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
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Broken values, smashed dreams and theatre with devastating balance

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DECISIONS, decisions: Christiaan Schoombie (foreground) with Warren Masemola and Mpho Osei-Tutu deciding upon his fate. Photograph courtesy comarochronicle.co.za

SELDOM DO YOU get to feel privileged enough to experience a play with not only electric relevance to the brokenness of our current global society, but one which also brings together such a rich collaboration of skills that it shines from every direction. Mike van Graan’s latest play, When Swallows Cry is an extraordinary and brilliant essay on the pain and complexity of migration.

Almost crafted like a filmed hostage drama, the work is forced out of actuality clichés and holds its own as a stage play thanks to beautiful energies conveyed by the set, lighting and audio-visual elements, as well as the choreographed staging of the work as a whole.  Comprising three vignettes, it sears into an understanding of blood-curdling xenophobia, and bleeding heart humanity in a way that is absolutely riveting, as text and performance are made to suppurate in concert with the poison of historical hatred and anguish.

Casting iron-hard laughter at the idea of ‘saving people from their poverty’, and unflinchingly describing the kind of crude racism that circumscribes the possibilities for refugees, the work is uncompromisingly cynical and hard hitting, but it doesn’t lack deeply woven nuances. It is the manner in which each vignette – be it in Somalia, America or Australia – gives flesh and dimension to each of its characters, lending them balance that makes this such a show stopper. Each character has been superbly crafted, but more so, each man embodies the several roles which he performs with such an impeccable intensity that you may well forget to breathe, as you watch.

When the room seems to rock and swirl as the lights sway, when the space is calibrated with light, when a stretch of sea rocks so lugubriously, it seems to do so amidst the stolidness of oil, you get a sense of myriads of other untold stories within stories. Of voices that don’t get heard in a refugee crisis. Of farms in Zimbabwe that were abandoned. Of mines near Mogadishu where men were shot. You understand how immigration control might be doing its job, but also what it must feel like to have a country’s doors closed in your face. Because of the colour of your skin. Or your religion.

It’s an immensely fine cast comprising Christiaan Schoombie, Warren Masemola and Mpho Osei-Tutu who each splay out a range of deeply disturbing social realities. While each of the three shine with a fierce intensity, the cast is arguably headed by Masemola, who evokes the character of Simon Adebisi in the HBO prison series Oz. This extraordinary character, played by British performer Adewale Akinnyoye-Agbaje,  lends a sophisticated sheen of malevolence and unbated violence which has a real heart. And like the HBO prison series Oz, When Swallow Cry is a work that enfolds  valid perspectives with grit and toughness, but with a pen that forces itself into all the crevices of the scenario and a speculum that sees into all the sides of the situations. You weep for the villain’s tragedies as you understand why he is the villain. You hear the diatribe of the wannabe teacher in Africa, and hear also the puniness of his liberal dreams. In short, nothing is left one sided.

The work is an open-ended essay: it doesn’t promise to give answers to deeply wrenching realities which reflect on how history and the brutal and crude struggle for power turns in a ghastly and repetitive circle. But it is an important theatre gesture which will move and horrify you, as it will haunt you.

  • When Swallows Cry is written by Mike van Graan and directed by Lesedi Job mentored by Megan Willson. Featuring design by Jurgen Meekel (audiovisual), Mandla Mtshali (lighting), Nadya Cohen (set), Noluthando Lobese (costumes) and Ntuthuko Mbuyazi (sound), with incubates Lerato Masooane (costumes), Tsholofelo Ramospele (set), Mosibudi Maggy Selebe (sound) and Tanele Dlamini (audio visual), it is performed by Warren Masemola, Mpho Osei-Tutu and Christiaan Schoombie, in the Mannie Manim Theatre, Market Theatre comples, Newtown, Johannesburg until February 5. Call 011 832 1641 or visit markettheatre.co.za

A man, a suit and a bottle of brandy

houseoftruth

THE weapon of the journalist against untruth: Can Themba (Sello Maake kaNcube). Photograph courtesy Cue.co.za

FIFTIES SOF’TOWN BLUES has a very particular texture; its rhythm gets your foot beating, its history gets your heart trembling in tune with the ebb and fall of a small gem of a place which saw its golden years under the thumb of apartheid. Siphiwo Mahala’s House of Truth does something similar to what Khayelihle Dominique Gumede did in Crepuscule: it takes apart elements of the colourful life of Sophiatown educator, poet and editor, Can Themba and splays them into a cohesive reflection of the man and the period, effectively looking at his life as though it were a compilation of his stories. And by and large, the work succeeds.

This is a slice of Themba’s life, and it’s a very rich flavoursome slice that has all the brandy and spice, all the cherries and anecdotes that make it resonate and hum. But the work is a deeply textual one. And while it takes you through the abysmal injustice Themba faced under Native Education of the day, and feeds into the 1950s context regarding the media, the mayhem and the bulldozing of the area, it effectively remains a deeply textual play, which could well be a radio play. The writing is palpably beautiful and you want to hold and savour each turn of phrase, but it is the potency of Sello Maake kaNcube’s performance that makes it sing as a theatre piece, with all the requisite dignity and vulnerability that holds it together.

Similar to Blonde Poison, currently onstage, House of Truth is an essay about an historical period. It’s a one hander which is held together by the charisma of the central performer, which is the main reason you need to see the play.

But unlike works such as Sylvia Vollenhoven’s Cold Case, for instance – or If We Dig, directed by Megan Willson – the denouements and the fierce drama in the tales within the broad narrative of Themba’s life are very subtly handled. They’re elegant and never crude but sometimes they digress into a shade of dilettantism and while you’re subsumed by the texture of the period and the quirkiness and feistiness of the central character, occasionally you feel assailed by a ‘so what?’ moment. The slice of Can Themba’s life doesn’t convincingly take you from point A to point B in his life, but rather feeds you with his whole world in the space of 90 or so intense minutes.

And then there’s the brandy. It can almost be considered a separate character in its own right in this work. The inimitable late foodie, AA Gill wrote resoundingly and bitingly of how drunks used to be funny in a slapstick and curiously proud kind of way. The infiltration of alcohol through this play is articulated with the delicate hand of a seasoned director; it was something you might have seen in Dop, as well. As the work unfolds, the buzz and blur of alcohol creeps into Themba’s body language and tone of heart, lending the work a tragic counter-image which will seethe in its own quiet way, in your head and heart after you’ve left the theatre.

  • House of Truth is written by Siphiwo Mahala and directed by Vanessa Cooke. Featuring design by Bruce Koch (lighting) and Noluthando Lobese (set and lighting), it is performed by Sello Maake kaNcube at the Barney Simon Theatre, Market Theatre complex, Newtown, until January 29. Call 011 832 1641 or visit markettheatre.co.za

On Fire: out of control

Thulani Mgidi in On Fire. Photograph by Manuel Osterholt.

Thulani Mgidi in On Fire. Photograph by Manuel Osterholt.

When you watch a piece as catastrophically chaotic as Constanza Macras’s On Fire choreographed for the gala opening of this year’s Dance Umbrella, you might be tempted to question what exactly a choreographer does. Unlike the previous works we have seen by this choreographer and her company, there is a catch all moment in the work where it seems anything goes and you in the audience are being subject to Macras’s version of pot luck. Did she run out of editing stamina in creating this piece?

Had it been well produced and carefully constructed, you might have been of the opinion that the performers should be allowed to die after the work had been completed: they had done so much with such fervent diversity during the work’s complicated duration. But nay: you cannot say this: there is just simply too much, most of which is crying out for editing snips: The work is too long. The colonialist message is carried across with clarity and even beauty, the first time. But then it is broadcast again and again. And again. With proverbial sledgehammers, considerable narrative sloppiness and extreme loudness. And again some more: to the point where you want to shout ‘enough, already!’

It’s also a misguided message that leaves you, as a South African audience cold: we’ve been through the colonialist discourse a million times. We’ve lived through it. It’s ours. While On Fire has potential and the skill of its cast is simply breath-taking, the work lacks an underbelly of meaningful context and doesn’t give local audiences anything new. Instead, the tired rehashing of apartheid values and a poorly constructed spoof of a soap opera hurts the Dance Umbrella and your personal expectations. It feels arrogant and self indulgent.

They’re words which don’t come lightly. The first half of this work contains heart-stoppingly fine moments which bring the colonial practice of tennis and golf playing and tea drinking onto a strip of veld from which the Hillbrow Tower is visible. In another part, a sheet of paper on the floor and an astonishingly fine dancer convey a sense of not fire, but water, at the work’s outset. The dancers articulate the curious formality of colonialist photography with a wisdom and a level of input that is unique and sophisticated. There’s a give and take with traditional African song that sparkles with engagement.

But then, the work seems to lose its way, and there is too much text and weak story-telling. Too much thrusting about and making horrible noises. Too much time and energy spent in bringing everything from soap opera story lines to Credo Mutwa and Fitzcarraldo’s sound track into the mix. So much so that you could even overlook the collaborative energy that videographer Dean Hutton and photographer Ayana V Jackson have put into the work. Their contribution feels brushed over and disregarded.

Ultimately, you leave with the awareness that this potjie hasn’t been cooked long enough and the disparate parts don’t meld in a way that is convincing. Instead, you might feel a bit insulted by the manner in which these performers who are not from this country mangle and mock us. And above all, disappointed: Macras’s reputation for exceptionally good work just hasn’t been honoured here.

  • On Fire by Constanza Macras | Dorky Park is choreographed and directed by Constanza Macras and features performances by Louis Becker, Emil Bordás, Lucky Kele, Jelena Kujic, Diile Lebeko, Mandla Mathonsi, Thulani Mgidi, Melusi Mkhwanjana, Felix Saalmann, Fana Tshabalal, John Sithole. It is designed by Carmen Mehnert (dramaturge); Ayana Jackon (visual art); Dean Hutton (video); Constanza Macras and Noluthando Lobese (costumes); Jelena Kuljic and Abigail Thatcher (music and sound) and Catalina Fernandez (lighting) and performs at the Dance Factory in Newtown until February 27.