Bathroom of a million thoughts

Helen

ALL alone in the lavatory. Helen (Gina Shmukler) confronts her future and her past. Photograph by Suzy Bernstein.

PICTURE THE SCENARIO. Suddenly, everything that you may have known in your life has been curtailed down to extreme basics. You’ve a toilet and running water. Electricity. Some magazines, maybe. You can hear what is going on, but cannot reach it. Does anyone know that you are there? You are holed in the guest loo of your house, while burglars ransack your possessions. What is going through your head? This is the premise on which Mike van Graan’s Helen of Troyeville rests. Performed by seasoned actress Gina Shmukler, it is the kind of play that will engage and haunt you, not only because of the magnificent performance, but also because of its political crux.

The work is similar in many respects to the premise in Megan Voysey-Braig’s 2008 novel, Till We Can Keep an Animal. Helen is a white woman who has enjoyed the wide range of privileges that living in South Africa for a white person has presented to her. She’s educated, she’s got all the material possessions she could wish for, including the facility of a guest bathroom, in her home, which has become the repository for everything. She’s widowed. Her daughter has children of her own and lives elsewhere. Hers is a comfortable complacency that comes of age in a context of privilege. All her life she’s had a sense of her own agency. She’s felt that she has a role to play in her own decisions. Suddenly all of this is broken.

There are strange men in her house and she has become victim to a hostage situation and what happens next hangs is in the balance. Helen is savvy of her position as a statistic that won’t leave a blip on news feeds, either way. She’s also cognisant of the awkward role of privileged whites in a society beleaguered by poverty, corruption and oppression that traditionally still befalls people who are not white. She was once a “do-gooder” in society, that enthusiastic buyer of informal knick-knacks from beggars at traffic lights, she argues to herself.

But now she isn’t. Disempowered, disenfranchised, cast out of the picture, subject to the will of others. It is this scenario that forces her to rethink everything – life, her place in it, and what it all means. All she has to bounce ideas off is the bathroom mirror and her memories. And there follows a beautiful concatenation of ideas articulated with a texture and a rhythm that is infectious, almost Shakespearean in its flow, volume and width.

By and large, Helen is not a character given to self-pity, but her mood and her perspectives wax and wane with the flow of time, which does seem to stop, as she strains her ears to get an inkling of what may be happening upstairs in her home. To her possessions. And with a gulp of horror, to her dogs.

Focusing on everything from what she has to what she doesn’t have any longer – she gets you to remourn your own losses – as she ponders the sister she lost, the husband, the adult child who never fitted in, the child of a domestic worker, killed in a crime.

It’s a beautiful play, honed with tiny but provocative musical interludes, exceptional skill and Mike van Graan’s characteristic and intense depth of focus, all enclosed in a tight whorl of values – even to the point where Shmukler’s articulation is not always completely audible – on a level, she is, after all, alone and in her bathroom, allowing her thoughts to bounce off the tiled surfaces.

But it’s also a very frightening play, almost obvious in its framework and in the country’s state of mind with regard to this kind of crime. Handled by professionals highly skilled at their craft, from playwright van Graan to Shmukler to relative newcomer Lesedi Job at the directorial helm of the work, it’s a jewel. But Helen won’t leave your heart or your mind as you leave the theatre.

  • Helen of Troyeville is written by Mike van Green and directed by Lesedi Job. It features creative input by Mandla Mtshali (lighting) and is performed by Gina Shmukler in the Wits Downstairs theatre, on July 29 at 18:00 and July 30 at 18:00, as part of the Wits 969 Festival. Visit webtickets or see Wits 969’s facebook page.
  • For an interpretative commentary on this show, by seasoned columnist Geoff Sifrin, read this.
Advertisements

More hilarious horror from the news

statefracture

A man for all caricatures: Daniel Mpilo Richards. Photograph courtesy Auto & General Theatre on the Square.

YET ANOTHER BRISTLING piece of repartee, rich and seething with the material spewed out by our world, Mike van Graan’s State Fracture is a fitting sequel to his Pay Back the Curry, which graced this theatre at the end of last year. Boasting the same cast and team, the work is as slick and quick and biting as ever: and while you’re laughing, with the knife-edge flick of a nuance, the work turns sinister, freezing that grin on your face. It’s the genius of director Rob van Vuuren and van Graan with Daniel Mpilo Richards at the proverbial coal face that makes this collaborative energy so fresh, tight and cohesive.

Like Pay Back the Curry, this revue of different characters, from Dean the front man at the Saxonwold Shebeen; to a local battery chicken who resents the American chicks with their fat brine-infused thighs; to Hlaudi Motsoeneng, a man so full of Jesus and the SABC he knows not one from the other, offers a peek at the madness, the alternative facts and the blatant stupidity within. The lyrics of songs by Abba, Leonard Cohen and Bob Marley are gutted and reinstated in van Graan’s characteristically sophisticated and angry manner to hilarious effect which will keep you restraining those guffaws because you need to hear all the words and consider how they resonate with the originals. Like Pay Back the Curry, and novels such as Paige Nick’s recent Unpresidented, the work will date rapidly, but it is articulating stories and scenarios which are relevant, and in doing so, it serves an important function in society.

As you sit there, in the audience, however, something else might flicker through your sensibilities. It has to do with works such as the 1972 Kander and Ebb musical Cabaret, in which Joel Gray, the inimitable MC represents the messy and rotten state of the world at the time, situated as it is in the 1930s – between the wars – with humour and horror spiced by song so richly cooked together it makes your head spin. What van Graan is doing in work of this nature is holding a mirror up to society – as do practitioners such as political jester Pieter-Dirk Uys and political cartoonist Zapiro. While State Fracture is a couple of spoofs too many (or too similar), which finds your focus dwindling toward the end, it’s a well-crafted work that hits the mark. Resoundingly.

  • State Fracture is written by Mike van Graan and directed by Rob Van Vuuren. It features creative input by Stephanie Papini (lighting) and is performed by Daniel Mpilo Richards at the Auto & General Theatre on the Square in Sandton until July 29. Visit theatreonthesquare.co.za or call 011 883-8606.

Broken values, smashed dreams and theatre with devastating balance

swallows

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

Back to the future with a pot of kak at the end of the rainbow

paybackcurry

WHAT happened to our dreams? Daniel Mpilo Richards will blow you away.

YOU MIGHT THINK the political repartee through which we have collectively been wading for the last little while has been so overused by local comics that nothing’s very funny anymore. You’d be wrong. Mike van Graan’s Pay Back the Curry will dispossess you of any of those ideas, within its first few moments. Tautly cast, beautifully written in tune with the shenaginans in our country and seamlessly performed by the immensely talented Daniel Mpilo Richards, this is South African satire at its most ruthlessly scathing best.

But humour is complex, as director Rob van Vuuren indicates with this highly polished piece of work. Many Van Vuuren fans may know him for his work on Corné and Twakkie and the Most Amazing Show – or as a stand up comic. But there’s another side to this talented theatre personality, which saw plays of the ilk of Brother Number and The Three Little Pigs, really sinister works that meld well-established ideas with their utter corollaries: his successful appearance in serious theatre as well as comic roles makes him the perfect man to direct this piece.

Part stand up comedy, part revue, this one-man-play takes everything from Shakespeare to Sinatra, Somewhere Over the Rainbow to Born Free and casts it relentlessly against the besmirched mirror of our times. The writing is nimble and supremely sophisticated. You might laugh out loud several times, but the repartee will also have you squirming uncomfortably in your seat – and there, indeed, is the rub: occasionally in this intensely focused work you will find your grin frozen on your face in horror, as the focus digresses from the foolishness of Zuma and into the terror of being an African in a context where lesbians are raped, poverty pervades and corruption rules.

Pay Back the Curry doesn’t tell a story in the conventional way, but Richards so smoothly embraces myriad persona changes while he seduces the audience to looking at things they would normally shy from, that the sorry tale of contemporary South Africa gets splayed and flayed for all to see. From Penny Sparrow to Oscar Pistorius, the Guptas to Malema, nothing dodgy, contradictory, shameful or blatantly foolish escapes Van Graan’s intimate and bold speculum.

This play is an important one for this moment – it’s the kind of work that will date because its references are so very specific. Richards’s performance however, won’t: this is an actor who embraces major challenges with acumen and integrity. You can’t draw your eyes from him as he embodies every kind of political voice you can imagine, with all the colour, intelligence and flair necessary. See this play, now, while it’s ripe.

  • Pay Back the Curry is written by Mike van Graan and directed by Rob van Vuuren. It features design by Gantane Kusch (lighting) and is performed by Daniel Mpilo Richards at the Auto & General Theatre on the Square in Sandton until December 15. Call 011 883 8606 or visit theatreonthesquare.co.za