The boy who loved cats

Agony

CHERRY red lips on a bed of snow. Craig Morris is Malcolm Leask. Photograph by Aman Bloom.

PERFECTION. IT’S SOMETHING every parent wants of their child, no matter how dysfunctional they may be in the rest of their lives. Taken to another level, that quest to make your child the best at ballet, at tennis, at maths can become pathological, twisted and poisonous, and it is on this bizarre relationship that Agony is premised. Written with an impeccable sense of texture that enables you to experience the smell of cat food and that of new tennis balls in your mind’s nose, the work is an unforgettable cipher to the sadness of a life stuffed to bilious satiety with other people’s dreams.

It is here, in this dingy flat filled with cats, that we meet Malcolm Leask. He’s alone. Nine months’ rent in arrears hangs over his head, and the crackle of Puccini on his record player fills the vacuum. That, and the cat food. That, and the memories, which bang and twist against one another in a way that will make you panic and weep as you sit there watching this tale of make believe and other people’s filthy secrets and threats unfold.

It’s a story told by several highly skilled professionals – with light and with puppets, with direction and with writing, which might make you think of Irish actor Patrick Magee and how his physical presence embraced the task of Krapp’s Last Tape which was written by Samuel Beckett with his voice in mind. It’s a story naked of gimmicks which evokes that of Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy in transient ways. But this is no paean to discovering one’s sexuality. It’s no celebration of distant youth. It’s a direct, often ruthless portrayal of what happens when all that pressure to excel is turned inside out, exposing instead the flaws of the one who imposed that pressure. It’s about what happens when one runs by chance into secret fantasies of others that smash one’s life into so many smithereens they can’t be put together again. It’s a story about the intimacy of a theatre’s wardrobe and one that sees the dolphins on the shower curtain weep at the bad things they’re made privy to, and it’s one about reclaiming a sense of self in a world broken by other people’s ugly greed, as it is one that glories in the perfection of closing that last clasp above the zip, of a beautiful ball gown.

And at its core is Craig Morris. Dancer, performer, magician with light and space and bodily presence, Morris gives Malcolm Leask the unequivocal dignity he warrants. To the world, this character might be considered tragic. Within Morris’s reach, he’s a hero making his final curtain call in the face of all the sham and drudgery and punishment that has been dished to him. This play will haunt you with its idiosyncrasies as it will pepper your thinking with what ifs.

  • There’s a brief season of this riveting and completely magnificent work – in loving memory of Greg Melvill-Smith – at Centurion Theatre, in the beginning of November, if you have missed the current season.
  • Agony is conceived by Greg Melvill-Smith and Douglas Thistlewhite, written by Iain Paton and directed by Megan Willson. It is performed by Craig Morris and features design by Jenni-lee Crewe (puppets) and Barry Strydom (lighting). It was performed in the Downstairs Theatre as part of the So So1o Festival at Wits University, on September 29 and 30 and October 8. It performs at the Centurion Theatre on November 3 and 4. Visit centurionteater.co.za or call 012-664-7859.
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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

Broken values, smashed dreams and theatre with devastating balance

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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

A man, a suit and a bottle of brandy

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THE weapon of the journalist against untruth: Can Themba (Sello Maake kaNcube). Photograph courtesy Cue.co.za

FIFTIES SOF’TOWN BLUES has a very particular texture; its rhythm gets your foot beating, its history gets your heart trembling in tune with the ebb and fall of a small gem of a place which saw its golden years under the thumb of apartheid. Siphiwo Mahala’s House of Truth does something similar to what Khayelihle Dominique Gumede did in Crepuscule: it takes apart elements of the colourful life of Sophiatown educator, poet and editor, Can Themba and splays them into a cohesive reflection of the man and the period, effectively looking at his life as though it were a compilation of his stories. And by and large, the work succeeds.

This is a slice of Themba’s life, and it’s a very rich flavoursome slice that has all the brandy and spice, all the cherries and anecdotes that make it resonate and hum. But the work is a deeply textual one. And while it takes you through the abysmal injustice Themba faced under Native Education of the day, and feeds into the 1950s context regarding the media, the mayhem and the bulldozing of the area, it effectively remains a deeply textual play, which could well be a radio play. The writing is palpably beautiful and you want to hold and savour each turn of phrase, but it is the potency of Sello Maake kaNcube’s performance that makes it sing as a theatre piece, with all the requisite dignity and vulnerability that holds it together.

Similar to Blonde Poison, currently onstage, House of Truth is an essay about an historical period. It’s a one hander which is held together by the charisma of the central performer, which is the main reason you need to see the play.

But unlike works such as Sylvia Vollenhoven’s Cold Case, for instance – or If We Dig, directed by Megan Willson – the denouements and the fierce drama in the tales within the broad narrative of Themba’s life are very subtly handled. They’re elegant and never crude but sometimes they digress into a shade of dilettantism and while you’re subsumed by the texture of the period and the quirkiness and feistiness of the central character, occasionally you feel assailed by a ‘so what?’ moment. The slice of Can Themba’s life doesn’t convincingly take you from point A to point B in his life, but rather feeds you with his whole world in the space of 90 or so intense minutes.

And then there’s the brandy. It can almost be considered a separate character in its own right in this work. The inimitable late foodie, AA Gill wrote resoundingly and bitingly of how drunks used to be funny in a slapstick and curiously proud kind of way. The infiltration of alcohol through this play is articulated with the delicate hand of a seasoned director; it was something you might have seen in Dop, as well. As the work unfolds, the buzz and blur of alcohol creeps into Themba’s body language and tone of heart, lending the work a tragic counter-image which will seethe in its own quiet way, in your head and heart after you’ve left the theatre.

  • House of Truth is written by Siphiwo Mahala and directed by Vanessa Cooke. Featuring design by Bruce Koch (lighting) and Noluthando Lobese (set and lighting), it is performed by Sello Maake kaNcube at the Barney Simon Theatre, Market Theatre complex, Newtown, until January 29. Call 011 832 1641 or visit markettheatre.co.za

The Glorious Depths of Luli

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CENTRE of the world to me: Fiona Ramsay gets under the skin of Luli Callinicos. Photograph courtesy Megan Willson.

EVEN IF YOU think you know the characteristic way in which veteran actress Fiona Ramsay performs and looks and sounds, there are moments in If We Dig where you may feel pushed to disbelieve that this is she. Magnificently crafted around the important research of veteran social historian Luli Callinicos, this work is not only a tribute to the nub and grit of anti-apartheid energies during the bleeding and shameful 1970s and 1980s, but it is also a painstakingly fine celebration of South Africa’s minority groups, with all their idiosyncrasies and values: people who have shaped the rich tapestry of contradicting passions that make us human. And South African.

Embraced by a set comprising a generous ring of the detritus of research, the books and files, the newspaper cuttings and old photographs, the work is a powerful celebration of the generally uncelebrated cogs in the South African system. Of Johannesburg’s indigent East Rand towns such as Boksburg and Benoni. Of Hillbrow and of exile.

Think of the poor white unlettered young woman who fell in love with a beautiful young black pianist to learn appallingly of how the system rubbished obvious hierarchies in the value of a human being to the world. Then there’s the young staunchly committed Afrikaner woman who grew to political awareness in the garment workers’ union and enjoyed such a deep commitment to communist ideals that it damaged her marriage. And the cleavage between the Greek, Jewish and Muslim communities of a city that was struggling to find its sense of moral balance in a world coloured by petty discrepancies rendered punishable in the hands of bigots: all of these tales are those of real people, part of the prodigious research conducted by Callinicos through her “bookish” but also potently rich life’s work.

The life and work of a living historian is hardly what you could call dynamic or sexy on obvious levels, but it is handled here with such grace and verve that it will engage you and hold you through a direct exploration of the human detritus of a rotten world. The digging analogy is about looking beyond face value, rather than mining, which the play’s marketing poster seems to allude to. And there are some great truths mouthed in this lovely work: not only through the characters brought to life from Callinicos’s research, but from the self-effacing, generous portrayal of a woman with passion, commitment, intellect and soul.

  • If We Dig is directed by Megan Willson based on the life and writings of Luli Callinicos. It features set design by Nadya Cohen and is performed by Fiona Ramsay at the Barney Simon Theatre, Market Theatre complex in Newtown, Johannesburg, until November 6. Another season of the work is planned for 2017 at the Market Theatre. Visit markettheatre.co.za or call 011 832 1641

Bash: A Flawless Contemplation of a Flaw-Riddled Society

Daniel Janks, Jessica Friedan, Ashleigh Harvey and James Alexander in Bash. Photograph courtesy Auto & General Theatre on the Square.

Daniel Janks, Jessica Friedan, Ashleigh Harvey and James Alexander in Bash. Photograph courtesy Auto & General Theatre on the Square.

You don’t frequently come across a theatrical work so elegant and uneasy in its entirety that it makes you remember why you go to theatre. And why it exists as a discipline, altogether.  Bash, by Neil LaBute, a play which debuted in 1999, was not awarded a Gold Ovation Award at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown this year for nothing: it’s a flawless and riveting contemporary indictment on ghastly flaws in the moral fabric of our society, bringing together the cream of young local performers by way of James Alexander, Ashleigh Harvey, Daniel Janks and Jessica Friedan.

It also celebrates collaboration. The name of the lighting professional does not appear in the programme, but the manner in which subtleties play over the two red plastic tub chairs on stage show the mark of a sophisticated hand: never does the set, conjoined as it is with a filmic projection, become bland or two-dimensional or easy.

It’s an unusual play, set in the conceptual rubric of a filmed interview. It comprises three stories, unconnected on any level, but stories through which a sophisticated narrative voice runs with smooth, crisp and golden cohesion. The first and last stories are premised on the values cast by Greek tragedies, each told directly to the audience, with astonishingly vivid and beautiful words rather than re-enactment.

In the hands of Janks, the work’s first part, Iphegenia in Orem, and in the hands of Harvey, the work’s third part, Medea Redux are brought to horrifying life. There’s a touch of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita in the latter, and a bit of an insight into Pistorius’ conundrum in the former; they’re immensely difficult monologues in which the monstrosity of the primarily characters are insidiously brought to bear: and the performer has only her- or himself and the audience to toss the story around with. And when they are done, and you have caught your breath in the wake of the hairpin bends of their respective stories, you want to kiss their shoes. This is what tour de force performance is all about.

In the second work, A Gaggle of Saints, James Alexander and Jessica Friedan (who readers might recall recently directed the marvellous Gogol production ‘Government Inspector’ at Wits University) don’t look at each other at all. And the impeccable manner in which the other two stories are directed is articulated here too. This device of having the two protagonists tell their side of a story from their own perspective makes the work that much more intense, but also exposes the horror in each side of the tale, clothed as it is in a contemporary garb with values of relationships and love that you and I can access. Because we are human. The device of two performers opposite each other lends the telling of the tale more latitude and manipulability, but that horrifying volte face which happens three quarters of the way through, makes your hair stand on end and increases your blood pressure. And you realise you’re sitting in the face of truly projected evil, in the embrace of truly great art.

Each performer really shines like a gem in this immensely difficult but eminently heart-changing piece. In less capable hands, the work might judder into being text heavy or too intense: for a third of the work, the spotlight is on one performer who holds the responsibility of keeping you entranced and focused. You emerge with your head spinning with the horror and beauty of Greek tragedy and moral chasms in contemporary values told with wisdom and poetry and hard-hitting haunting indictments.

As each vignette is developed and brought to closure, taking the colloquial word ‘bash’ and splaying it relentlessly and unequivocally in several associative directions – as theatre practitioners like Lionel Newtwon and Sylvaine Strike recently did with ‘Greed’ – your gaze at the performer becomes irrefutably coloured and three-dimensional with a sense of increasing horror. In many respects, this foray into central taboos, from killing of one’s own children to breaking the bodies of those whose life-choices differ from your own, is a post-modern horror story: there’s no gore; it is all internalised into a fiercely elegant piece of theatre.

You emerge with a sense of universality and one of dread of the heaviness of moral culpability, but with the understanding of privilege in having seen something completely magnificent.

  • Bash, written by Neil LaBute and directed by Megan Willson is performed by James Alexander; Jessica Friedan; Ashleigh Harvey and Daniel Janks, at the Auto and General Theatre on the Square in Sandton, until September 28, (011)883-8606.