Lies that bind us

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MY grandfather, myself: Maude Sandham tells her family’s tales. Photograph courtesy Wits.

WHAT DO YOU do when you discover an implacable secret that effectively will cause tectonic shifts in your relation to the world in which you’ve lived up until now? Do you try to secrete it back where you found it? Do you address it and follow up all its innuendos even if it brings you to a point where you’re addressing the dead and don’t know which way is forward? This is part of the rich and beautiful challenge Maude Sandham set herself in honouring the life and secrets of her grandfather, Alan.

And there follows a very richly constructed text written with a strong hand and a sophisticated sense of timing and of clarity. The language is lucid and poignant and runs directly from the heart with a sense of unwavering frankness. The tale is a true one, unfettered with sensationalism or unnecessary detail or fluff, but a wrenching one premised on apartheid’s draconian values and rules. And it is immediate: we meet Maude’s grandfather, a husband and father, a bricklayer employed by the railways, and a man who is stoic in the face of the indignity of being poor and white – but he is utterly bereft of a true sense of belonging because of a secret that would shatter everything he stood for.

Generations succeed generations and children are born, plastering away a past that is understood for its damaging consequences. It’s a tale that resonates with that of the Afrikaans film Vaselinetjie, and one that serves as a potent hit back to generalisations about what skin colour means. Centred on the Johannesburg suburb of Crosby, known for being a repository for poor people who were white, the work is coupled with a set that comprises projected images of old family snaps that have not been digitally cleaned up, and in consequence, it is deeply haunting, hanging on to authenticity with photographic grain. And the optimistic young face of the boy in one of the photographs becomes a cipher for complex levels of betrayal.

The revelation of the secret is the nub of the play and it is evolved in layers of devastating subtlety that give voice to the depth of value in a sense of belonging; a subtlety that remembers the bond of sibling love even through the horrors of separation.

The complicated challenges of telling your own story and being the pivotal character in the unfolding tale is clearly one not lost on Sandham who embraces the text with a fulsome sense of directness, but an engaging humility, sweeping you into the values of self-doubt, classical music and memory.

Criss-crossed by references to the other side of the tracks, the work skirts deftly from cliché, and features a humble armchair and a standing lamp, on a carpet; there’s a small table on which a framed photograph stands, its back to the audience. It’s a play in the internal context of a domestic environment, and yet, in being so, it’s a play that opens its heart to the helter-skelter emotional values central to what being raised in a world where the brutality of racial segregation felt obvious.

Unflinching yet vitally important in saying what it does, it is a play of this nature, crafted with a keen sense of aesthetics and a potent understanding of the magic of storytelling that makes you remember what theatre is all about. This kind of work is the kernel and heart of a festival such as So So1o. It deserves legs all over the country – and publication.

  • Tracks is written by Maude Sandham and Nicola Pilkington. It is performed by Maude Sandham and directed by Nicola Pilkington and is the So So1o commissioned play for 2017. It performs in the Downstairs Theatre, Wits University, until October 8. Visit webtickets.co.za or www.wits.ac.za/witstheatre
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Startled by Coriolanus

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#MartiusMustFall! A young cast tells the dense tragedy of Coriolanus. Photograph courtesy reviewonline.co.za

IT’S RATHER AN odd kind of name to be trending around senior high school students at the moment. Coriolanus is arguably one of Shakespeare’s densest and more difficult works. With no witches or ghosts, monsters or weather patterns to give it verve, it’s a tragedy of political violence and class struggle which resonates with the political morals of our own times, and it’s also this year’s and next year’s English matric setwork for South African schools affiliated to the Independent Examinations Board. This production casts the National Children’s Theatre in a previously unexplored framework: that of the teenaged audience.

And all these elements are to the theatre and the production team’s credit. The pared-down set, and cleverly adaptable costume changes lend starkness and boldness to this rendition. The young enthusiastic cast and their dry-mouthed passion in articulating the tale is infectious and your focus is caught and held very quickly. The play, featuring some astonishing fight choreography, is geared to adapt easily to a range of different venues and to travel easily, but, it seems, having seen the work at the intimate theatre of the NCT in Parktown, the cast has not been adequately prepped in modulating their volume in different spaces.

While it may be all fun and dandy to bang sticks on the floor of a high school stage and shout with great volubility into the faces of youngsters who are studying the work, doing something similar to adult audiences in a tiny space hurts not only the play’s clarity, but the audience’s ability to engage the material. The cajoling of a mob could have been as effective – if not more sinister – had it been conducted in a whisper, in this venue, for instance.

It’s a curious thing: a porous reflection on the theatre’s fourth wall is understood to loosen up the material and render it more casual but offer a more developed understanding of the characters being performed, because responding to audience members effectively changes the nub and current of the performance. Each night. Noble goals, indeed. But it makes some rather astonishing assumptions on the robustness of said audience members. There’s a give and take that happens in this context which puts you, in the audience, who has paid for your ticket, at a disadvantage. This feels wrong: Don’t shout into my face. Move me with your conviction and your skill and your supreme understanding of what you are doing.

The play is sensibly cut to a workable duration of 90 minutes or so. But Coriolanus is not marketed as one of Shakespeare’s more ‘sexy’ works, for a range of reasons. The material, dealing with everything from the ethics of honouring your parents to remaining true to what you believe in, is replete with nuance that takes it back to ancient Rome where it is set. It is dense with cultural references and this young cast doesn’t play a strong role in clarifying the work’s narrative spine. Pieces like Just Antigone and (After) The Flies, for instance, meshed complex historical works with a contemporary understanding, as well as audience engagement, without compromising the material or the focus. But in spite of some hashtag-evocative chants throughout the work, Coriolanus doesn’t offer you any of that loose, wise astuteness, and you leave the work not really entertained or even informed but still startled.

Having said all of that, the difficulty of the initiative must be taken into account. This is a tremendously talented group of creative professionals. Their articulation of Shakespeare’s words is uncompromised and beautiful and their interaction onstage is sophisticated and bold. It’s just their friendliness to an audience that needs more sharpening.

  • Coriolanus by William Shakespeare is co-directed by Rohan Quince and Nicola Pilkington. It features design by Sarah Roberts (costume and set), Jane Gosnell (lighting), Stan Knight (set construction) and Ryan Dittman (combat choreographer). It is performed by Cassius Davids, Emma Delius, William Harding, Maxx Moticoe, Emilie Owen, Thapelo Sebogodi, Carlos Williams and Sanelisiwe Yekani, and is performing a travelling season under the auspices of the National Children’s Theatre, which will be touring to high schools nationally. Call 011 484 1584 or visit nationalchildrenstheatre.org.za