Pandora’s suitcase

The Suitcase 2017

ALL we need is each other: Timi (Siyabonga Thwala) and Namhla (Masasa Lindiwe Mbangeni). Photograph by Iris Dawn Parker, courtesy of the Market Theatre.

WHEN A WORK touches you so deeply that elements in its direction have become part of how you see and speak about the world, you know that something’s been done right. In 2006, James Ngcobo directed the stage version of Es’kia Mphahlele’s tragic and beautiful tale The Suitcase. It’s back, returning from a recent United Kingdom tour, and while there are some radical changes to the form of the work, armed with many of the same performers and almost the same set, its magic is still mostly there.

It’s a tale of love and horror in a time of poverty which sees Timi Ngobese (Siyabonga Thwala) and his young wife Namhla (Masasa Lindiwe Mbangeni) coming to the big city to start a life together. It’s the 1950s and they come from a rural village. She’s Xhosa. He’s Zulu. And in the face of frowns from their respective families, they are rich with their love for one another. This love is so young and so real that it makes you weep: you instinctively know the universe is nestling sinister plots in the wings for them.

In the details of this work, love exudes from the way in which its fibre and texture are crafted. From the lambrequins — ornamental shelf hangings lending an irrevocable domesticity to otherwise bare spaces — that define the set and offer platform to the paper birds, to the manner in which the set enfolds a story within a story, that echoes the way in which the words fold into one another, the piece is eminently satisfying to watch. Also bucking the trend of forcing piped music into a production, the work features Bheki Khoza playing the guitar on stage, which complements the work with sophistication and delicacy.

Along the same kind of lines, the work also features three young women – Nokukhanya Dlamini, Gugulethu Shezi and Ndoh Dlamini – who bring interregna of song into the story. And this is a decision less sophisticated and delicate: Their sung interjections are highly amplified, and while the trio is generally in fine form and mostly harmonises well, the boldness of their presence tends to shove the emotional impact of the story down your throat rather vehemently. It no longer allows the events to simmer in a context of devastating subtlety as they did in the earlier version of the play.

Featuring quirky nuances, lovely stylisations of movement and sound, it’s a tale of bright shiny and naïve optimism and crushing, relentless disappointment as it is a heartbreaking cipher of the cruelty of apartheid values that shunned the black man from any modicum of hope.

Mbangeni absolutely glows in the mix of endearing naïveté and mature, scarred resignation she presents to the work. She performs opposite Thwala who reprised this role over ten years ago, and together they offer an energy of domesticity and love that is sweet and palpable. Desmond Dube and John Lata reflect the community surrounding the young Ngobesis, bringing humour and poignancy, the flavour of poverty and the bitter jokes that come of its challenges into the mix.

Not flawless, but deeply iconic as a piece of South African storytelling, this is a valuable, compelling theatre experience.

  • The Suitcase is written by Es’kia Mphahlele and adapted and directed by James Ngcobo. It features creative input by Wesley France (lighting), Nadya Cohen (set) and Nthabiseng Makone (costumes), and is performed by Ndoh Dlamini, Nokukhanya Dlamini, Desmond Dube, John Lata, Masasa Lindiwe Mbangeni, Gugulethu Shezi and Siyabonga Thwala, with Bheki Khoza on guitar, at the John Kani Theatre, Market Theatre complex until November 26. Visit markettheatre.co.za or call 011 832 1641.
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Mary’s boy-child

The Man Jesus. Starring: Lebohang Toko. Directed by: Robert Whit

FOR what shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world and suffer the loss of his soul? Lebo Toko in The Man Jesus. Photograph by Suzy Bernstein, courtesy The Market Theatre.

IRISH WRITER COLM Tóibín did it with the Testament of Mary. As did Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis with The Last Temptation of Christ. South African-born playwright Matthew Hurt steps into this hallowed terrain in taking one of western culture’s most known biblical tales and splaying it out in a quasi-fictional stage production. And under the directorial reach of Robert Whitehead, there’s an element of chutzpah and wisdom for which this production should be commended. But it is not all pervasive.

Armed with a greenish robe, a lightly brocaded shawl and thong sandals, Lebo Toko takes on the whole community surrounding Jesus, which comprises a mêlée of men and women and a whirligig of serious political, biblical and apocryphal figures. He is supported in the multiple criss-crossing tales he tells, with a set comprising wooden pallets and paper scrolls and a soundscape which brings the texture and presence of village dynamics to unsettlingly jagged life.

While the mottled flavour of the theatre, painted as it is in patches of turquoise, browns and whites, is distracting and fights with the set, which serves as a multitude of hiding places rather than as something that has direct functional value, it is the sound design and music that lends much of this work its poignancy and fierceness.

Toko generally does an admirable job, but is stretched in a myriad of directions – some of which seem too far or far-fetched – and the casualty in this work, which is maybe 15 minutes too long, is often in either the articulated language, which, when it reaches the outer margins of shrill, loses its clarity; or in the characters represented: from Judas to Simon, Mary to Johanna, John the Baptist to King Herod, they’re handled with a similarity in tone, boldness and focus that leaves you a tad bewildered as to who is who; sometimes the camp key is pressed a little too vehemently, and sometimes nuance flies out the window.

If you’re not completely familiar with the twists and turns in the way in which the biblical tale and its fictional counterparts duck and dive around one another, you may get lost in the folds of this work, which oddly blend a sometimes two-dimensional reflection of what Judaism means – or meant – with all its loaded connotations of history, belief and politics.

Structured in such a way as to carve out an understanding of Jesus not through direct representation of him, but through his implied presence in the opinions and the gossip of others, the work is rich in text and resonates with general competence, but it is the way in which the presence of Mary, mother of Jesus, enfolds the whole production that lends it the maternal edge that holds it together with a universal energy that is haunting.

She’s a young, unmarried pregnant woman, at the outset, looking critically and not without horror at the way in which her society seems to have lost its moral compass. And when all is said and done, at the other end of the tale, she’s a woman who has had to face any mother’s most awful nightmare. Throughout this work, at times Toko gleams and sparkles, shines and glistens, but it is his portrayal of Mary that is unequivocally a victory for him.

  • The Man Jesus is written by Matthew Hurt and directed by Robert Whitehead. It features design by Noluthando Lobese (set and costume), Mandla Mtshali (lighting) and João Renato Orecchia Zúñiga (composer and sound) and is performed by Lebo Toko at the Barney Simon Theatre, Market Theatre Complex, until November 5. Call 011 832-1641 or visit markettheatre.co.za

Our mother’s dignity, at all costs

isithunzi

ME and my brother: Scelo (Sipho Zakwe) and Muzi (Musawenkosi Kumalo) in tandem.

WHAT WOULD YOU do if your mother was publicly humiliated by someone who you considered a friend? Would you want to kill him? Would you have the capacity to turn the other cheek? Would your impotent rage find another outlet? This is the central focus of Isithunzi, a powerful and important play about the complexities of respect, which headlined the 2016 Zwakala community theatre festival.

In 2008, a group of white Afrikaans-speaking students associated with Free State University played a series of appalling and humiliating pranks on black domestic workers employed by the university. The pranks were filmed and went viral on the internet, sparking seething anger across the board, raising and inflaming the race card, to say nothing of sheer respect issues. This became known as the Reitz Four incident, premised on the fact that the four whites who had enacted the humiliation, were from the Reitz res on the university campus.

Young playwright Sipho Zakwe, who plays the role of Scelo here has taken this narrative and run with it, focusing it on two young men, brothers, and the sons of one of the women subjected to having to drink the urine of white Afrikaans boys – amongst other revolting humiliations. The plot thickens: Scelo is a UFS student. His squash buddy is one Schalk van der Merwe, one of the boys responsible for the prank. Muzi (Musawenkosi Kumalo) is his brother, at home, the brother who made sacrifices so that his brother could be educated.

The dialogue about different responses to this scenario are tossed hither and yon in the work, with muscularity and passion. Featuring some exceptionally fine set and audio-visual decisions, the work is utterly riveting and will make you weep with anger at the crudeness of the behaviour and the iconic presence of the mother herself.  While the literalness of the violence – there should be a strobe warning in the theatre – and the predictability of the tale itself mar this work slightly – you know how it will end – it remains a very fine showcase of performative skill on our stages.

Thoughtful and angry, respectful and context-driven, Isithunzi is constructed with broad, yet sophisticated narrative tools. There is some wonderful shadow play details which infuse the piece with mystery and energy, enabling two performers to embrace a whole campus in outrage. With the use of simple costume changes and a grotesque coir wig, the perpetrators are referenced and caricatured, as are students on campus. The work reflects with mature astuteness the harsh realities confronting the poor, without being maudlin or self-serving, and is not difficult to understand if English is your only language. In short, it’s a work of its time, offering a strong voice into what matters.

  • Isithunzi is written by Sipho Zakwe and directed by Luthando Mngomezulu. It features creative input by Ntshieng Mokgoro (mentor), Omphile Molusi (dramaturge), Jurgen Meekel (audio visual), Thapelo Mokgosi (lighting), Shilongane Nkoana (set), Nthabiseng Malaka (costumes) and Ntuthuko Mbuyazi (sound), with DAC incubates Hlamalani Ntando Makhubela (lighting), Ratang Mogotsi (costumes), Mbali Silvia Nkambule (set) and Maggy Selepe (sound)and it is performed by Musawenkosi Kumalo and Sipho Zakwe, with voiceovers by Dawn Thandeka King, at the Ramoloa Makhene Theatre, Market Square, Newtown, until June 18. Visit markettheatre.co.za or call 011 838 7498.

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.

Living in the love of a broken people

Itsoseng

THE people shall decide! The cast of Itsoseng, (from left) Khanyisile Ngwabe, Akhona Namba, Thabiso Rammala, Katlego Letsholonyana, Alfred Motlhapi, Rea Segoati and Dimpho More. Photograph by Mpho Khwezi.

IT WAS STORYTELLER extraordinaire Gcina Mhlophe who once commented that the art of storytelling lies not so much in the tale but in the telling. She could well have been referring to Itsoseng, a beautifully crafted love story in a time of disappointment and a place of poverty.  It’s a rich and well choreographed work which tells a story as timeless and as tragic as Romeo and Juliet.

Written by Omphile Molusi in 2008, this extraordinary tale of broken dreams and pure love is mostly in Setswana, but it is honed and moulded and performed with such a sense of commitment and focus, that you don’t have to understand the Setswana to be able to roll with the story’s punches and laugh and cry with the characters’ joys and horrors.

In previous manifestations of this play in this theatre, it took the form of a monodrama, where the central character, a young man named Mawilla, offers insights into his whole community with nuance and gesture. Now, with a cast of seven, the work is fleshed out in a different way and with different levels of energy that infuse the material. It is very astutely cast and the conflation of Mawilla (Thabiso Rammala) and his ‘home boys’ Saxa (Alfred Motlhapi) and Buda 6 (Katlego Letsholonyana) is fierce in its sensitive portrayal of the dynamics of childhood and youth. The women in the cast, however, under the quiet leadership of Dimpho More in the role of Dolly, lend the work its fire and its music. Intertwining beautiful harmony with protest action, the work is tight and well defined and the performers intelligently directed.

Each performer shines in his or her individual way, which enhances the sense of texture in the work. And what Motlhapi can do with a simple shopping trolley simply beggars belief as he conjures up a whole history of a disused and destroyed shopping centre that’s one pivot of the tale, with this humble vehicle.

Itsoseng is a real township just outside of Mafikeng in the North West Province, which was formerly part of Bophuthatswana under apartheid puppet ruler, Lucas Mangope. This play describes a tale of blind anger and protest, of broken economies and shattered political promise. And given the way in which the hopes and dreams of the broader community rest upon mob energy and hollow commitments from government, it’s a work which hangs with prescience on contemporary South African realities.

Flawed only in its use of shebeen noise and stage smoke which is simply too big for the Barney Simon theatre, Itsoseng is an important work for South Africans to see. For the injustice it portrays. For the beauty with which it portrays it. And for the delicious cast of magnificent young talent.

  • Itsoseng is written by Omphile Molusi and directed by Lesedi Job who has been mentored in this capacity by Kgafela Oa Magogodi. It features design by Hailey Kingston (set), Nthabiseng Makone (costumes), Nomvula Molepo (lighting), with incubates Jabulile Precious Mangqangwane (lighting), Sinenhlanhla Zwane (set), Sabelo Mavuso (sound) and Nthabiseng Malaka (costumes). It is performed by Katlego Letsholonyana, Dimpho More, Alfred Motlhapi, Akhona Namba, Khanyisile Ngwabe, Thabiso Rammala and Rea Segoati, at the Barney Simon Theatre, Market Theatre complex in Newtown, Johannesburg until May 7. Call 011 832 1641 or visit markettheatre.co.za.

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.

The ineffable, uncomfortable beauty of Robyn

butterflies

COCKING a snook: Elisabeth Bakambamba Tambwe (on screen) and Eric Languet (in the tutu) in Robyn Orlin’s “in a world full of butterflies, it takes balls to be a caterpillar … some thoughts on falling …” Photograph by Thomas Lachambre.

ONE THING YOU have to disabuse yourself of when you enter the audience of a Robyn Orlin work is that you’re safe, there in the dark, as you take your seat. That no one will interfere with you or embarrass you. And it’s such a powerful dynamic that it sets the world on fire and fills the Market Theatre to the rafters. Whether it fits into the safety precautions of a theatre filled with members of the public, is another whole question.

In truth, this shaky perception of your own safety, be it emotional or physical safety, is something you should hold onto in entering the space of any live performance. What they’re doing for you is about challenging many things, including your right to be there – and to be comfortable there, while a performer is baring their soul, their guts and their body to you. Sometimes in that order. Traditionally however, this is not the case. For the price of a ticket, you get to sit anonymously in a darkened room and see someone do something that might be extraordinary and revealing and painful. Whichever side of the audience spectrum you sit on, Orlin’s work casts shivers in your direction.

And what a privilege it is to see performers of the calibre of Elisabeth Bakambamba Tambwe and Eric Languet in this construction of two propositions, in a world full of butterflies it takes balls to be a caterpillar and … some thoughts on falling … , a work which is as much about caterpillars and falling as it is about the narrative of dance, and the way in which Orlin has the bravery to tear strips off traditional practice. And get away with it.

The work opens in a stage full of audience members and an auditorium covered in small brightly coloured pop-up tents. And as it unfolds to important songs such as Strange Fruit, sung by Nina Simone, you realise the poetry between a chrysalis and a pop up tent. Tambwe stretches, she sings, she prates, she embraces the stages with complete authority, engaging with her unbelievable costume in a way that dazzles. You don’t, however, know what to expect, and you laugh and you shiver at the things she does, with her dress, the webcam, the audience on stage, the tents, the reality of being a caterpillar, or ultimately a butterfly, and what it all means in the bigger picture.

She’s shooed away unceremoniously by Languet, in a trench coat. In a work that confronts balletic tradition as it comes face to face with the expectations of gender in dance and the constant fear of falling. Is he Icarus, the son of Daedalus, who flew to the sun with wings of wax and was melted and cast into the sea? Is he everyman who boasts hubris and suffers the indignity of a fall? There’s a conflation of values which entraps your thinking. He moves his ageing body like a sylph, a naiad, and you forget that he is human. You sit there in a spiral of thoughts, of realities, feeling afraid that he might fall on top of you as he has done to other audience members. You’re mesmerised by the magnetic focus of the webcam as you stare into the enlarged face of Tambwe.

There’s an ineffable, unspeakable and above all uncomfortable beauty that is breached in the concatenation in both their performance and with their different details that force you out of conventional thinking. The work feels too long and yet too short. Your head spins with the issues being tossed in your direction and you feel you can’t take any more, you can’t breathe… but alas, when it is over, there is a part of your heart that remains aflutter, there’s a part of your subconscious which murmurs, ‘did I really see that?’

But big kudos are due to the theatre itself and the organisations who made it possible for this work to travel: we don’t often get to see contemporary dance of this calibre in South Africa.

  • In a world full of butterflies, it takes balls to be a caterpillar … some thoughts on falling … is created by Robyn Orlin. Featuring design by Laïs Foulc (lighting), Birgit Neppl (costumes) sound (Cobi von Tonder) and Thabo Pule (technical direction), it was performed by Elisabeth Bakambamba Tambwe and Eric Languet on December 6 and 7 at the John Kani Theatre, Market Theatre complex in Newtown.