Paean to The Ones With No Names

train

HELPLESS among the dead: Roelf Visagie (Dawid Minnaar). Photo courtesy: The Market Theatre.

GRAVEYARDS ARE FASCINATING and complex ciphers of values. They’re about grounding one’s memories and honouring those who are no longer with us. They’re about a level of sacredness which touches everyone at the core. This is the premise of Athol Fugard’s devastatingly potent work, The Train Driver and the tone is established with simplicity and rawness from the set and the soundscape, from the outset.

So you think of train and you think of graveyards and you probably understand the nub of the play’s plot from the first few minutes: there’s a death. In fact, there are two. But the sophistication and the nuance of this work takes you much further and much richer into what it means to die, what it means to kill, and what it means to bury people whose names are not told to you. It’s a tale of anger and forgiving that reaches to the very vortex of what makes us human.

You might think Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina as you might think Tony Miyambo’s The Cenotaph of Dan Wa Moriri, and in neither association would you be misguided. This is a simple tale told with a deep heart and a developed sense of empathy. It is as much about the woman on the tracks as it is about the man, helplessly guiding his train.

As you sit and watch this yarn unfolding, you might cast your mind to the recent production of Reza de Wet’s Diepe Grond, a play which with subtlety and terror painted the broad and scary bush of South Africa – a place implied with sound elements and echoes, and one filled with ghosts.

And with no less than John Kani opposite Dawid Minnaar, the work will crumble you to your very essence. Kani plays Simon whose real name is Andile – a gloss on so-called white names in the messy bag that is South Africa. Simon’s a man who lives in a shack on the edges of the graveyard. It’s a place close to nowhere and reflects on issues of poverty which are impossible to understand if your basic necessities are covered. His livelihood is based on allowing those who have no names to rest in peace, safe from foraging dogs or violent opportunists.

Roelf Visagie is the train driver (Minnaar), who comes with white South African values and a heart broken by trauma. The denouement is wrenching and it leaves them both broken in different ways. This is the kind of play that is unforgiving in its indictment on the discrepancies of South African values, but in terms of all its collaborative elements, it sings with a clarity that is searing.

  • The Train Driver is written by Athol Fugard and directed by Charmaine Weir Smith. It features design by Thando Lobese (set and costumes) and Mannie Manim (lighting) and is performed by John Kani and Dawid Minnaar until June 3 at the Mannie Manim Theatre, Market Theatre complex in Newtown. Call 011-832-1641

We, the fallen giants

Noah

ONLY connect. A scene from PJ Sabbagha’s Noah. Photograph by John Hogg.

SOMETIMES A WORK reaches your sensibilities in an ineffable way, giving voice to your most secret and unuttered notions of the rawness of loss, love and letting go. Sometimes that work can touch all those nerves and succeed in being so supremely beautiful and wistfully unhinged that you throw all levels of intellectual unpicking to the wind and allow yourself, body and soul to be enfolded in what you are experiencing. The Forgotten Angle Theatre Collaborative brought Noah to this year’s Dance Umbrella, a work which embodied all of these values.

It’s a piece premised on the biblical tale of Noah, the bloke instructed by God – in the face of derision from his peers – to build an ark in anticipation of a great flood that would drown all the bad people in the world. The ark was to be made of certain woods at certain dimensions, and it would contain two of each kind of species of animal. Benjamin Britten constructed his quirky opera Noye’s Fludde about it, in 1958 – as did countless other creative practitioners over the years. It’s a biblical tale which lends itself to popular memory and moralising.

Rather than take a conventional narrative flavour, however, this work looks at the tale from within the water. From within the souls of those left behind. The fallen giants. From the empathetic perspective of the birds at the end of a light, magicked into relevance with solar power, rather than an olive branch, the integration of dancers and swimmers, shadow bodies and real ones coalesce to create something that you feel you must whisper about when you engage with it. It’s a feast of dancing in the dark and videography that’s cropped to focus on what is essential. And yet, yet, the work is not precious in the stuffy, earnest sense of the term. It’s stream of consciousness at its most sophisticated. As you watch the bodies of the dancers entwine and intertwine, become ambiguous and lose their sense of self, and their sense of scale, so do you feel enriched at having encountered the meditative magic of this experience.

Unequivocally, Noah, alongside this year’s works by Steven Cohen and Robyn Orlin, captured the potency of what Dance Umbrella is, was and could always be. This triumvirate of important South African dance works which touch the soul of a developed aesthetic and a sophisticated understanding of how dance can stretch makes for a magnificent swan song to a treasured festival.

  • Noah is conceived by PJ Sabbagha and created by Sabbagha in collaboration with the cast: Nicholas Aphane, Athena Mazarakis, Shawn Mothupi. It features creative input from the cast (set and costumes), Cold Play/Nicholas Aphane (music), Thabo Pule (lighting and technical design), PJ Sabbagha (video filming) and Jessica Dennyschen. The video performance is by the cast and Collen Makua, Mpho Makuwa, PJ Sabbagha, Oupa Sibeko and Lucia Walker. The work, part of Johannesburg’s Dance Umbrella in its 30th season performed on March 16 and 17 at the Dance Factory in Newtown, Johannesburg. Visit danceforumsouthafrica.co.za or call 086 111 0005.

The magnificence of Albert

Albert

MY orange, my orgasm: Albert Silindokuhle Ibokwe Khoza indulges with abandon in oranges for Africa. Photograph by John Hogg.

AS THE SONOROUS chords of Mozart’s Requiem sweep you completely off your feet, expect to have all your senses, including that of expectation, utterly seduced, mashed and repurposed. Albert Silindokuhle Ibokwe Khoza plus Robyn Orlin and Marianne Fassler have created a brand new piece called And so you see … our honourable blue sky and ever enduring sun … can only be consumed slice by slice … and it debuts in Johannesburg this week. There’s one opportunity for you to experience it for yourself. Because experience it, you must: who knows when this combination of talents might appear on Johannesburg’s stages again.

A known collaborator with Orlin in the international arena for several years now, Khoza who debuts here on Johannesburg’s Dance Umbrella stages, is an inyanga. He’s also a very extraordinary performer who makes mincemeat of audience expectations, playing with precious values and the ineffable monster of political correctness with gay abandon. He is not afraid to comment on his own identity, as he orgasmically plunges into oranges in a way that will grab you off guard. The only protagonist in this larger-than-life piece, Khoza fills the stage with his voice and his laughter, with an edge of fear and a cloak that evokes a peacock’s tail feathers in full abundance; he sits like royalty and takes on Christ-like connotations, he dances with Putin and warbles like a cockatoo. He has unquestionable nobility and exudes an atavism from behind a cellophane mask, yet he is as vulnerable as you or I.

Over the years, Robyn Orlin has selected performers with mad little edges with whom she has collaborated. Think Ann Masina and Toni Morkel, Gerard Bester and Nelisiwe Xaba, to name a few. Khoza joins these ranks and brings a level of performative fire to the work that will keep you sitting on the edge of your seat because right up until the last nuance, you don’t know what to expect. Unlike any of Orlin’s pieces so far, And so you see … takes a completely different tilt into the audience. Does it break Orlin’s own rules? That’s difficult to say. But what is clear, is it shifts the parameters of expectation even wider, and as you sit there, you weep with joy at the spectacle, at its anarchy and at the fact that anything goes.

And so you see … is about a performer’s body which is glorious and magnificent in its celebration of itself, man breasts and all, as it’s about the true heart of Africans – we dance with our weapons, thus putting them to much better use than killing. The work enfolds political narrative and the demon of homophobia. There’s a moment of forced audience participation and a kiss blown to the Cullinan diamond in Queen Elizabeth’s crown. Citing everything from Sara Baartman to how Africans thank, it’s a rollicking and sophisticated piece of work that makes you remember why Dance Umbrella always had a heart of fire.

  • And so you see … our honourable blue sky and ever enduring sun … can only be consumed slice by slice … is choreographed by Robyn Orlin with Albert Silindokuhle Ibokwe Khoza and Léopard Frock. It features design by Marianne Fassler and Leopard Frock (costumes), Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Nono Nkoane and Albert Silindokuhle Ibokwe Khoze (music), Laïs Foulc (lighting) and Thabo Pule (camera work). It is performed by Albert Silindokuhle Ibokwe Khoza. The work, part of Johannesburg’s Dance Umbrella in its 30th season performs again on Wednesday March 14 at the Dance Factory in Newtown, Johannesburg. Visit danceforumsouthafrica.co.za or call 086 111 0005.

Bling, sting and muscling

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THE power of discipline. Lee Kotze in In C. Photograph courtesy Darkroom Contemporary.

THERE’S A PARTICULAR kind of aesthetic that is central to what the Dance Umbrella has brought audiences, for the last 30 years. It’s about rough approximations of narrative meaning, beautiful dance in a clearly rehearsed structure, and above all, an earnestness in the work’s aesthetic that lends it solemnity. Not every work or every show manifests these qualities; they’re very distinct, and utterly present in the festival’s double bill, which featured work by Musa Hlatshwayo and Louise Coetzer.

Hlatshwayo’s Doda is a two-hander, which is about seven minutes too long, and about seven hundred decibels too loud, but it’s engaging and visually exciting enough to hold the audience tight. Premised on the scary perceptions about the culpability of young girls who are raped and murdered in a township context, the work seeks to unpack values that stem from church-bound society, sexist mores and the uncomfortable proximity of living spaces.

The work features jackets infused with LED-lights, blinged to the hilt with safety pins and cash, and radios playing with sonic static and dust, and while the narrative development of the piece is established with clarity, its repetitive development becomes a little numbing. A diagrammatic reflection on space is painted on the theatre’s floor, offering an understanding of context, which is claustrophobic yet clean in its specificity.

But ramped all the way to the loudest, the sound is the element that may cause you most stress. As the work reaches closure and the sound dwindles, you find yourself able to breathe once more.

Enter In C, a work by Louise Coetzer and her Cape Town-based company Darkroom Contemporary. This extremely balletic piece will take you back to the folds of contemporary dance that took flight some 30 years ago. It’s an abstract work, as much about the music as the interpretation. Five dancers in various shades of pastel, populate the stage with an urgency and a clarity that keeps you looking, but it is the compositional energy of Llewellyn Afrika that keeps your head spinning.

When he’s performing onstage, you have difficulty in drawing your eyes from him, and indeed, the eye contact between dancers is quite remarkable and very present in this work. It lends the approach a sense of modulated connection and empathy, which adds to its flavour and watchability. And indeed, the sound of this work, handled via the laptops of Mark van Niekerk and Dean Henning is loud enough: your eyeballs don’t feel like they’re going to explode; neither does your heart.

It is combinations like these two pieces which present a burst of light, a muscular discipline and the serious focus that has, over the years become emblematic of Dance Umbrella, reflecting a well-curated programme.

  • Double Bill featured Doda which is choreographed by Musa Hlatshwayo. It is performed by Musa Hlatshwayo and Sibonelo Mchunu, and features creative input by Musa Hlatshwayo (costumes), and Lerato Ledwaba (lighting and technical). It also featured In C, which is choreographed by Louise Coetzer. It is performed by Llewellyn Afrika, Cilna Katzke, Lee Kotze, Joy Millar and Kayla Schultze and features creative input by Henri (costumes), Mark van Niekerk, Dean Henning and Terry Riley (music). They were part of the 30th iteration of Dance Umbrella, and performed on March 10 and 11 at the Dance Factory, Newtown. Visit danceforumsouthafrica.co.za or call 086 111 0005.

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

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 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