A few of everybody’s favourite things

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LISTEN to the worms! Georgina (Taryn Bennett) thinks of life, the universe and a box of worms. Photograph courtesy Contagious Theatre.

YOU KNOW THE little critters: you buy them off your buddies at primary school, pop them into a mulberry-leaf-filled shoe box with holes punched into the lid, and watch them chomp away and grow as you marvel at their fabulous metamorphosis. This new play, Silkworm, by the creative team that gave The Snow Goose its stage-wings and brought The Old Man and the Sea to magical life, offers a beautiful platform for a highly skilled performer, but it is Taryn Bennett’s performance rather than the work’s narrative structure and the tricks and gimmicks that holds it together, that will keep you focused and laughing.

A young woman fabulously named Georgina Aurora Clementine (Bennett), all kitted out in Italian clownish tradition, armed with acute social awkwardness and the kind of persona that evokes Klara van Wyk’s Prettina in her work You Suck and Other Inescapable Truths, will tell you a story of magic and possibility. Bennett reprises this role with great fondness and astuteness, allowing the character to play with the notion of make-believe as she teases her audience.

The work, clocking in at just one hour, will take you to the movies and on a date with a stranger in a jacket and a spot of tiramisu. It will take you to a picnic and onto the beach. And ultimately it will bring you back home to the marvellous miracle that silkworms are able to perform by vomiting kilometres of silk at a time. While some of the stories’ premises are totally delightful, the work doesn’t hang together with sufficient conviction to leave you perfectly satisfied.

You will laugh and you almost weep at a moment that concerns a fish who seems to be drowning, but you don’t: the narrative doesn’t push the poignancy of the work far enough. Bringing in members of the audience is easily the flaw in the piece. While it gets all the schadenfreude-based giggles, it doesn’t serve its approach well.

Having said that, Bennett is always a joy to watch. Her clowning skills, offering a conjoined reflection on a vulnerable character and physical presence, are tight, funny and sophisticated. And even if you don’t emerge from this play with its story clanging wisely in your heart, you will emerge with a sense of having seen someone do something gossamer thin yet lovely.

  • Silkworm is directed by Jenine Collocott with dramaturgical input by Nick Warren. It is performed by Taryn Bennett and this review is premised on a brief season at PopArts Theatre, Maboneng. It performs at Princess Alice Hall, during the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown from June 28-July 5.

Big fish, conjured

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MAN of war ahoy! Manolin (Taryn Bennett) and crew (James Cairns and Jaques de Silva) cast out to sea. Photograph courtesy Auto & General Theatre on the Square.

THERE ARE FEW things as gratifying as a spot of Hemingway to pepper up a dull Johannesburg evening with a bit of culture, but this is Hemingway as you could never have anticipated him. One of this country’s most exciting repertory theatre groups, under the pens of Nick Warren and Jenine Collocott have created a gem of a work that will make you laugh and cry, sailing gloriously and with great skill on the coattails of Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea. Even if you don’t like – or know – modernist literature.

Like their production of the Snow Goose, a few seasons ago, the work hinges more on accounts of the incident rather than the incident itself, but in doing so, not one iota of the texture and the fabric of the tale is compromised, and a whole sea replete with the greatest challenge of an old fisherman’s lifetime, and a humble village of loyal friends, is cast in a simple framework with a turning set, put together with a couple of planks, a log and a table, and some incredibly fine masks and very simple puppets.

It’s a curious novel. On the one hand, celebrated as arguably among the most important novels of the modern era, The Old Man and the Sea (1951) is an example of short, tight writing at its peak. You can read it in a few hours, but still the monumental struggle between big fish and small man becomes almost biblical in its largeness. It contains a parable similar to tales such as Moby Dick, which gives you something to take home with you – about old age, mortality and the challenges of being in the world.

And you might wonder what a group of contemporary South African theatre makers can do with a work of such historical gravitas and serious reputation. Rest assured that you’re safe in the hands of Jaques de Silva, Taryn Bennett and James Cairns, who take apart this great classic with immense bravery and chutzpah, but also an incredible amount of intelligence and skill. The gravitas remains, but is woven into a texture of village life that is rich with humour and tall stories, earnestness and dominoes.

The story is fleshed out with characters such as Manolin, the young boy who Santiago, the old man in question has been training in his boat, but also the village fishermen who tell the incredible tale of a man who went out for the biggest fish of his life, and came back with a story. Indeed, this production reinvents the textures and love affairs, the humour and the pathos of this unnamed fishing village.

Flavoured with songs of the ocean, and sutured together with mime that harnesses a very real sense of magic, the work is truly a brilliant experience: it is beautifully honed and tells a clear story with a very big fish (and an even bigger heart).

  • The Old Man and the Sea is adapted for stage by Nick Warren, based on the eponymous novel by Ernest Hemingway. It is directed by Jenine Collocott and features creative input by Jenine Collocott (production design), Sue Grealy (music), Alida van Deventer (puppetry), Alistair Findlay (set) and Steve Clarke (sound). It is performed by Taryn Bennett, James Cairns and Jaques de Silva at the Auto and General Theatre on the Square in Sandton until October 7. Call 011 883 8606 or visit www.theatreonthesquare.co.za

Making Mandela and history to make children swoon

Don't steal my mealies: Nelson Mandela (Mlindeli Zondi) and his relation Justice, with whom he was raised (Jaques de Silva) are lambasted by Noengland, the wife of the Thembu regent, for nicking mealies. Photograph courtesy bdlive.co.za
Don’t steal my mealies: Nelson Mandela (Mlindeli Zondi) and his relation Justice, with whom he was raised (Jaques de Silva) are lambasted by Noengland, the wife of the Thembu regent, for nicking mealies. Photograph courtesy bdlive.co.za

Armed with a couple of cardboard trees, some simple box-like structures and tiny reflections of buildings and cows, three able young performers tell what could easily be South Africa’s most romantic and beautiful tale, offering a trajectory that stretches from the idyllic rurality of Mvezo in the Eastern Cape all the way to the racially complex rush and tumble of the city of Johannesburg, Making Mandela is a lovely work, albeit with a few dents that affect its clarity.

In February of this year, the work was reviewed on this blog after its 2014 Assitej season in Denmark, during a brief season at the State Theatre in Pretoria and before its season at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown. It’s back on the boards, and offers the same physical theatre fire as it did then, but feels a little bruised for wear.

While the compelling story that highlights Nelson Mandela’s early childhood has been constructed for a young audience, and holds its own with graphic interpretation, half-face masks and choreographic vibes that make it stand out, it seems longer than it was before, and coarse exaggeration in some of the performances hurt the clarity and poetry of the material.

The woman who raised Mandela, Noengland, the wife of the Thembu regent of the time, is a case in point. Dressed in an orange doek and little skirt, and performed by Barileng Malebye, she’s the direct opposite of the humble and ageing woman (also performed by Malebye) who gave birth to Nelson, but Malebye gives her such emphasis that every syllable is characterised by a twitch of her bum, chest or head. While initially, this is cute, it tires quickly and affects the character’s sense of believable gravitas.

While Mandela’s growing human rights awareness is articulately threaded into the body of the work – more, perhaps, than it was in the production’s first manifestation – there’s a sameness in the texture of the work as the second half unfolds that occasionally loses audience focus. It has to do with the delicious and articulate balance of emotion in the work’s first half, and how it lacks that kind of fire as the story glosses quickly through Mandela’s young adulthood.

This is still a production that could hold a whole generation’s imagination, and features stand out performances by Jaques de Silva in a range of noteworthy interpretations of South African stereotypes, from the child in the classroom and Justice, who was raised as a sibling to Nelson, to the Afrikaner broederbonder. Mlindeli Zondi’s stage presence and smile feels just right for an interpretation of Nelson Mandela.

The play is constructed on the twin trajectories that take you from 1918, and the establishment of the notorious Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB) a severely right wing political movement which infiltrated the country’s racist ideology, and the birth of Mandela, in July of that year. It does need more nuance, though; while the physical energy of the work is gorgeous, the work would benefit with more performative shade and darkness that holds its complex whole together.

Telling Mandela’s story to young people is a massive challenge as it is a tale so rich with values, contradictions and real life adventures. In the hands of this talented cast and creative team, it needs a little more massaging, but promises to be the play that will touch and ignite many a young person’s reflections on one of the biggest historical heroes that was a part of South Africa’s bigger narrative.

  • Making Mandela: The Boy Who Defined A Future, is written by Nick Warren and Jenine Collocott and directed by Collocott. It features design by Duncan Gibbon (set), Peter Cornell (sound), and is performed by Jaques de Silve, Barileng Malebye and Mlindeli Zondi at the Auto & General Theatre on the Square in Sandton until October 3. Visit theatreonthesquare.co.za or call 011-883-8606.

Taking on giants: a play that could wow the world

Photograph by Sanmari Marais.
Photograph by Sanmari Marais.

If you’re seeking fine excuses to go to the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown this year, seek no further: Jenine Collocott and Nick Warren have once again been putting their very fine heads together, and this time have yielded a theatrical essay on Mandela’s childhood which soars with all those good values of clean narrative lines, superb physical theatre and humour mingled with pathos.

Making Mandela recently enjoyed a short season, aimed primarily at school children, staged at the State Theatre in Pretoria. The work was a little rough in terms of an unresolved-feeling ending, but the conveying of the meat of the narrative is held with a firm hand and a trusty heart by Jaques de Silva, Mlindeli Zondi – whose body language and mien resonate so strongly with that of a young Mandela you will do a double take – and Barileng Malebye.

There is the kind of implicit trust and muscular give and take between performers that you would anticipate in a trapeze act in the circus: the three click so powerfully and so well together that as they toss and manipulate the story between them, skirting age, geography, personalities and time, it never loses its momentum or sparkle. If anything, it feels too short and you wish that the whole tale of Mandela’s life, in close detail could be handled by this supremely talented cast.

And of course, there are the masks. Collocott and Warren have evolved a signature mask-making approach to grand narratives involving many characters and few cast members that draws impeccably from old masked theatre traditions. Their masks are potent and wise, witty and sinister, yet irrevocably human, and your eye is held as your heart judders to a halt around the values being articulated by individual characters.

You fall in love with the conveying of Mandela’s aged mother, widowed and alone as she leaves her son to be raised by clan royalty and you weep with gladness at the interface between the testosterone-filled young Mandela bursting with enthusiasm for life, and his ‘brother’ Justice, the son of the Thembu chief.

You don’t get a more potent narrative than Mandela’s life story. Charmed from its goat-herding roots in the village of Mvezo in the eastern Cape to the man’s peaceful demise surrounded by loved ones in his own bed, well into his 90s, it’s a story which has people into funding a horrible opera that was staged last year and is a major draw-card and a very steep – virtually paralysing – challenge in several respects for any serious creative practitioner.

Collocott and Warren have kneaded this story between them over some years, highlighting some aspects and casting others into shadow as they must, and here lies the rub in the work. If you have been living for the last several years on another planet and see this work without an internal knowledge of who Mandela grew into, a lot of the piece’s nuances might escape you.

The piece needs more development from a narrative perspective, but if this team get it right, they have the intellectual and skills-based wherewithal to develop an embrace of this story that is so big and so direct that it will wow not only Grahamstown festivalgoers, but the world.

  • Making Mandela is written by Nick Warren and Jenine Collocott and directed by Jenine Collocott. It stars Jaques de Silva, Mlindeli Zondi and Barileng Malebya, with scenography by Duncan Gibbon and sound design by Peter Cornell. It will be performed at this year’s National Arts Festival in Grahamstown.