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

Never say quit

YouTakeMyBreath

YOU and me between the sheets: Thina (Neo Sibiya) and Arnold (Joe Young). Photograph courtesy Binnie Christie.

IT’S A GENUINE joy to see players and writers, young and frisky, engaging with the challenges that confront their lives in a manner which is loose and fast, hilarious and tight, creative and intelligent all at once. Binnie Christie, Neo Sibiya and Joe Young sparkle in this delightful little two-hander that takes a peek into the vagaries of love, life and smoking.

You Take My Breath Away is a tight little work, clocking in at just under an hour. It plays on all the double entendres the team could milk from idioms relating to smoking and loving and it’s done with a crisp air of unprecious competence that makes the performers imminently easy to watch on stage. Sibiya and Young manifest an energy individually and collaboratively that fizzes and the give and take between them as a couple is strong and sophisticated, yet not self-indulgent. It’s light enough to hold the laughs and still dig into issues of bias and hypocrisy, complexities of being in a relationship.

The characters are well written and beautifully developed: Arnold (Young) meets Thina (Sibiya) in a smoke-filled pod for smokers, adjoined to a franchised restaurant. They breathe in one another’s secondary smoke and imbibe a sense of possibility in being together. Involving everything from Nina Simone to caravans, ducks on the Zoo Lake and happy and angry coffee in bed to being polite to the neighbours, to say nothing of skirting the biases and faux pas of their respective parents – he is white, she is black – the plot unfolds with ease, but ends a little flatly.

The work itself is, however, animated into a state of frenetic and deliciously dizzy life by the physical theatre skills of both performers. They’re quick and witty on their feet and under the sheet that forms the central aspect of the set and this adds to the jazz and the fire of the piece. There are some small anomalies in this aspect of the work – where a mimed cigarette gets puffed on before it is lit, or a cigarette seems to change hands for the smoker invisibly – but these can be forgiven because there’s  a rhythm and a fire to this work which is infectious and delightful and will leave you reluctant to wait to see these young thespians on stage again. This season is short: don’t let it slip through your fingers.

  • You Take My Breath Away is written by Binnie Christie, Neo Sibiya and Joe Young and directed by Binnie Christie. Performed by Neo Sibiya and Joe Young, it features design by the cast and director, and performs at Space.com at the Joburg Theatre complex in Braamfontein until February 18. Call 011-877-6800.