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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Sof’town blues

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AH, SOPHIATOWN. HOME and suburban melting pot of such a rich concatenation of frenetic, beautiful and terrible culture that forms the backbone of who we are as creative South Africans, striving for that precious riff or that elusive line of poetry to make us remember what matters. Ah, the eponymous play, written in the fiery mid-1980s by the members of the Junction Avenue Theatre Company, which included such icons as Malcolm Purkey, Pippa Stein, William Kentridge and others. Thirty years later, has the play stood the test of time? In short, mostly. But in this season, it feels dishonoured.

It was a play that broke the mould of what theatre should be, taking the crust of an idea that was cast into the world by Sophiatown resident, the Drum journalist Nat Nakasa. Written for an English-speaking audience, it filtered a rambunctious slew of everything from tsotsi taal to Hebrew, fahfee codes to dances moves into a multifaceted theatre beast that celebrates and mourns what 1954 meant to so many residents of Johannesburg’s suburb of Sophiatown, which was bought in 1897 as a smallholding by Herman Tobiansky and named for his wife and children.

But more than an essay on forced removals in a suburb that skirted apartheid’s draconian legislation, Sophiatown is a portrait of the people in their time. It’s a fantastic story in which the internal dynamics of a house in Gerty Street comes to diverse and critical life, presenting Ruth Golden, a young Jewish woman, sanctuary from her parents’ Yeoville household, as it offers an understanding of home with all its discontents, desires, disgressions and heart.

But this production of the work is sadly lacking in several key areas. It is scripted with a dialogue that has a very distinctive rhythm and it’s not clear how this young cast has been allowed to overlook this important nuance in the delivery of the work. In any event, the result tramples on the fineness, the humanity and the sparkle of the script, making it difficult to follow and casting a slur of humdrum over the words.

The work’s poignant anti-hero, Charlie (played by Joel Zuma) holds great strength of focus and heartstrings. Hlengiwe Lushaba as Mamariti is clearly the production’s drawcard, exercising her mellow voice and sardonic presence with an authenticity that makes your heart sing, backed as she is by the delightful performances of Barileng Malebye as Princess and Tshepiso Tracey Tshabalala as Lulu.

But the young Jewish woman is played by relative newcomer Christine van Hees. While her singing voice harmonises well with that of the cast, much of this character’s role is acted, not sung. And a more obviously not Jewish Ruth Golden would be difficult to conceive of – it is not clear why the idiosyncrasies of a South African Jew raised in the 1970s with European roots and very specific values has not been given the dignity of proper research.

The highlight of the work remains the music and the choreography: there is acapello work in this production that will give you goosebumps, but there isn’t enough of it. Flaws in the casting and the rhythm of the dialogue knock into rather crude relief the limits of the piece in terms of music, particularly in the second half. If only this work had been more critically tweaked for an audience 30 years older (and ones born in the last 30 years).

  • Sophiatown, written by the Junction Avenue Theatre Company, is directed by Malcolm Purkey and features design by Denis Hutchinson (lighting), Sarah Roberts (costume and set), Arthur Molepo (musical direction) and Nhlanhla Mahlangu and Sonia Radebe (choreography). It is performed by Hlengiwe Lushaba Madlala, Barileng Malebye, Nicholas Nkuna, Sechaba Ramphele, Tshepiso Tracey Tshabalala, Christine van Hees, Arthur Zitha and Joel Zuma in a season at the State Theatre in Pretoria until May 21. This review is premised on its season at the Market Theatre in April. Call 012 392 4000 or visit http://www.statetheatre.co.za