Paean to The Ones With No Names

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HELPLESS among the dead: Roelf Visagie (Dawid Minnaar). Photo courtesy: The Market Theatre.

GRAVEYARDS ARE FASCINATING and complex ciphers of values. They’re about grounding one’s memories and honouring those who are no longer with us. They’re about a level of sacredness which touches everyone at the core. This is the premise of Athol Fugard’s devastatingly potent work, The Train Driver and the tone is established with simplicity and rawness from the set and the soundscape, from the outset.

So you think of train and you think of graveyards and you probably understand the nub of the play’s plot from the first few minutes: there’s a death. In fact, there are two. But the sophistication and the nuance of this work takes you much further and much richer into what it means to die, what it means to kill, and what it means to bury people whose names are not told to you. It’s a tale of anger and forgiving that reaches to the very vortex of what makes us human.

You might think Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina as you might think Tony Miyambo’s The Cenotaph of Dan Wa Moriri, and in neither association would you be misguided. This is a simple tale told with a deep heart and a developed sense of empathy. It is as much about the woman on the tracks as it is about the man, helplessly guiding his train.

As you sit and watch this yarn unfolding, you might cast your mind to the recent production of Reza de Wet’s Diepe Grond, a play which with subtlety and terror painted the broad and scary bush of South Africa – a place implied with sound elements and echoes, and one filled with ghosts.

And with no less than John Kani opposite Dawid Minnaar, the work will crumble you to your very essence. Kani plays Simon whose real name is Andile – a gloss on so-called white names in the messy bag that is South Africa. Simon’s a man who lives in a shack on the edges of the graveyard. It’s a place close to nowhere and reflects on issues of poverty which are impossible to understand if your basic necessities are covered. His livelihood is based on allowing those who have no names to rest in peace, safe from foraging dogs or violent opportunists.

Roelf Visagie is the train driver (Minnaar), who comes with white South African values and a heart broken by trauma. The denouement is wrenching and it leaves them both broken in different ways. This is the kind of play that is unforgiving in its indictment on the discrepancies of South African values, but in terms of all its collaborative elements, it sings with a clarity that is searing.

  • The Train Driver is written by Athol Fugard and directed by Charmaine Weir Smith. It features design by Thando Lobese (set and costumes) and Mannie Manim (lighting) and is performed by John Kani and Dawid Minnaar until June 3 at the Mannie Manim Theatre, Market Theatre complex in Newtown. Call 011-832-1641

How to realise you are beautiful

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MY sister, my best friend forever: Celie (Didintle Khunou) writes a letter to her sister Nettie (Sebe Leotlela), who lives in Africa. Photograph by enroCpics

THERE ARE SO many “wow” moments in the South African stage version of The Color Purple: The Musical, you’ve got to hold onto your seat with both hands. Supported by a set that features diagrammatic representation of space and texture, a cast that sparkles with magnificent voices and fine acting skills, and a classic narrative that just doesn’t get tired, this is the cultural imperative of the year so far, in this city.

The translation of Alice Walker’s 1982 classic black women’s liberation novel into a stage musical is simply gorgeous, offering a gloss on the horror of black women’s lives in America between 1909 and 1949, punctuated as it was by rape, battery and an implicit understanding as chattel. The songs are wrenching and potent but jazzy and full of poetry. And the choreography in this work represents an understanding of the rhythm of the spoken language, the lyrics and the context that will completely satisfy your head and heart. Ultimately, The Color Purple a tale of victory and it is a six-tissue show – you’ll shed tears of outrage and of joy, in an unmoderated way, from beginning to end.

With magnificent Didintle Khunou in the role of Celie – a role performed by Whoopi Goldberg in the original 1985 Steven Spielberg film – the brilliance is cast. And while the production is not flawless, there is a moment in the second half of the piece, where Khunou, slight of size, stands alone on the stage and embraces the whole huge space and all its audience, with her rendition of “I’m Here”. It’s a moment which will stay in your heart forever.

But Khunou is not alone in giving this production incredible vocal muscle. Stand out performances by Lerato Mvelase in the role of Shug Avery, the catalyst to Celie’s abusive marriage, who teaches her that sex can be fantastic, Neo Motaung as Sofia, Celie’s daughter-in-law, who gives as good as she gets and who has a voice that reaches across generations in its heart and soul, and Dolly Louw, as Doris – an ensemble member – who has physical presence onstage that makes you simply fall in love with her.

Mister, played by Aubrey Poo and Harpo, his son, played by Yamikani Mahaka-Phiri, collectively offer an understanding of flawed black American maleness, which is violent and crude, aggressive yet still capable of love – and indeed capable of turning around. The work is replete with sarcasm and the power of defiance in the name of unfairness and it is funny and rich and nuanced with gossip and jazz.

It is supported by a set that simply takes your breath away. Slats of wood are hammered in place to set up a sketched illusion of context. It’s free of gimmick, strong and direct, and does exactly what a set should do. There are moments when you stop noticing it, simply because it cleaves so perfectly with the work. Similarly, the costume designs are understated yet appropriate, they’re comfortable on the eye, on the cast members and on the context being represented.

And while the individual voices in harmony and alone are beautiful enough to make you weep, by themselves, there is a glitch in the work — or rather, two — which stand like two book ends for the show. The ensemble songs, at the beginning and the end of the work, which feature the whole company belting it out, fight mercilessly internally and with the orchestra and as a result, they’re very shouty. And the casualty: the lyrics and the clarity. You get a bit of a fruit salad instead. Occasionally also, in the sphere of sound design, some of the voices, including notably Funeka Peppeta’s, goes rogue and turns into a shriek.

One other glitch in the overall show’s identity is weak design on the part of the production poster which is emblazoned on the highway as a massive billboard. The work is so much more than those bleached out sad faces which take the colour purple to dreary and corpse-like lengths: it really doesn’t do justice to the colourful, rollicking monster of wisdom and intimate poetry that you see on stage.

That said, the work, a tale of unmitigated sisterly love and extreme hardship, of church values and the magic of discovering one’s own sexuality, is one that celebrates women’s pants in the most delightful of ways and continues to be a benchmark work in the name of black women’s identity, liberation and voice. But be warned: Just one viewing just might not suffice.

  • The Color Purple: The Musical is written by Marsha Norman based on the eponymous novel by Alice Walker. Featuring music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray, it is directed by Janice Honeyman. Performed by Zane Gillion, Didintle Khunou, Sebe Leotlela, Dolly Louw, Andile Magxaki, Yamikani Mahaka-Phiri, Venolia Manale, Namisa Mdlalose, Phumi Mncayi, Neo Motaung, Lerato Mvelase, Tshepo Ncokoane, Thokozani Nzima, Funeka Peppeta, Aubrey Poo, Senzesihle Radebe, Lelo Ramasimong, Zolani Shangase, Ayanda Sibisi and Lebo Toko, it features design by Sarah Roberts (production), Mannie Manim (lighting), Richard Smith (sound), Rowan Bakker (musical direction) and Oscar Buthelezi (choreography). The orchestra, under the direction of Rowan Bakker, comprises Dale-Ray Scheepers (keyboards), Leagh Rankin and Brian Smith (reeds), Kuba Silkiewicz (guitar), Viwe Mkizwana (bass), Donny Bouwer (trumpet) and Mike Ramasimong (drums). It performs at the Nelson Mandela Theatre, Joburg theatre complex in Braamfontein, until March 4. Call 011-877-6800 or visit joburgtheatre.com

Peep show psychiatry

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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

Honour conferred, honour deserved

French award Georgina Th, Greg M, Ismael M (11)

PINK bubbly: (from left), Dancer/choreographer Greg Maqoma, French Ambassador to South Africa His Excellency Christophe Farnaud and arts administrator and dance curator Georgina Thomson. Photograph by Geoff Sifrin.

ON TUESDAY, MAY 2, 2017, in acknowledgement of their career-long contributions to the dance fraternity in South Africa, artistic director of Dance Umbrella Georgina Thomson and artistic director and founder of Vuyani Dance Theatre, Gregory Maqoma, were awarded the Officier des Arts et des Lettres and the Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres respectively by the Ambassador of France to South Africa, His Excellence Mr Christophe Farnaud, at a moving and intimate reception at the French Embassy in Pretoria.

“My relationship with IFAS has been amazing,” Thomson, who was born in the Netherlands and grew up in Lesotho and the Orange Free State, began speaking of how generously the French have opened doors for South African dance over the years. Significantly, she focused on how her former colleagues, including Mandie van der Spuy, Mannie Manim, Philip Stein and Nicola Danby had spurred her on to “fly” and to do what she didn’t think possible, as a dancer, as an arts administrator, as a curator of a festival of contemporary dance which took on an international sheen in her hands. “I worked with people who were generous, open, giving and supportive,” she concluded.

Ambassador Farnaud praised the work she has done over the works with levity and directness, referring to everything from the collaboration with brought Les Nuits, choreographed by Angelin Preljocaj to South Africa in 2014, “Dear Georgina,” he added. “Your distinctive career journey is heightened by your courage, your range of expertise and your travels around the world. You have worked with artists of all identities and backgrounds … you have used your artistic career to break boundaries and become the voice of those who were silenced.” Deeming Thomson an “exceptional example of determination and commitment”, he spoke of the bridges she has created – mostly against all funding odds – between local dancers and international opportunities.

Describing Gregory Maqoma’s contribution to dance as brave and brilliant as he spoke of the Soweto hostels context into which Maqoma was raised, Ambassador Farnaud commented on how Maqoma developed a sense of empathy in the plight of his fellow Soweto residents. Maqoma started dancing in the late 1980s, and under Sylvia Glasser developed into a professional dancer of Moving Into Dance Mophatong in 1991. He rose through the ranks of her company, eventually setting up a company of his own. Ambassador Farnaud commented on how deeply Maqoma’s work is respected and has developed, offering a trajectory of his career.

“You continue to play an important role in the development of dance in South Africa,” he added. “But more than a dancer/choreographer, you are also proven to be a smart entrepreneur. Indeed, Vuyani Dance Company is a strong example of a successful business model in the arts, which is not an easy feat nowadays.” Defining Maqoma as both “outstanding and unstoppable,” he added “You have become an inspiration to young artists not only in South Africa, but across the continent as well. You have changed the lives of young artists by giving them the wherewithal to spread their wings.”

Supported by his mother and aunt, Maqoma paid tribute to his late father. “Art is life,” he said, describing his passion for performing as a child as he gently describing the platitudinous questions posted to him by a CNN journalist. “Growing up in the context where I did, I learned more about the world, the complexities and the challenges,” he added, speaking of the melting pot that is contemporary Soweto. The odds he faced were terrifying and huge, for himself as well as his family. Legacy and the role of each individual in the industry underlined his talk, as well as the conscious decision of what one leaves behind.

Maqoma and Thomson joins the ranks of Johnny Clegg (1991), Robyn Orlin (2009) and William Kentridge (2013) in accepting this great award and immense honour, which was established in 1957 in recognition of significant contributions to the enrichment of the arts and literature in France and abroad.

  • What are the implications of these awards for South Africa, going forward, given the outcome of the French elections? Read this opinion piece.

People: A play that engenders belief in our youth

Humiliating Shortie: Anna Mart van der Merwe plays Millie, opposite Francois Jacobs as Shortie. Photograph courtesy www.artslink.co.za

Humiliating Shortie: Anna Mart van der Merwe plays Millie, opposite Francois Jacobs as Shortie. Photograph courtesy www.artslink.co.za

As she walks onto the stage, bent over by her smoker’s cough and her palpable despair, Anna-Mart van der Merwe, in the role of Fugard’s ‘Millie’ magnetises the audience. She portrays the squalid baseness of poverty and worthlessness in an early 1970s South Africa with a sense of such perfection, you feel your heart sink even as it sings with being in the presence of the brilliant grittiness of arguably, Athol Fugard’s best work ever.

But it is van der Merwe in collaboration with the young cast – of Carel Nel (as Don), Francois Jacobs (as Shortie) and Dania Gelderblom (as Sussie) that truly gives this production its edge. They filter the performance of this play thoroughly with all the incisive wit, bitterness, conflict and anger that bring it up there with words by Beckett, Stoppard or Sartre. While you get glimmerings of Shakespeare in the crisp and trauma-drenched language, you remain deeply aware of the helpless flaws in each persona: Each character has his or her own baseness and inadequacies yet together, the tenants and their land lady harmonise grotesquely and completely in fitting with the ethos of this play, as it carves into hopelessness and poverty.

Tossing into the air the conjoined issues of love and sex, poverty and politics and the ever elusive idea of dreams of happiness, the work is deeply poetic as it is fuelled by the ordinariness of the daily grind. Premised around a birthday party and the challenges of education and acne, cruelty and hurt, it pulls no punches, and doesn’t miss a trick, but never teeters into easy theatre.

The work is astonishingly complemented with a set which gives you a sense of not only what the night air feels like, but also of what the kitchen smells like. The pared down universe constructed here by Nadya Cohen is so carefully layered and subtly informed that as the faulty grandfather clock chimes oft hesitantly and with the prompt of a kick in its solar plexus, you can picture, the rickety staircase and the horror of the residents’ bedrooms, in your mind’s eye.

Such an extraordinarily performed production offers not only courage for the industry itself, but for the high school curricula: People Are Living There is currently a matric setwork. This cleaving together of theatre and education is not a new idea, but it is handled so astutely and with such a sense of professional collaboration, you cannot but have hope for all the matriculants who were exposed to this production: not only for the immediacy of their matric exams, but for seeds cast in their love of the medium and the thrill of being in a theatre.

The season is over and there’s scant indication on the theatre’s website as to whether the show will have legs going forward: but lots of legs it warrants. Also, whilst van der Merwe is an unequivocal stalwart who can change any production – be it on stage, screen or radio – into something mesmerising, the rest of the cast, impeccably chosen, are performers to look out for, each in his or her own right. Each fleshes out his or her character with a bold sense of competence and focus that gives them the timelessness they warrant.

  • People Are Living There by Athol Fugard is directed by Andre Odendaal and features design by Mannie Manim (lighting); Nadya Cohen (set); Nthabiseng Makone (costumes). It is performed by Anna-Mart van der Merwe, Carel Nel, Dania Gelderblom and Francois Jacobs, at the Barney Simon Theatre, Market Theatre complex in Newtown, Johannesburg. The season ended on May 24. markettheatre.co.za

Hummingbird and the sum of its parts

Back on stage after an absence of 15 years, Athol Fugard as Oupa, opposite Marviantoz Baker as Boba. Photograph courtesy Market Theatre

Back on stage after an absence of 15 years, Athol Fugard as Oupa, opposite Marviantoz Baker as Boba. Photograph courtesy Market Theatre

To reach out and catch the shadow of a bird in one’s clenched fist. That childlike yet deeply philosophical desire is central to this extraordinary little play, Fugard’s latest, which celebrates life and death as it contemplates the freedom but also the indignity of growing old.

And while elements of the work suffer from a kind of rudderlessness as we watch an old man rifling through a lifetime of his own notes, there’s such beauty in the interface between the old man and the beautiful almost androgynous youngster Marviantoz Baker, who plays his grandson Boba, that it sings, and you forget and forgive the paths where the work might err.

The two share a deep and challenging bond which is capable of invoking lovely monsters as it is of drawing Plato’s cave into the mix. In spite of an erratic and difficult to recognise accent on the part of the young performer, the bond between grandfather and grandson is about feuding family as much as it is about being allies in a sea of bland, pragmatic expectation.

Audiences are flocking to see this work, less for the novelty of the work itself and more to pay homage to a great man who represents the heart of what South African theatre is. They can’t be disappointed: Fugard really does have beautiful stage presence, even now, in his 80s. He has an energy which fills the stage and overflows generously into the audience. There’s a self-deprecating tone to his presence which is as much about his genuine frailties as it is about his skill. It’s endearing but also at times searing, offering insight into the relentlessness of growing older and losing one’s grip on the things that matter.

But the strength of this work, set as it is in Fugard’s current home, Southern California, lies less in its entirety and more in its collaborative contributions. The set, by Saul Radomsky is completely real, down to its tiniest of details: from the comfortable clutter of a lifetime of creative play and work, to the way in which the light – created by Mannie Manim – shifts oh so subtly, switching through the times of day, enveloping the presence of the shadows that inform and underline the work’s repartee.

It’s a space which immediately opens up the viability of Oupa’s back story, fleshing his character out before he even appears on stage. The sound design, by James Webb, is also intricately intertwined into the work, breathing life into its more abstract nuances and lending a magic which is untouchable.

The give and take and earnestness and folly articulated by Fugard and Baker lend the work its backbone, which at times stumbles into too much wordiness, but ultimately negotiates around the concept of love with such unabashed directness it takes your breath away.

The Shadow of the Hummingbird is written by Athol Fugard, featuring direction by Fugard, and Paula Fourie; design by Saul Radomsky (set); Mannie Manim (lighting); and James Webb (sound), it is performed by Fugard and Marviantoz Baker at the Barney Simon Theatre, Market Theatre complex, Newtown, Johannesburg, until August 17.

 

Missing: finely crafted but dated

Susan Danford and John Kani, as Anna Ohlsson and her husband Robert Khalipa. Photograph by Andrew Brown.

Susan Danford and John Kani, as Anna Ohlsson and her husband Robert Khalipa. Photograph by Andrew Brown.

It’s not everyday that you get the chance to see veteran actor John Kani performing on stage, and the experience of watching this ostensibly vulnerable old man with rapier-like wit and electric timing is precious. The man has a magnetic stage presence; his performance in Missing is simply magnificent and will bring tears to your eyes. The play is, however, dated, and but for a superb production team and lovely collaborative energy, leaves you with little to upset your emotional equilibrium as you leave the theatre.

As apartheid became more and more intolerable to the thinking and proactive intelligentsia of the left wing of society, more and more people went into self- or government-imposed exile. They made lives for themselves out of Africa. Children were born. Degrees were earned. The world continued to turn. Almost a generation away, it’s an interesting exercise to ponder the mindset engendered in the children of exiles.

Enter the Khalipas. Robert Vuyo Khalipa (Kani) is married to Swede Anna Ohlsson (Danford) and they have a young adult daughter Ayanda (Ngaba). They are eminent members of Stockholm’s society, enjoying wealth, academic merit and respect from their peers. Indeed, everything is picture perfect, when gazed at through a superficial loupe.

When you scratch the surface, however, many holes and sadnesses become apparent. For as long as he’s been in exile, Robert has yearned to be back in South Africa. To give his expertise to the newly established democracy. To stretch his limbs in the rural environment. To pay tribute to his late parents who died while he was in exile.

It is the late 1990s/early 2000s in South Africa. Thabo Mbeki is president and the unfulfilled gestures of Nelson Mandela to embrace what Robert has to give is at the forefront of Robert’s hopes.

The spanner in the works is one of his mentees, Peter Tshabalala  (Ntshoko). His presence brings about the spectre of betrayal and one-upmanship, of opportunism and smarminess and hurt openly inflicted over the years, and of the difficult feelings from an improvised and too-quick and shallow ‘sorry’.  Effectively, Tshabalala is the foil that lends this family’s existence discomfiting edge.

But it is the performance of Kani in collaboration with Danford that keep you focused and on the edge of your seat throughout this intense, if wordy, piece. As a couple, they cohere with a sense of honesty that offers a generous give and take between two people who love one another and have been together for decades. Together, their stage presence is both elegant and sophisticated: as you would expect European academics and masters (or mistresses) of industry, at the top of their game, to be.

A low point in the work is the casting of youngish performer, Ngaba – we’ve seen her recently as Mrs Lyons in Blood Brothers – in this work, she fits uncomfortably into the age of the character she’s performing.  At first she seems to be an opinionated teenager, but when plans for her marriage and a mention of her medical degree are mentioned, it is clear she’s an adult with her own sense of identity. There’s a forcedness to the persona she offers, which doesn’t convince.

The play itself, fraught with some cleverly engaging and unexpected narrative junctions, and a set change without the luxury of an interval, is a complex and meaty one; the fact that it reads as freshly as it does, given its very specific and historical setting, is attributable to fine direction and focus.

  • Missing by John Kani is directed by Janice Honeyman with design by Mannie Manim (lighting), Patrick Curtis (set) and Birrie le Roux (costumes). It is performed by John Kani, Susan Danford, Apollo Ntshoko and Buhle Ngatha, at the main theatre, Market Theatre complex in Newtown, until July 13 (011)832-1641.