Religious values flow through the work’s crevices with Muslim prayer and Baptist references that keep the two men respectful of each other’s values, as suspicion is cast around the securitised environment. You’re not exposed to either man’s assassination, but you know, as the characters do, that death lurks everywhere, and that their time to offer their voices to the world will be curtailed.

But more than all of this is how the fabric of the play itself has been crafted to juxtapose violence with non-violence. There are structural nuances that you may not notice on your first viewing of the piece, that feed into a satisfying reflection of the values of these two men. It’s a play through which you will learn to empathise with both potential approaches to society. It’s apt to make you weep, as it presents Black History Month in intelligent unmitigated boldness.

  • The Meeting is written by Jeff Stetson and directed by James Ngcobo. It features design by Wesley France (lighting), Nadya Cohen (set), Jurgen Meekel (audio visual) and Nthabiseng Makone (costumes) and is performed by Litha Bam, Brendon Daniels and Aubrey Poo in the Barney Simon Theatre, Market Theatre Complex, Newtown, until February 26. Visit markettheatre.co.za or call 011 832 1641.