Soil tilled to a new level

ankobia

PRAISE the lord and pay your dues! The press (Billy Langa, Momo Matsunyane, Lillian Tshabalala, Alfred Motlhapi and Katlego Letsholonyana) interview the messianic Mgnae (Omphile Molusi). Photograph by Thandile Zwelibanzi.

EVERY SO OFTEN in any artistic community, there’s an upsurge of aesthetic do’s and don’ts. It has as much to do with intellectual fashions of the day as it does with the personalities and egos in the industry. But it gives vent and platform to new voices, headlined by virtue of what they are doing with their words and ideas on stage. Monageng ‘Vice’ Motshabi and Omphile Molusi have created a theatrical statement in Ankobia which mashes together the values of Bertolt Brecht with those of George Orwell, in a thunderingly direct South African context. Breathtakingly.

These values are spliced and tossed together in a science-fictionised, sophisticated yet simple context of savagery and corruption which we all know, in this country – indeed, in this world. But this is no easy or direct spoof of contemporary local politics. Wrapping levels of corruption and reflections of religious hypocrisy together, it is a fantasy tale which takes place in 2041. It cuts close to the bone yet is couched in an understanding of biblical narrative and the complexities of acting. A fruit salad, you may think. You’d be wrong: the piece is tautly written and beautifully performed, condensed down to a tale that is easy to follow, even if you only speak English.

In short, Ankobia, featuring sterling performances from the whole cast, in terms of the muscularity and the malleability of their characters, is not only an important bit of theatre heritage for this society, it’s a play for the people in a way that looks to the future of culture. It’s an angry work, which takes pejorative notions, such as racist values, to the hilt and redefines them with an ironic spin. Land issues are transmogrified into a reflection on the magic potency of soil, and the son of God is but an actor on contract (Molusi).

The sinister morality of this work is embraced with visual humour and strong techno-vibes which see an amalgamation of traditional references and a spattering of LED lights. The one flaw in the work is the plasticity of the set which seems to stultify its energy and is not dealt with directly. Having said that, the choreography and dispersal of song gestures and asides lends the work a Brechtian texture, as does the presence of a faux messianic narrator, in all his bravado and flawed values.

It’s a team energy that seethes and bursts with both dexterity and wisdom, and is driven to an even higher level with the use of a musician – Volley Nchabeleng – onstage, lending the piece traditional authenticity and subtlety that is completely appropriate. Similarly, Jurgen Meekel’s audiovisual interjections are positioned with acuteness and fit properly into the material.

But this is no soft or easy story. Ankobia is about twisted values and coerced behaviour. It’s about the purging of brainwashing tools and witches and savages who are the real custodians of a land gone beserk. It’s easily one of the highlights of this city’s theatre picking in a long while.

  • Ankobia is written by Monageng ‘Vice’ Motshabi and Omphile Molusi and directed by Monageng ‘Vice’ Motshabi. It features creative input by Amos Kgaugelo Phala (costumes), Teresa Phuti Mojela (choreography), Thapelo Mokgosi (lighting), Thando Lobese (set) and Jurgen Meekel (audiovisual) and is performed by Billy Langa, Katlego ‘Kaygee’ Letsholonyana, Momo Matsunyane and Omphile Molusi with Volley Nchabeleng playing a wide range of indigenous musical instruments and creating sound effects. It is at the Mannie Manim Theatre, Market Theatre complex in Newtown, Johannesburg, until August 13. Call 011 832 1641 or visit markettheatre.co.za
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Peep show psychiatry

wings

THE unspeakable horror of loss: James (Mncedisi Shabangu) and Paul (Andrew Buckland), caught in time with Sarah (Jennifer Steyn).

THE INDIGNITY OF mental illness is never an easy topic to extrapolate on stage. It can be complicated by drug-induced fantasies and illogical behaviour that fit and don’t fit into the world. For a theatre work being presented to an ordinary audience – and not students experimenting with stretching boundaries – the nub of the challenge is to represent mental brokenness with both plausibility and dignity, not bruising the one over the other. By the end of this piece, it feels as though you’ve been privy to something that is both too ghastly and too private for it to be staged in a theatre.

The Inconvenience of Wings is a tale woven loosely around the magic realism of a short story by Gabriel García Marquez in the 1950s, The Man with Enormous Wings. It is performed with searing aptitude by an incredibly strong cast, against a beautifully functional set, that is punctuated with doors and windows, nuances and keyholes, but you leave feeling uncomfortably manipulated and morally grubby, if not broken and frightened.

Cast in an inverted timeframe that takes you from 1995 all the way back to 1961, in a very linear way, it reflects on the relationship between Paul (Andrew Buckland) and Sarah (Jennifer Steyn), offering a steep trajectory into the very heart of brutal loss and bipolarity. It touches the way in which trauma can reach so deeply into one’s soul that it can change the workings of one’s personality irrevocably.

And while the topic shouldn’t be taboo, the handling of it in this work is unrelenting: the intensity doesn’t let up for one second. Paul’s an architect and his friend James (Mncedisi Shabangu) is a professor of psychiatry, and a foil for the story to weave in political assertions, but also a sounding board for both Paul and Sarah’s challenges. We never do see Sarah in a state of mind that seems calm or lucid. The focus on nearly thirty years of a relationship highlights only the bad and mad areas, making you in the audience feel as though you are witnessing the enactment of a psychiatric case study, evoking Victorian traditions where aberrations were staged in circuses. It also perplexes you as to why they get together at all.

This is a pity. Love and death, witticisms and hilarity shouldn’t be excluded from a tale of insanity. If you watch Miloš Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), you understand the horrendous context of the world and its severe indictment of institutions for mental illness at the time. But while you’re crying and engaging with the characters, you’re laughing: not at them but at the world in relation to them, and at the niftiness and elegance of the writing.

There’s no laughter in The Inconvenience of Wings and the tears you shed are ones of helplessness  against the lurking monster of manic depression and the drugs that can make it better or break the whole entity. The snippets and snatches of poetry in the text are so beaten about by the context of the dreams conjured by mental illness patients that the magic they may contain is blunted and the fire dulled by your understanding that they’re the ramblings of sick people.

A tale of cup cakes and addiction, angels and traumatised children, this is a tough play by all accounts, and one not suitable for just any audience member.

  • The Inconvenience of Wings is written and directed by Lara Foot. Featuring creative input by Mannie Manim (lighting), Patrick Curtis (set) and Birrie Le Roux (costumes), it is performed by Andrew Buckland, Mncedisi Shabangu and Jennifer Steyn in the Mannie Manim Theatre, Market Theatre complex in Newtown, Johannesburg, until July 16. Call 011 832 1641 or visit markettheatre.co.za

Judge this man by his suit

thesuit

LOVE me tender: Philemon (Siyabonga Twala) with Matilda (Zola Nombona). Photograph courtesy The Market Theatre.

EVERY SO OFTEN, a piece of literature is crafted which is simply perfect – in its character development, in its narrative structure, in how the language fits together. Nadine Gordimer’s short story The Train from Rhodesia (1952) is one of those. As is the chapter in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina about the horse. And Can Themba’s story The Suit, is another, unequivocally.

Every so often, theatre gurus get together to give theatrical life to a written masterpiece, and sometimes they get it right. It is, indeed, a true rarity for the performed version to meet the written version with such patent values of respect and artistry, that you must hold your breath when you watch it, because you know you are in the presence of true greatness. This happens in this version of The Suit, which has just enjoyed a Market Theatre season.

As you walk into the theatre, you are accosted on two fronts: the seating is arranged as though for a tennis match: audiences are ranged facing one another. This has been done before in different Market Theatre venues and it poses curious and somewhat unnecessary challenges on the audience.  And then, there’s a huge door as a part of the set. It dominates the work with a crazy kind of bombast that alludes to the French windows of a large house. It’s an effective entrance point to the tale, but poses an anachronism – the characters are living in Sophiatown in the 1960s. There are no big double doors in the lower middle income context extrapolated here. Further to that, there are some odd decisions which see the work’s text transposed in projection onto the work.

These issues are ones which you forgive as soon as the cast begins to perform. And you forgive them, because each cast member is so finely focused on the ethos of the character he or she represents, that you have no more space in your consciousness to think of anything but the tale they tell.

It’s a violent story of psychological cruelty, featuring a suit which is dramatised to sinister levels. The tale is a tragedy, but one not unconscious to the magnificence of the music of the era or the dress culture. This work – along the lines of Dominique Gumede’s Crepuscule – is a adulation of sheer beauty in a time of unmitigated horror, against the backdrop of the cruelty of apartheid.

Matilda (Zola Nombona) is a young woman with dreams to be someone more than just a wife. But then she meets and marries the beautiful Philemon (Siyabonga Twala) and becomes the envy of all her peers. But while he goes out to work, she becomes bored and lonely. And she digresses. And is caught. And she is punished in a way that lends a banal object – the suit in question – a level of horror akin to what Alfred Hitchcock did with sparrows in his film The Birds (1963).

While there are astoundingly fine performances on the part of Twala and Nombona , something has to be said for the magnificent performance of Molefi Monaise, who, within a few seconds of character development, is able to offer such a rounded reflection of the character he represents that his uncharacteristic silence on the bus that preempts the unfolding of the whole drama, chills you to your very bones.

A work of devastating subtlety, of the style and wisdom we saw in The Suitcase written by Es’kia Mphahlele and also directed by Ngcobo a couple of years ago, which also featured Twala in the lead, The Suit is hauntingly unforgettable. Featuring exquisite choreography by Luyanda Sidiya, it offers unvoiced reflection on the Matilda character’s alter-ego. Danced by Lesedi Motladi, it’s an aspect to this work which lends mystery and tender fragility to a story wrenched with betrayal and violence.

The season of this important work coincided with Africa Day, but it’s a work of such wisdom and value that it begs for a longer season.

  • The Suit is written by Can Themba and adapted for stage by Mothobi Mutloatse and Barney Simon. It is directed by James Ngcobo and features design by Luyanda Sidiya (choreography), Richard John Forbes (set), Thapelo Makgosi (lighting), Ntuthuko Mbuyazi (sound) and Sue Sey-Steele (costumes). It was performed by Molefi Monaise, Lesedi Motladi, Andile Nebulane, Lindani Nkosi, Zola Nombona and Siyabonga Twala, in a season at the Mannie Manim Theatre, Market Theatre complex in Newtown, from May 5-28. Visit markettheatre.co.za or call 011 832 1641.

Broken values, smashed dreams and theatre with devastating balance

swallows

DECISIONS, decisions: Christiaan Schoombie (foreground) with Warren Masemola and Mpho Osei-Tutu deciding upon his fate. Photograph courtesy comarochronicle.co.za

SELDOM DO YOU get to feel privileged enough to experience a play with not only electric relevance to the brokenness of our current global society, but one which also brings together such a rich collaboration of skills that it shines from every direction. Mike van Graan’s latest play, When Swallows Cry is an extraordinary and brilliant essay on the pain and complexity of migration.

Almost crafted like a filmed hostage drama, the work is forced out of actuality clichés and holds its own as a stage play thanks to beautiful energies conveyed by the set, lighting and audio-visual elements, as well as the choreographed staging of the work as a whole.  Comprising three vignettes, it sears into an understanding of blood-curdling xenophobia, and bleeding heart humanity in a way that is absolutely riveting, as text and performance are made to suppurate in concert with the poison of historical hatred and anguish.

Casting iron-hard laughter at the idea of ‘saving people from their poverty’, and unflinchingly describing the kind of crude racism that circumscribes the possibilities for refugees, the work is uncompromisingly cynical and hard hitting, but it doesn’t lack deeply woven nuances. It is the manner in which each vignette – be it in Somalia, America or Australia – gives flesh and dimension to each of its characters, lending them balance that makes this such a show stopper. Each character has been superbly crafted, but more so, each man embodies the several roles which he performs with such an impeccable intensity that you may well forget to breathe, as you watch.

When the room seems to rock and swirl as the lights sway, when the space is calibrated with light, when a stretch of sea rocks so lugubriously, it seems to do so amidst the stolidness of oil, you get a sense of myriads of other untold stories within stories. Of voices that don’t get heard in a refugee crisis. Of farms in Zimbabwe that were abandoned. Of mines near Mogadishu where men were shot. You understand how immigration control might be doing its job, but also what it must feel like to have a country’s doors closed in your face. Because of the colour of your skin. Or your religion.

It’s an immensely fine cast comprising Christiaan Schoombie, Warren Masemola and Mpho Osei-Tutu who each splay out a range of deeply disturbing social realities. While each of the three shine with a fierce intensity, the cast is arguably headed by Masemola, who evokes the character of Simon Adebisi in the HBO prison series Oz. This extraordinary character, played by British performer Adewale Akinnyoye-Agbaje,  lends a sophisticated sheen of malevolence and unbated violence which has a real heart. And like the HBO prison series Oz, When Swallow Cry is a work that enfolds  valid perspectives with grit and toughness, but with a pen that forces itself into all the crevices of the scenario and a speculum that sees into all the sides of the situations. You weep for the villain’s tragedies as you understand why he is the villain. You hear the diatribe of the wannabe teacher in Africa, and hear also the puniness of his liberal dreams. In short, nothing is left one sided.

The work is an open-ended essay: it doesn’t promise to give answers to deeply wrenching realities which reflect on how history and the brutal and crude struggle for power turns in a ghastly and repetitive circle. But it is an important theatre gesture which will move and horrify you, as it will haunt you.

  • When Swallows Cry is written by Mike van Graan and directed by Lesedi Job mentored by Megan Willson. Featuring design by Jurgen Meekel (audiovisual), Mandla Mtshali (lighting), Nadya Cohen (set), Noluthando Lobese (costumes) and Ntuthuko Mbuyazi (sound), with incubates Lerato Masooane (costumes), Tsholofelo Ramospele (set), Mosibudi Maggy Selebe (sound) and Tanele Dlamini (audio visual), it is performed by Warren Masemola, Mpho Osei-Tutu and Christiaan Schoombie, in the Mannie Manim Theatre, Market Theatre comples, Newtown, Johannesburg until February 5. Call 011 832 1641 or visit markettheatre.co.za

How to celebrate an ordinary hairstylist

cenotaph

SEARCHING for a number: Tony Miyambo, the son to his father.

IF YOU HAVE ever lost someone you loved very deeply, you will know the surreal madness that makes you see your loved one amongst strangers in the street, in traffic, in the shape of a head, a distinctive movement of an arbitrary stranger. You will remember how the ridiculous minutiae of your life slowed to a momentous lethargy and you will recognise how your memories of the silliest of details when you heard the horrible news, remains irrevocable. The Cenotaph of Dan wa Moriri brings the horror of loss to stage with a intense wisdom, a light hand and a sophisticated sense of levity. It is nothing short of sheer masterpiece.

Blending the unequivocal skills of arguably the finest in South African theatre at the moment – Gerard Bester, Tony Miyambo and William Harding, this work first saw light of day in Johannesburg at the So So1o festival in 2014. Its presence on a professional stage, for a proper season, gives it elbow room to grow and shine with relentless energy.

It’s an intimate tale told with such beauty and candidness that it overleaps the boundaries of specificity and becomes about not only the loss of Miyambo’s precious father, but something universal. Using repeat refrains that engage with place and context, the rhythm of the words, the give and take of the language are satisfying to experience: it’s structured similarly to Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, which skirts and flirts around the enormity of horror with words and associations and a kind of emotional choreography, imitating how the mind embraces huge news.

But more than this, it’s a tale of great belly laughter and immense sadness and it is safe in the supremely competent hands of Miyambo and replete with the inimitable texture of life in Tembisa. Never slipping into the soppily maudlin or the foolishly unfunny, the work is magicked into life with hundreds of tiny blocks of wood. Evocative of Fruit by Paul Noko, this curious innovation in set design, credited to Phala Ookeditse Phala in the earlier manifestation of the work, presents a fantastic give and take between scales as it veers between childhood memories and grown up ones.

They’re blocks of wood which enables Miyambo to plot the sequence of events, the map of his childhood neighbourhood, the peppering of tombstones in a cemetery. There’s a visual rhythm to this humble material, that can render a wooden offcut, a cenotaph, and a table leg a part of a goat. The Cenotaph of Dan wa Moriri celebrates the life of a humble hairstylist, as it confronts the issues of loss: loss of bearing because of illness; loss of life; loss of a grave number; loss of context. It’s a production which demands that you take along several tissues, and while you might still be trying to catch your breath at its denouement, you will leave with your heart on fire with a mix of emotions. In short: it is completely beautiful. The play of the year, so far.

  • The Cenotaph of Dan wa Moriri is written by Gerard Bester, Tony Miyambo and William Harding and directed by Gerard Bester. Featuring design by Julian August (lighting), it is performed by Tony Miyambo at the Mannie Manim Theatre, Market Theatre complex, Newtown, until October 30. Call 011 832 1641 or visit www.markettheatre.co.za

Seven haunting words to chill your heart

I TURNED AWAY AND SHE WAS GONE!

UNBEARABLE weight of loss: Jennie Reznek is Demeter. Photograph by Mark Wessels, courtesy of the Market Theatre.

THE HORROR OF the sudden loss of a loved one – whether they are taken by death, a kidnapper or an impenetrable illness that robs their existence of reason – is a harsh idea to confront, onstage or off. In I turned away and she was gone, Jennie Reznek searingly confronts your worst nightmare as she conflates classical Greek narrative within a contemporary setting that brings everything from white privilege to the indignity of assisted living under her loupe.

It’s a complex idea articulated with candidness and clarity that will take you by surprise. She engages directly with the audience and skitters lightly between being in the context of the theatre and being in a magical world replete with madness and possibility, with dreams of falling into volcanoes and baths of water as she embodies three generations of women – Hecate, Demeter and Kore (who becomes Persephone).

It’s a tiny slice of Greek narrative cast amid a sea of local and contemporary urban references in a language that dizzyingly writhes and soars with the crude unanswerable emptiness of loss. And it is oft breathtaking in how her language is crafted to reach into the interstices of the difficult relationship between a mother and her daughter. There’s love and resentment, neediness and anguish, jealousy and confusion, give and take which pepper the interplay of generations.

Comingled with extraordinary music by Neo Muyanga and overhead projections of text, the narrative sometimes becomes complicated to read, but mostly it’s difficult to watch Reznek perform through your own tears.

Armed with an extraordinary physical energy and presence, Reznek is not tall or large, but in her gestures and her humanity, she fills the whole theatre and echoes into your very soul. Her portrayal of a young child, a young mother, an older woman, a woman suffering the throes of dementia and a woman on her deathbed are articulated with a wrenching and bleak humour and wit that you can’t bring yourself to laugh at because it is so fiercely tender. And yet it has a resonance because it is articulated from within, from the underbelly of the kind of emotion the woman herself, the woman on her deathbed, the woman who has lost the word for ‘soap’ experiences.

Reznek has a very specific and elaborate physical language which conflates mime with emotional gestures and this sometimes evokes sign language and makes you feel as though you’re watching something cast in a grammar you don’t completely understand. But you roll with the structure of the material and the muscularity of the classical tale which holds it all together and prevents it from slipping into maudlin anecdote. It’s a beautiful piece of work which will burn you with its emotional fierceness if you allow it to.

  • I turned away and she was gone is written and performed by Jennie Reznek and directed by Mark Fleishman. It features design by Neo Muyanga (music), Craig Leo (set), Ina Wichtereich (choreography) and Sanjin Muftić (videography) and performs at the Mannie Manim Theatre, Market Theatre complex in Newtown until October 2. Call 011 832 16412 or visit markettheatre.co.za

Girltalk for combatants

Screams

FACE to face, they scald each other: Tinarie van Wyk Loots opposite Masasa Lindiwe Mbangeni. Photograph courtesy artslink.co.za

SOMETIMES YOU MAY be so overwhelmed by the iconic status of the creative team behind a work that you might be blinded as to its merits or otherwise. The Dying Screams of the Moon written by Zakes Mda and directed by John Kani is an intriguing piece of theatre which demands dialogue in its wake. It isn’t, however, the most perfect of plays on stage right now.

You realise you’ve entered a church as you take your seat in the auditorium, and you might have to stultify the urge to genuflect, whether you come from a church ethos or not. But quickly, you realise, this church is down at heel. While the smell of incense wafts in the space, the building has seen more robust days and there’s a frank humility about it which speaks of poverty.

Indeed, this little sacred building used to be a church. These days, it’s a chapel, but still the moniker “… of the broken Christ” as its congregants fondly used to call it, holds. The organist (Ezbie Sebatsa Moilwa) rehearses. And then, a young woman (Masasa Lindiwe Mbangeni) appears. She’s statuesque and poised. She holds a paper bag, but she’s clearly in of distress. As the tale unfolds, it becomes clear that this farm, this church, represent a very fond yet compromised piece of her history, and she is returning home.

Enter another young woman, roughly of the same age as the first (Tinarie van Wyk Loots), and her bolshie sense of ownership takes the fore. As do the skin colours of the two – the first is black, the second, white. This is about land. It’s about men. It’s about the discrepancies of wealth in this pock-marked country in which we live, and the swath of history that has coloured so much of it in blood and hate.

Thus unfolds a conversation that is muscular and pointed. It gives flesh and credibility to what both women say and how their perspective is shaped and moulded. You will not be able to draw your attention from the utterly focused performances of both van Wyk Loots and Mbangeni: they’re beautifully cast and make for resoundingly fine sparring partners.

But the play is a tilted one. From the outset, you instinctively have empathy for the black woman. She’s vulnerable yet strong. Alone, yet equipped with the conviction and the self-belief to articulate her position without fear. Instinctively, you don’t want to support the white woman. She is fierce in her political views, patronising in her engagement with the hapless stranger and so deeply moored in a racist ideology, she cannot recognise the ghastly faux pas she makes.

At the denouement of the play, emotion flows: and one woman seeks succour from her ostensible enemy. But can you empathise with either? You remain coldly unable to. It’s a curious problem in a play of this nature: while you can understand the validity of both of these sketched sides of the South African political spectrum, are there indeed just two sides? Both characters are written too one dimensionally and there is no wiggle room for nuance, or levity, particularly with the white character.

Further to this, while the organist plays beautifully, and has impressive music credentials, he is not a professional actor, an issue which becomes crudely obvious when he is called upon to speak, even if it is just for a word or two. This is a pity and mars the critical credibility of the work. Surely there are performers on our stages who can play music and act?

The Dying Screams of the Moon articulates values, words and ideas that five years ago would arguably have been scorned and frowned upon in audiences. While the approach does seem crude, the nature of the work opens vital conversational doors.

  • The Dying Screams of the Moon is written by Zakes Mda and directed by John Kani. It features design by Nomvula Molepo (lighting), Karabo Legoabe (set) and Nthabiseng Makone (costumes). It is performed by Masasa Lindiwe Mbangeni, Ezbie Sebatsa Moilwa and Tinarie van Wyk Loots at the Mannie Manim Theatre, Market Theatre Complex, Newtown, Johannesburg, until August 21. 011 832 1641 or markettheatre.co.za.