Hobson’s choice; moral compromise

GreenManFlashing

MY husband, my everything: Happier times with Gabby Anderson (Michelle Douglas) and Aaron Matshoba (Litha Bam). Photograph courtesy Auto and General Theatre on the Square.

“HAVE YOU SEEN Green Man Flashing?” was a statement uttered with urgency everywhere you went in 2004/5. It was a play that rocked South African society’s equilibrium when it first saw light of day. One of the first works from the pen of Mike van Graan, it fitted the idea of a cultural imperative which forced theatre attendance and was premised on the stuff that made dinner conversations meaty. Fourteen years later, does it still have the shock, the verve and the relevance it did then?

Directed again by Malcolm Purkey – it was his directorial debut in 2005 when he took up the position as artistic director of the Market Theatre – this is a work that brings together a number of important theatre cornerstones, which include it being a part of the high school syllabus in this country.

It’s a rippingly well developed story which poses a gut-wrenchingly hard conundrum about rape in our society. If you’re the victim, how willing might you be to allow your case to be split wide open under public scrutiny, particularly if you’ve been given a possible route out to a new life with the idea of making the blemish on the rapist’s reputation disappear? But more than this issue, it engages with layers of truths, trauma upon trauma in the name of political status, and ugly histories that don’t really go away, from either the private or the public context.

Staged at the moment at Auto and General Theatre on the Square in Sandton, the work is clearly articulated and riveting in its narrative energies and replays of sequences to inform and develop the story. Several directorial decisions enhance the work’s potency, but the set is enormously bland and odd casting decisions affect the play’s texture.

Further to that, punctuated with angry anti-apartheid posters, from the 1980s and earlier, the work’s backdrop offers tricks of lighting which do not make sense in the context of the story being told. You find yourself pondering which poster will be arbitrarily highlighted at the end of the next scene, as you have to force yourself back to listen to the dialogue.

And the word ‘listen’ is quite key to this – in fact, it could very easily have been a radio drama. You might, as you watch this work, recall Consider Your Verdict, a courtroom series broadcast in the 1970s on Springbok Radio, featuring legal conundrums tossed in the audience’s ear.

Cast-wise, many of the performances feel wooden; the characters are not feasibly three-dimensional and you find it hard to believe that the central protagonist Gabby Anderson (Michelle Douglas) is indeed the mother of a child. There’s a dispassionate harshness in her performance, which makes you question her love for her seemingly much younger husband Aaron Matshoba (Litha Bam) – with the exception of one key moment, where all resistance crumbles and credibility is fleetingly won.

But we digress: Green Man Flashing is a richly constructed work which presents mixed loyalties, unmitigated corruption and scary political priorities in the face of domestic realities in a fresh and new democratic South Africa. The finest performance in this production is that of Sechaba Morojele who plays Luthando Nyaka, the VIP security guard with a loose tongue and a sticky end. You want to trust him from the moment you see him, but his history and his smarminess prevail.

The work remains fabulously prescient in its blurry ideals of what is moral high ground, and scarily focuses on how political expediency can whitewash almost any heinous crime. It’s about the truths revealed in a court case, and the other truths which remain untold, as it presents and dissects deep layers of hate and distrust forged through apartheid impimpis, and a precarious teetering with sexist values. It’s compelling viewing, where the storyline remains king.

  • Green Man Flashing is written by Mike van Graan and directed by Malcolm Purkey. It features design by Denis Hutchinson (set) and Margo Fleish (costumes), is performed by Litha Bam, David Dennis, Michelle Douglas, Kate Liquorish and Sechaba Morojele until May 12 at the Auto and General Theatre on the Square in Sandton. Call 011 883-8606 or visit http://www.theatreonthesquare.co.za
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Roll up! Roll up! White-faced dark tales for the brave

Couplet2

WHAT say you, my fine zucchini? Michelle Douglas in Couplet. Photograph courtesy NAF.

THE HIGHLY POWDERED corpse-white face which seems to be disconnected from anything else, pokes through shimmering curtains. It has red cheeks and blackened eye-holes, a startling grimace and a proclivity to spew rhyming lines from its mouth with abandon and complexity. This malleable and mesmerising face sets the tone for Steven Feinstein’s two-hander which tells dark and chilling tales, all cast in rhyming couples. Michelle Douglas – the owner of the face in question – brings to this work which conflates Burlesque and Vaudeville with sleight of hand and Victorian grotesqueries, a sparkly sense of how the tales twist, and from the get-go, it seems as though you’ve stepped into a dinkum PT Barnum experience.

From fearful Freddie to the girl who couldn’t tell a truth, to the tale of Vincent who lived in a world of heartlessness, to the plight of two nasty homeless thoughts and some zucchini narratives, the stories are frisky and bleak in their engagement with evildoings and bad stuff. It might make you think you’ve mistakenly stepped into the Scaffolds’ madcap 1968 song, Lily the Pink, based as it was on a 19th century ballad, framed on the life of a famous concoctor called Lydia Pinkham. But this is no explication of a medicinal compound, it’s a leap and a hop into a world of evilness under the aegis of bawdry, humour, a lot of make up and dresses containing hoops and much cleavage. And indeed, the genre classically points itself to an element of rude meanderings and sexual innuendos, which Couplet doesn’t engage with here, a fact which might lead you to believe it’s a show more for young people than seasoned grown up theatre-goers.

Spiced with fantastic artifice and delightful masks, the work tries hard, but the problem is that you sit there, old or young though you may be, grasping for crispness, and holding on to every rhythm with expectation, so tightly, that the language loses its edge. Given that the nimbleness of a show like this depends on the language, it’s a big blow for the work’s charm. You might think rhyming couplets and believe you can experience predictable rhyme with unpredictable words inserted in hilarious places, but sadly, you don’t get this here. And the laughs don’t come as plentifully as you might wish.

The stories have great potential, but there are many of them and they twist and curve around one another in ways that might leave you so dizzy that you forget what belongs to whom. Rather than telling one story from beginning to end, Douglas and Julie-Anne McDowell, her partner in crime, concatenate them, which leads to bits of scary boys and girls peeking into stories which are not their own.

With a delicious use of masks and puppetry, the work is candy for the eyes, and that powdered face of Douglas’s is its magic ingredient, but the work in entirety might leave you wanting more tightness, as well as a push a tad stronger against those boundaries of permissiveness.

  • Couplet is written by Michelle Douglas and directed by Steven Feinstein. It features design by Feinstein (production), Oliver Hauser (lighting), Lien van der Linde and Christelle van Graan (puppets and masks), Sandy Muller (costumes), Rob Joseph (sets) and Jahn Beukes (music) and is performed by Michelle Douglas and Julie-Anne McDowell until October 28 at the Auto and General Theatre on the Square in Sandton. Call 011 883-8606 or visit http://www.theatreonthesquare.co.za