Mary’s boy-child

The Man Jesus. Starring: Lebohang Toko. Directed by: Robert Whit

FOR what shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world and suffer the loss of his soul? Lebo Toko in The Man Jesus. Photograph by Suzy Bernstein, courtesy The Market Theatre.

IRISH WRITER COLM Tóibín did it with the Testament of Mary. As did Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis with The Last Temptation of Christ. South African-born playwright Matthew Hurt steps into this hallowed terrain in taking one of western culture’s most known biblical tales and splaying it out in a quasi-fictional stage production. And under the directorial reach of Robert Whitehead, there’s an element of chutzpah and wisdom for which this production should be commended. But it is not all pervasive.

Armed with a greenish robe, a lightly brocaded shawl and thong sandals, Lebo Toko takes on the whole community surrounding Jesus, which comprises a mêlée of men and women and a whirligig of serious political, biblical and apocryphal figures. He is supported in the multiple criss-crossing tales he tells, with a set comprising wooden pallets and paper scrolls and a soundscape which brings the texture and presence of village dynamics to unsettlingly jagged life.

While the mottled flavour of the theatre, painted as it is in patches of turquoise, browns and whites, is distracting and fights with the set, which serves as a multitude of hiding places rather than as something that has direct functional value, it is the sound design and music that lends much of this work its poignancy and fierceness.

Toko generally does an admirable job, but is stretched in a myriad of directions – some of which seem too far or far-fetched – and the casualty in this work, which is maybe 15 minutes too long, is often in either the articulated language, which, when it reaches the outer margins of shrill, loses its clarity; or in the characters represented: from Judas to Simon, Mary to Johanna, John the Baptist to King Herod, they’re handled with a similarity in tone, boldness and focus that leaves you a tad bewildered as to who is who; sometimes the camp key is pressed a little too vehemently, and sometimes nuance flies out the window.

If you’re not completely familiar with the twists and turns in the way in which the biblical tale and its fictional counterparts duck and dive around one another, you may get lost in the folds of this work, which oddly blend a sometimes two-dimensional reflection of what Judaism means – or meant – with all its loaded connotations of history, belief and politics.

Structured in such a way as to carve out an understanding of Jesus not through direct representation of him, but through his implied presence in the opinions and the gossip of others, the work is rich in text and resonates with general competence, but it is the way in which the presence of Mary, mother of Jesus, enfolds the whole production that lends it the maternal edge that holds it together with a universal energy that is haunting.

She’s a young, unmarried pregnant woman, at the outset, looking critically and not without horror at the way in which her society seems to have lost its moral compass. And when all is said and done, at the other end of the tale, she’s a woman who has had to face any mother’s most awful nightmare. Throughout this work, at times Toko gleams and sparkles, shines and glistens, but it is his portrayal of Mary that is unequivocally a victory for him.

  • The Man Jesus is written by Matthew Hurt and directed by Robert Whitehead. It features design by Noluthando Lobese (set and costume), Mandla Mtshali (lighting) and João Renato Orecchia Zúñiga (composer and sound) and is performed by Lebo Toko at the Barney Simon Theatre, Market Theatre Complex, until November 5. Call 011 832-1641 or visit markettheatre.co.za
Advertisements

People: A play that engenders belief in our youth

Humiliating Shortie: Anna Mart van der Merwe plays Millie, opposite Francois Jacobs as Shortie. Photograph courtesy www.artslink.co.za

Humiliating Shortie: Anna Mart van der Merwe plays Millie, opposite Francois Jacobs as Shortie. Photograph courtesy http://www.artslink.co.za

As she walks onto the stage, bent over by her smoker’s cough and her palpable despair, Anna-Mart van der Merwe, in the role of Fugard’s ‘Millie’ magnetises the audience. She portrays the squalid baseness of poverty and worthlessness in an early 1970s South Africa with a sense of such perfection, you feel your heart sink even as it sings with being in the presence of the brilliant grittiness of arguably, Athol Fugard’s best work ever.

But it is van der Merwe in collaboration with the young cast – of Carel Nel (as Don), Francois Jacobs (as Shortie) and Dania Gelderblom (as Sussie) that truly gives this production its edge. They filter the performance of this play thoroughly with all the incisive wit, bitterness, conflict and anger that bring it up there with words by Beckett, Stoppard or Sartre. While you get glimmerings of Shakespeare in the crisp and trauma-drenched language, you remain deeply aware of the helpless flaws in each persona: Each character has his or her own baseness and inadequacies yet together, the tenants and their land lady harmonise grotesquely and completely in fitting with the ethos of this play, as it carves into hopelessness and poverty.

Tossing into the air the conjoined issues of love and sex, poverty and politics and the ever elusive idea of dreams of happiness, the work is deeply poetic as it is fuelled by the ordinariness of the daily grind. Premised around a birthday party and the challenges of education and acne, cruelty and hurt, it pulls no punches, and doesn’t miss a trick, but never teeters into easy theatre.

The work is astonishingly complemented with a set which gives you a sense of not only what the night air feels like, but also of what the kitchen smells like. The pared down universe constructed here by Nadya Cohen is so carefully layered and subtly informed that as the faulty grandfather clock chimes oft hesitantly and with the prompt of a kick in its solar plexus, you can picture, the rickety staircase and the horror of the residents’ bedrooms, in your mind’s eye.

Such an extraordinarily performed production offers not only courage for the industry itself, but for the high school curricula: People Are Living There is currently a matric setwork. This cleaving together of theatre and education is not a new idea, but it is handled so astutely and with such a sense of professional collaboration, you cannot but have hope for all the matriculants who were exposed to this production: not only for the immediacy of their matric exams, but for seeds cast in their love of the medium and the thrill of being in a theatre.

The season is over and there’s scant indication on the theatre’s website as to whether the show will have legs going forward: but lots of legs it warrants. Also, whilst van der Merwe is an unequivocal stalwart who can change any production – be it on stage, screen or radio – into something mesmerising, the rest of the cast, impeccably chosen, are performers to look out for, each in his or her own right. Each fleshes out his or her character with a bold sense of competence and focus that gives them the timelessness they warrant.

  • People Are Living There by Athol Fugard is directed by Andre Odendaal and features design by Mannie Manim (lighting); Nadya Cohen (set); Nthabiseng Makone (costumes). It is performed by Anna-Mart van der Merwe, Carel Nel, Dania Gelderblom and Francois Jacobs, at the Barney Simon Theatre, Market Theatre complex in Newtown, Johannesburg. The season ended on May 24. markettheatre.co.za