Two women, and tea with Greek biscuits

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KINDRED spirits: Grace (Lesedi Job) chats to Luli (Fiona Ramsay) of books and life, persecution and victory. Photograph by Suzy Bernstein.

LAST NOVEMBER, AN extraordinary gem of a play saw light of day at the Market Theatre. It was an unusual work, paying tribute to the complex life of South African Greek political activist, teacher, writer and social historian, Luli Callinicos. And unusual in that, because academics are seldom perceived to be sexy enough to honour, during their lifetimes, in this way. It was also a one-hander, stretching Fiona Ramsay’s characterisation skills beautifully. Now, almost a year later, the same creative team, with the addition of Lesedi Job, in the role of Grace, a young woman who was born in exile in the United Kingdom, presents a new manifestation of the work.

Examining the two If We Digs is an incisive exercise in storytelling priorities: the second version is not remarkably better than the first – rather, it features both gains and losses. In introducing the Grace character, the work resonates like a conversation rather than a self-conscious monodrama. And Grace’s life and identity are opened up to both Luli (played by Ramsay) and the audience.

Her presence as a conduit for Luli’s memories is not sufficiently explained, however. Is she interviewing Luli? Why, then, has she brought her own memories to the table? Is Luli interviewing her? Why then, does Luli offer so much of her own anecdotes? Are they old friends? Not really – they’re of different generations, albeit from within a similar political texture, and their conversations reveal unknowns about one another.

This red herring may be cast aside and be forgiven however, because what a dialogue does for the material as opposed to a monologue, is enrich the give and take in the texture of the material. Job’s presence is refined and impassioned and the character she represents is well honed and a good corollary to Ramsay’s Luli, who encapsulates all the idiosyncrasies of South African Greek culture with wisdom and perspective, as well as with deep fondness.

Also placed on a circular stage, as its earlier manifestation was, the work is homely in its sense of domestic space, but not overworked in detail. It is allowed to breathe – and similarly, the South African (and Greek) music which seeps between the interstices of the play are placed with elegance and subtlety, supporting the textual focus well.

But, you in the audience, who might not have seen the first version of this play, lose access to some of Luli’s stories which were re-enacted and brought to memorable life the first time round. Instead, here, the voices of the people who dot Callinicos’s research over a lifetime of archives and documents become lost and turn into footnotes in the folds of the conversation between Luli and Grace.

Further to that, the work ends too neatly. It’s all wrapped with a hug and a proverbial bow tied in rainbow nation hues which leaves you wanting more, though it’s a long, wordy work. Ultimately, the contribution which Callinicos has made to the world in which we live through her research and teaching, her engagement with her own heritage and her beautiful use of language, is precious and both the first and the second manifestations of this work offer her significant presence in audience awareness and memory. But is the latest version of this play better? No. But that’s not a bad thing – This If We Dig is as much a theatrical gem as the last, but for different reasons.

  • If We Dig is written by Fiona Ramsay and Megan Willson and directed by Megan Willson. It features creative input by Nomvula Molepo (lighting) and Nadya Cohen (set and costumes). It is performed by Lesedi Job and Fiona Ramsay in the Barney Simon Theatre, Market Theatre complex, in Newtown, Johannesburg, until August 27. Phone 011 832 1641 or visit markettheatre.co.za
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Soil tilled to a new level

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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

For Karabo, and all Karabos

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MY sisters, myself: Nommangaliso Tebeka, Joyce Hopane and Nomasonto Radebe. Photograph courtesy Market Theatre.

TAKE AN AUDIENCE of 72. Divide them in two and range them facing one another across the stage. Strip them of their ability to sit in the auditorium because every seat in the space has been marked with the name of a woman, who is both present and absent because of this. This is the potent and ghostly start to Luyanda Sidiya’s new piece, In Her Shoes, a contemplation of women in a time of moral despair.

Manipulating the space and the audience, Sidiya boldly sets the tone for something utterly extraordinary; the work starts with a frightening level of aplomb and virtual perfection that makes you want to leave as soon as you’ve seen it because it feels so complete. The narrative is so violent yet so tightly told, the gestures so articulate and the element of fear so well understood and expressed that it feels as though you’ve sampled an elegant sufficiency, peppered as it is with primal screams and troubling potency.

Karabo Mokoena was just 22 when she tragically emerged on South Africa’s headlines. She was another desperately sad casualty in the domestic scourge against women that continues to leave this country reeling. Raped and murdered, the remains of this beautiful young student were burnt so badly, they were difficult to recognise. And the unfolding horror of the story revealed that the man who had perpetrated the crime had been her boyfriend. Much of the first part of In Her Shoes touches the life and values of Karabo and all the Karabos out there.

You weep for her. For her mother, for her sister, for what she represented to a South African community. But you cannot leave the theatre at that time. Firstly, because, you’re seated up there on the stage. And secondly, because this bit of perfection in dance and staging, wordless narrative and lighting, is but the prologue, and the work unfolds further from that point.

Sadly, this is, in many ways, its undoing: the focus is compromised and a story line is cast around a rural set of values, posing moral options for a young woman which is overshadowed and underplayed by sound that is amplified to such a tremendous extent that you feel the bones in your head beginning to shiver against one another. You feel your teeth take the sound’s frequency vibrate horribly and you fear your life blood may burst out in great spasms and arcs in protest.

You cannot help but wonder what this work would have been like in the absence of this immense, all-encompassing noise. While Sidiya’s use of the spoken voice in this piece diminishes its strength as a dance work, and pushes it into a literalness which overrides his extraordinarily fine choreography, some of the texts are magnificent, but still, the sound bears down on you, like an immense cloud, which blocks your ability to see these beautiful dancers as they should be seen.

  • In Her Shoes is choreographed and directed by Luyanda Sidiya. It features design by Billy Monama (musical director), Nomvula Molepo (lighting), Lesoko V. Seabe and Nommangaliso Tebeka (texts) and Keaoleboga Seodigeng (costumes). It is performed by Joyce Hopane, Nomasonto Radebe, Lesoko V. Seabe and Nommangaliso Tebeka, and a music ensemble comprising Phosho Lebese and Sibusiso Sibanyoni at the John Kani Theatre, Market Theatre complex, until August 13. Visit markettheatre.co.za or call 011 832 1641.

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

To be a man

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FLAWED dad, precious grampa: Tobie Cronje plays Karel Brink.

IT IS RARE for the ingredients of a play, the technique and the outcome to resonate with such a sense of shattering potency that it touches you at the core, from beginning to end and doesn’t let go. Karel se Oupa is a new play by the creative team that produced the inimitable Dop, early this year and a kind of kitchen sink drama in Afrikaans, it’s easily the play of the year – so far. Wading through all the what ifs of family business broken by violent crime, nuanced problems, love that is difficult to utter and illness, it’s a work that could easily have skittered into the terrain of maudlin.

It doesn’t ever – this has as much to do with the crispness of the text, the well developed nature of the characters and the impeccable performance of the cast, to say nothing of the splintering silences into which the piece is embedded.

Veteran performer Tobie Cronjé who has earned his stripes on stage in recent years in comedy and pantomime, in this demanding and incisive role confronts the Calvinist values of hypermasculinity as an elderly farmer, Karel Brink, who is also a cardigan-clad grandpa and a father.

He is supported by his maid, Emma (Esmeralda Bihl), a woman who has seen the Brink family through times of horror and deep sadness, but also through the love and humour of the questions about life, the universe and everything that little boys and girls ask the nanny as they’re being taken through their daily rituals. She’s a magician of practicality and can wipe her own tears, bake bread, make coffee, pray to God, sing and feed the dog while she navigates between difficult men who cannot say things they must to each other, because of who they are.

Neels Clasen with devastating finesse plays the long absent son, Karel Junior. And the child in the work, played in this particular performance by Ruben Lombard (8), is electric in his ability to embrace a nuanced and difficult role.

It’s a tale of would haves and could haves and unspoken love between siblings and parents, as it’s a work about regrets and snap emotional decisions. Embraced in its folds is the narrative of farm murders, the magic of flight and the silent life-changing scream that a single telephone call can bring, it is written in a tight and carefully honed Afrikaans that is understandable in its commonsense, even if you have but a smattering of it.

Karel se Oupa offers a critical, almost cruel, glance at the vagaries and vulnerabilities of ageing, peppered with loss, terrible surprises and the need to sweeten horrors so that you can tell them to a small child. It’s an immensely fine work focused on the mysteries of the kitchen, which is defined by its sense of balance and its ability to reinvent a sequence of events through different characters’ eyes, and thus turn the universe on the concept of separating an egg or kneading a loaf of bread.

  • Karel se Oupa is written by Retief Scholtz and directed by André Odendaal, assisted by Anel du Plessis. It features creative input by Kosie Smit (set and costumes) and Nomvula Molepo (lighting) and is performed by Esmeralda Bihl, Neels Clasen and Tobie Cronje, and two alternative child performers: Ian Roelofs and Ruben Lombard. It performs at the Barney Simon Theatre, Market Theatre complex in Newtown until July 2. Call 011 832-1641 or visit http://www.markettheatre.co.za

Lorca, butchered

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BRIDE on a plinth: The sweetheart of one man, the passion of another, Carla Classen plays the central protagonist in Bloodwedding

BY ALL ACCOUNTS, the idea of Blood Wedding by Lorca conjures up a whole rich and gruesome terrain of achingly beautiful poetry, difficult emotional quandaries and an unrelenting tale of flowers and moons, sacrifice and tradition. It’s not clear why the direction of this production, Raissa Brighi chose to edit Lorca, but more so, why she chose not to hone her cast’s skills in articulation more tightly.

While Brighi’s introduction of African songs and traditional approaches to the idea of a wedding enhances the work, deepening it and giving it a rich local context, it is the cropping and changing in the work’s language which causes it to stutter and stumble – it’s not clear why more contemporary jargon have been at times inserted into the text: this mars the flow of language and forces the Lorca fluidity of form to lose shape and become humdrum, at times even comical.

Featuring some achingly beautiful moments, in the lighting and choreographic input into the work, this Bloodwedding is a very shouty affair with performers too lacking in the physical and contextual gravitas of the roles they embody. The mother of the groom, a fiery and fierce woman in the original text, who has lost her husband and her son, is played by Rachel Swanepoel, and while she works very hard at embracing the text and the gut-wrenching emotion, you can’t help but see her as a young girl. Has it to do with the physical presence of the performer and her body language? Either way, this young performer seems under-directed. Similarly with the father of the bride, Henri Strauss.

As the dialogue of the piece begins, your heart sinks: the piece begins with a fine and magnificently danced overture, one so powerful that you might have felt yourself  prepared to be watching a dance piece with no dialogue and a developed engagement with this text of family feuds, class issues and vendetta, through gesture and form. But no: the characters with their unmodulated voices maul the simple magnificence of the original.

Further to all of that, there are few things as damaging as a cellulitic bum cheek exposed erroneously in a dance move. The female dancers have their dignity inadequately taken care of in this work, which sees them wearing revealing underwear which detracts very emphatically from the main issue at hand. It is issues such as this that should have been more carefully addressed.

But as the piece unfolds, with the sensitive criss-crossing of lights that supersede nebulous and unfocused graphics across the space, something gem-like is still evident. There’s a choreographed fight sequence when the two husbands come head to head that will grab your attention and your emotions, and there’s an inspired use of the venue’s red brick walls that lend the piece a lusty bloody sense of reality. Not to forget an utterly superb an understanding of the malevolent and playful presence of the moon on a scooter that also redeems much.

The question needs to be asked, however, regarding the professional levels of this work. Yes, it was performed in the Market Theatre’s main theatre, which makes you believe that this is up there with everything else that has graced this stage, in terms of professionality. But it is acknowledged as having been produced by the Drama Department of the University of Pretoria. But what does this mean? The cast members and creative team are listed on the programme without reference to what year of study they are in, assuming of course, that they are students. Without such context, you must assume that they are professional. But, by the end of the work, you feel that this cannot possibly be the case.

  • Bloodwedding is written Federico García Lorca and adapted for this production by its director, Raissa Brighi with the assistance of Alice Pernè It features creative input by Eugene Mashiane (choreography), Baily Snyman (lighting), Jacinda Barker, Heleen van Tonder and Robin Burke (audio visual). It was performed by Carla Classen, Cassius Davids, MacMillan Mabaleka, Susan Nkata, Palesa Olifant, Henri Strauss, Rachel Swanepoel and Joffe Tsebe, at the John Kani Theatre, Market Theatre complex in Newtown until June 11. It will perform at Graeme College, during the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown on July 2 and 3. Visit www.nationalartsfestival.co.za

Unchain my dog!

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DOG on a short chain: Phokobje the jackal (Paul Noko) comes to grips with the limitations imposed on Mpja (Sibusiso Mkhize). Photograph courtesy Wits Theatre.

A MASH-UP OF ancient storytelling techniques with crude humour and cartoonish action, Chilahaebolae is a curious new work featuring a mix of students and professionals that plummets into the annuls of colonialism through allegory and offers a sinister edge into the price that one pays for creature comforts. It’s a tale of a tail cast in the life of jackal and a dog, powered into life with a dynamic choreographing of sound and energy on the part of its chorus, played by the whole cast.

Nourished with layers of personification, the animals in this work are neither beast nor human, but something between the two, and while the humour ranges from utter physical slapstick to some frisky sleight of hand wit, generally, the work is too lacking in nuance to fly. It is also so replete with slo-mo violence, that you feel your jaw begin to yawn of its own volition at yet another sjambok smacking the recalcitrant jackal in the balls: the work is about 20 minutes too long and there are a lot of repeated refrains which compromise rather than strengthen the story at hand.

We meet Phokobje, a wild jackal (Paul Noko), with his twisted loyalties selfishly in place. His mate Mpja (Sibusiso Mkhize) is a dog who bears a different kind of brunt and learns early on about the price one pays for an easy meal and a good place to sleep. Featuring a very feisty cat interpreted by Zimkhitha Mothlabeng, Chilahaebolae is a fantasy world that showcases the one-dimensional role of the butcher, the fashion designer and the circus master in a narrative seething with colonialist values that is as bloodthirsty as it demonstrates a naked thirst for money.

Unequivocally the highlight of this work is the manner in which the cast is woven around the story. Making animal sounds, and serving as features in the set – from fixed poles onto which a chain can be attached, to a tap dispensing water, an electric wall and diverse creatures of the night, the cast of ten becomes interchangeably a beast with its own internal complexities and you find yourself forced to pull your attention from them and back to the main scenario at hand.

The downside of this play is its utter lack of subtlety. Skirting around issues of sinister intent, death, murder and horror, the work is a very shouty one and rather than grabbing audience attention by the scruff of its neck, it tends to degenerate into a volume contest, which does become a bit of an assault, given the limited space of the theatre. You find yourself grabbed by the ears, and not in a good way. This is a pity: the basic premises of this work bring it to the periphery of narratives of the ilk of George Orwell’s Animal Farm or Aesop’s fables, but the articulation leaves it just there.

  • Chilahaebolae is written and directed by Kgafela oa Magogodi assisted by Obett Motaung. It features design by Quinton Manning (choreography), Thando Msibi (costumes) and Ntokozo Ndlovu (set) and is performed by Siphosam Kamwendo, Joel Leonard, Abongile Matyutyu, Sibusiso Mkhize, Zipho Mokoena, Zimkhitha Mothlabeng, Nakesa Ndou, Paul Noko, Nolitha Radebe and Shane Veeran. It represents a collaboration between Wits Theatre, Wits School of the Arts and the Market Theatre and it performs at the Barney Simon Theatre, Market Theatre complex in Newtown until May 28. Visit markettheatre.co.za or call 011 832 1641.