My African queen

AntonyandCleopatra

HERE is my space: Mark Antony (Ben Kgosimore) with Cleopatra (Sanelisiwe Yekani). Photograph courtesy National Children’s Theatre.

THERE’S NOTHING QUITE like a foray with the world’s most famous illicit lovers, told by young voices to young audiences. It’s like being witness to the passing on of the baton to another generation of theatre makers and it might give you goosebumps, when you see Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra under the directorial hand of Neka da Costa. It’s currently on a programme touring schools, where the work is part of the national syllabus.

When you watch this troupe of performers, you wouldn’t be wrong to think of actors such as British performers Robert Lindsay and Dorothy Tutin, to say nothing of South Africa’s David Dennis and Camilla Waldman, for instance, who earned their stripes in Shakespearean trope as well as everything else. These young South African thespians continue to prove their robustness and versatility in redefining no less than the work of the Bard himself – you’ve seen them on the stage in a range of other capacities in the last couple of years, including contemporary storytelling and Greek tragedy.

The rendition of this work is gently and judiciously cut by Shakespeare specialist Rohan Quince to fit into time-based parameters and it runs just on 90 minutes with no interval. Interjected with a local drum beat, songs of mourning and gladness that reach from a South African heart and a peppering of ululation, it’s a piece which skirts and weaves the notion of Africanness in the ethos of Egyptian queen Cleopatra (Sanelisiwe Yekani) with competence and intrigue, but without feeling forced.

Indeed, Yekani embraces the complexity of Cleopatra with finesse and authority. She’s sly and manipulative, passionate and beautiful and as the central focus to the work, she holds it together with magnificence and utter potency. In short, she’s dangerous. Ben Kgosimore is a superb Mark Antony, the emperor who is her lover, a tough guy who is embroiled in a morass of political marriage, friends and foes. He’s vulnerable yet macho, sophisticated yet impressionable. And this royal couple takes things to the max from their passionate lovemaking and display of anger to their strategising, to their suicides.

In the role of Caesar, Cassius Davids shimmers with a focused performance which is utterly convincing and Campbell Meas in several roles, including Agrippa and Cleopatra’s hand-maiden lends tight focus and articulation to the work. Neo Sibiya, in a range of gender-ambiguous support roles also commands a sense of authority which makes you sit up and look.

Squeezed into a tiny space which is electrified into clean narrative lines with the device of freezing movement, and some highly innovative prop choices, the work is deftly made. There’s a battle scene and a scene of ships at war which will make you feel you’ve skipped the bounds of possibility and are now sitting in the folds of a dramatic fresco.

Having said all of that, the work is bruised by its shoutiness. And yes, while much of the drama necessitates exclamations in bold, not all of it does, and what you might find is something a little similar to how the NCT’s production of Coriolanus two years ago was flawed. The declamatory accents of everyone most of the time tends to collapse a sense of nuance in the dialogue.

It is, however, an immensely strong and invaluable resource for learners all over the country, because there’s nothing quite like seeing the work in flesh and blood – and local, young flesh and blood, at that. And also, because under astute direction, this complicated piece’s story is clearly evident.

  • Antony and Cleopatra is written by William Shakespeare and directed by Néka da Costa. It features design by Sarah Roberts (set and costumes) and Jane Gosnell (lighting) and is performed by Cassius Davis, Ben Kgosimore, Kevin Koopman, Campbell Meas, Sibusiso Mkhize, Neo Sibiya, Megan van Wyk, Carlos Williams and Sanelisiwe Yekani in a season that is touring several schools countrywide, until May 22. It is a project of the National Children’s Theatre. Call 011 484-1584 or visit www.nationalchildrenstheatre.org.za

Baby in a pickle

caucasianchalk

BIG issues: (from left) Koketso Motlhabane, Aubrey Poo and Izak Davel. Photograph courtesy Joburg Theatre.

THE DELICIOUS PRESCIENCE of a bit of Brecht in Johannesburg this month, in the wake of the start of the #ZumaMustFall movement cannot be understated, and this complex, political, thoughtful and challenging extrapolation on the surreal humour of injustice and Solomonic solutions in The Caucasian Chalk Circle hits the mark with accuracy, insanity and abandon. It’s a fabulously layered work which brings in great dollops of Brechtian principles, spiced up with a frisson of Alfred Jarry resonance and lots of rudeness, a peppering of contemporary freedom issues and generous sprinklings of slapstick physicality.

It’s a work which allows each one of its large cast to shimmer, with wit and seriously quirky characterisation, but it’s not flawless. This is a problem in the original work, but it’s one that proves unresolvable by this director and cast.

Framed in contemporary times – which would have been roughly the 1940s – it’s a very shoutily performed prologue and is punctuated with service delivery issues and a land grab, that lends it the lingo in contemporary parlance in South Africa. There are two arguments: a business of self-sustainable farming goes head to head with one of farming for profit. It’s goats against potatoes. And the issue gets explored and developed with the tool of a play within a play. Or rather two plays – the first deals with a young woman with noble values and the second with a corrupt judge.

This is all well and good, but this land issue is not revisited at the end of the play. Yes, there’s a metaphorical sewing of associations between the situation of the child in the one tale, and that of the land in the other, but the dots are not connected for clarity’s sake, and you’re left hooting and clapping at the end of the work, but still anticipating a bit more.

Narrative flaws aside, the work does feel long and over acted in parts, and while you can doff your hat to Brechtian values, and wow in admiration of Aubrey Poo’s delightful sense of authority as he sings and embraces the whole stage, sometimes the diction is so loud that it is incomprehensible. Having said that, it’s a rollicking historical essay featuring ingenious set design decisions which comprise a miscellany of wooden crates and some beautiful stark landscape drawings in white chalk on a black ground.

Further, the work is very articulately choreographed and there is an astonishing sense of visual balance in the onstage bizarreness. Koketso Motlhabane plays Grusha, the young woman central to the first tale who by happenstance feels pity for the abandoned baby of the Governor. She manifests an utterly lovely stage presence, an admirable counterfoil to Neka da Costa’s interpretation of the governor’s wife, and her beautiful singing voice lends her role the kind of cohesion which makes you sit up and focus.

Humour and catastrophe segue together in this messy and unsettling tale of intrigue, lifelong promises and justice, compassion and money, which above all, is about the craft of performing.

  • The Caucasian Chalk Circle is written by Bertolt Brecht, translated by Alistair Beaton and directed by Lebohang Motaung. It features design by David Sizwe Arends (set), Allan Kolski Horwitz (costumes) and Timothy Le Roux (choreography). It is performed by Neka da Costa, Izak Davel, Marcus Mabusela, Mimi Mahlasela, Koketso Motlhabane, Nyeleti Ndubane, Aubrey Poo and Jacques Wolmarans, and performs at the Fringe, Joburg Theatre complex in Braamfontein until April 23. Call 0861 670 670 or visit www.joburgtheatre.com