School ties, serge skirts and unmitigated magic in the cupboard

lionwitchwardrobe

NOTHING to do on a rainy day: Pevensie siblings Peter (Sandi Dlangalala), Lucy (Nomonde Matiwane), Susan (Nieke Lombard) and Edmund (Daniel Keith Geddes). Photograph courtesy National Children’s Theatre.

WHEN REAL MAGIC prevails in a situation, the mystery can be so great that all ideas of play-acting illusion and scepticism are cast aside spontaneously, mesmerising young and old unashamedly in the sense of ‘what if’ that it conjures. This is exactly what happens in the stage version of C S Lewis’s beautiful classic novel, which has been changing children’s lives since the 1950s. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is the quintessential fantasy that takes a bored and rather lonely eight year old through a cupboard in a strange house and into another world, filled with romance and mythology, conquest and the clash of good and evil.

It’s an immensely complicated tale, which some critics have reflected upon as a parable or an allegory. Involving the emotional detritus of the Second World War, the rubrics of heraldry and the story of the resurrection of a great and powerful leader, it’s the kind of work that you might think a children’s theatre director would shy from: replete with so much nuance and detail, it’s a terrifying prospect to stage in a comprehensive manner, and a tight time frame, particularly for little ones.

Director Francois Theron is clearly up for this task in this completely new and stripped down approach to the work. Armed with a couple of bedsheets, a few branches painted white, some baskets with lids and a whole bunch of ingenuity, not to forget a lion which is completely noble in its presence, this fabulously directed cast of four create the whole narrative through children’s eyes. While the specifics of this tale might not be completely accessible to the very young in the audience, replete as it is with the unapologetically complicated language of the original, the magic most certainly will, and as a very fine and boisterous Lucy Pevensie (Nomonde Matiwane) takes us by the hand (alongside her older siblings) into the core of utter magic, which introduces classical mythological beasties such as the Faun, Mr Tumnus (Daniel Keith Geddes), suddenly you are transformed into the nine-year-old that you once were when you were bewitched by this novel decades ago.

It’s not only sterling performances, and utterly wise casting which sees the oldest boy, Peter (Sandi Dlangalala) as the responsible 14-year-old and Susan, the big sister (Nieke Lombard) as one imbued with her own sense of importance in the pecking order, not to forget the less-focused Edmund (Geddes) who becomes susceptible to the allure of the White Witch (Lombard) and her beguiling Turkish Delights; there’s also magic in the set itself. Using echoed circles of magic, ones in twigs and others cast by light, the space is set alight with an impervious sense of possibility that plays with abstraction and make believe as it flirts with true magic. The kind that rests in the hearts of any undeveloped artist, waiting to unfold.

It’s a dream-come-true production which doesn’t lose itself in the details of the original book. Rather, it boldly takes possession of the nub of the tale, keeps the cast in their classic 1950s English school uniforms, and with the device of a shadow casting the texture of lead-lighting in casement windows of English period architecture, the tone is set for the magic to begin. This work is about the craft of the discipline, the necessary suspension of belief as well as all the bits and pieces of magnificence that keep it glowing.

  • The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is based on the eponymous 1950 novel by C S Lewis, dramatised by Le Clanche du Rand and directed by Francois Theron. It features creative input by Sarah Roberts (set and costumes) and Mathew Lewis (lighting), and it is performed by Sandi Dlangalala, Daniel Keith Geddes, Nieke Lombard and Nomonde Matiwane, at the National Children’s Theatre in Parktown, Johannesburg, until September 3 and then, from September 25 until October 15. Visit nationalchildrenstheatre.org.za or call 011 484 1584.
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Forever gems and smiles to set the world aglow

khokho

WHAT comes around … Cruelty and ugliness become synonymous when Hyena (Sandi Dlangalala) meets Fudukazi the tortoise (Nomonde Matiwane). Photograph courtesy artslink.co.za

Occasionally, very occasionally, a creative work seems to make itself. Is it about the universe taking control? Or God? Perhaps it is about having done a thing so often you go into autopilot and don’t think about the hugeness of what you are doing. Either way, when this kind of small miracle happens, everything, but everything, fits into place, in such a way that you can almost hear it click. This level of theatrical brilliance is what you experience in Khokho’s Treasure.

A couple of years in development, this work, which began as Under the Baobab Tree is a clever cipher for a range of African stories. An old man, beloved by the community in which he lived, has died. His legacy is contained in a big suitcase. And what can it be? Is it money? Is it jewels? Rather than anything crassly material, the suitcase is a repository of triggers to stories, songs and memories. And Francois Theron and his cast take the possibilities of these values and shine them up to an astonishing level, which will touch you – and your child – deeply.

Stripped of cliché, the stories are told with a developed sense of empathy and a generosity of spirit. The cast, including established NCT performers such as Suzaan Helberg and Nomonde Matiwane, and newcomer Kealeboga Tshenya, is young enough, yet mature enough, to inject a fine level of wit and self-deprecation into the range of characters that inform the material, which makes you love each and every one, not only for his or her good qualities, but for his or her flaws too. Arguably the highlight is a new tale by Gcina Mhlophe, about Fudukazi, the magic tortoise, epitomised in beautiful detail by Matiwane, who is not afraid to lend such heart to her performance that you weep out of love for the hapless beast.

But something must also be said for Helberg’s smile. This young actress, who plays the gogo and narrator of the work, in her very competent and linguistically flawless performance, exudes a sense of happiness which is so uncontrived and so giving that you get swept up in its glow. Indeed, the positive energy of this work is infectious, as it sidesteps triteness. Not all of the five stories told are happy ones, but each of them presents an energy that gives cultural miens – and South Africa’s different languages – a place. From Afrikaans to Ndebele, isiXhosa to Sesotho, there’s an easy and legible flow of the idea of cultural relevance, be it with a blanket in hand, or under the spell of Nomhle, the African Cinderella, be it in a soccer tournament or on the rural hills of KwaZulu-Natal.

Brightly coloured and direct, Khokho’s Treasure could be an ambassador to all that it good and hopeful in this beautiful land of ours. And while very little tots might become restless before interval, because of the work’s length, as a creative manifestation, it’s as good as it gets.

  • Khokho’s Treasure is adapted and directed by Francois Theron and features design by Stan Knight (set and costumes), Nicol Sheraton and Phillida le Roux (choreography), Jane Gosnell (lighting) and Dale Scheepers (musical direction). It is performed by Sandi Dlangalala, Sibusiso Nhlapo Ferguson, Suzaan Helberg, Nomonde Matiwane, Mark Tatham and Kealeboga Tshenye at the National Children’s Theatre in Parktown until September 3. Visit nationalchildrenstheatre.org.za or call 011 484 1584.

Oz: the sumptuous sum of all its parts

The Look of Enthusiasm says it all. Dorothy (Emma Hayden) centre, with her new found friends: the Tin Man who has no heart (Sean Louw); the  Scarecrow who has no brain (Phillip Schnetler); and the cowardly Lion (Gamelihle Bovana). Photograph courtesy National Children's Theatre.

The look of enthusiasm says it all: Dorothy (Emma Hayden) centre, with her new found friends: the Tin Man who has no heart (Sean Louw); the Scarecrow who has no brain (Phillip Schnetler); and the cowardly Lion (Gamelihle Bovana). Photograph courtesy National Children’s Theatre.

Just when you think that you may have seen the Wizard of Oz – first brought to the silver screen in 1939 with a young Judy Garland in the starring role – enough times, along comes a production like this, bursting at the seams with the kind of freshness and enthusiasm which has the power to take young audience members and transport them for the rest of their lives.

Director Francois Theron has magicked a brand new version of this work which teeters, narratively, between the insanity and surrealism of the Rocky Horror Picture Show and the standard tradition of a yarn like that that informs The Lord of the Rings. It offers a moral by way of a caveat in understanding that things are seldom what they seem and that dreams need to be followed to their logical conclusion, which is wrapped in a bit of sugar and a lot of really top class lyrics, like Somewhere over the rainbow.

There’s not really much that can be done to the tale of Dorothy from Kansas who unwittingly unseats and destroys a wicked witch when her house is blown away by a twister, and meets some idiosyncratic friends en route to finding her way home, but there are subtle tweaks and gestures, which pay important tribute to the film traditions behind the work, and indeed, to the original text, first published in 1900.

With Devon Flemmer as the debonair emcee and tiered curtains evocative of 1950s traditions, the tone is set: and the magic happens from curtain up to curtain down.

The show, featuring shadow manipulation and tight creative engineering is directly premised on the presence of a book: characters jump out of the larger than life publication on set and the emcee himself is armed with an encyclopaediac version of the text that he reads from.

While local children might struggle to understand the deep American southernness of the accents that predominate, particularly on Aunt Em and Uncle Henry’s farm, they will be blown away by the perfection of the colour, light, choreography and sequences, which simply exude faultlessness in their placement and construction; with the cherry on top being fabulous costume design, completely appropriate to the work’s history and tradition.

Patricia Boyer as the Wicked Witch who remains undefeated, until Dorothy (Emma Victoria Hayden) gets into a tussle with a bucket of water, is deliciously incomparable. The role she casts is not unadulterated evil, as we have seen her do elsewhere; rather this physically monumental and monumentally fine performer pegs her evilness down a step or two, creating an unspoken bond of complicity with the children in the audience on the cushions on the floor. She’s an evil witch tempered by an insecurity that makes her human and completely appropriate.

The singing and dancing stakes are not as sophisticated and tight as they were in this theatre’s previous production of the same work, and similarly the dollop of nostalgia is a little diluted; but the work in entirety is beautifully honed, imminently satisfying and smile-inspiring.

When you can vicariously watch a show of this nature through the focus of a little six year old boy who remains completely transfixed throughout its run, you know they’re doing something right.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is adapted and directed by Francois Theron from the original book by L. Frank Baum. It is designed by Rowan Bakker (musical supervisor); Stan Knight (set); Caitlin Clerk (choreographer); Jane Gosnell (lighting) and Chriselda Pillay (costumes) and features performances by Gamelihle Bovana; Patricia Boyer; Devon Flemmer; Emma Victoria Hayden; Suzaan Helberg; Sean Louw; Yamikani Mahaka-Phiri; Nomonde Matiwane and Phillip Schnetler; and child performances by Sakhenati Faniso; Tamara Faniso; Samuel Hertz; Katlego Matihake; Hloniphile Myaka; Khawulani Myaka; Gabriella Oliveira; Boitumelo Phaho; Buddy Sacks; Rufaro Shava; Sebastian Steiner; and Ricci Waksman. It performs at the National Children’s Theatre in Parktown, until  performs at POP Arts in the Maboneng Precinct, downtown Johannesburg until December 21.

Niggling nuances of bullies and victims: Revealed

"I'll show you!" school bully Richie (Letshabang Moshime) tortures his victim Russell (Gamelihle Bovana). Photograph courtesy National Children's Theatre.

“I’ll show you!” school bully Richie (Letshabang Moshime) tortures his victim Russell (Gamelihle Bovana). Photograph courtesy National Children’s Theatre.

What gives HBO tv series Oz its universality, clout and sense of poetry to say nothing of its ability to be watched again and again? Not its explicit violence. It is how each character is crafted as a three-dimensional entity. While it’s not fair to compare The Revealers with Oz, this little play features a handling of the wickedest of characters by a young cast embodying a similar level of poetic and intellectual credibility.

A tale of bullying combatted not by teachers or parents, but by the child victims themselves, The Revealers is an empowering and compelling piece of work, brought to believable life with strong performance and wise and simple design.

It’s a casually told piece, reaching back through a trajectory of ten years, bringing the cast to the age and stage of Grade 7, which grabs the young audience’s attention from the word go. In the main role, Gamelihle Bovana gives clear flesh and blood to his character, Russell, a boy who gets picked on by the school bullies.

Whisking in a reflection on school intranet, the parochial equivalent of today’s social media, the story touches on the value of speaking out, and of using words as therapy.

There’s a compelling interweaving of dinosaurs and their habits with that of the most spiteful of the school’s baddies, but also a strong engagement with how the different genders try to break peers they consider a threat: boys with physical violence; girls with destructive gossip.

And just when you think it couldn’t get worse with blatant bitchiness by the school’s little übermadam, Bethany played deliciously by Nomonde Matiwane, it does. But the turning point is cast by Richie, the school’s most feared kid.

Played by Letshabang Moshime, the role is stereotypical up until the point Russell touches some of Richie’s deeper chords and the child erupts more angrily but also more impotently than ever before. This element remains unspoken of in the play, but it immediately lends Richie that three-dimensionality that enables you to gaze through the bravado and the instilled bruises, the ugly words and threatening hoodie, and see a human being there, who suffers. And in spite of such articulated nastiness that makes it hard to watch, at times, the characters remain true to their child-identities, articulating that resilience children have.

With lovely cameo roles by performers including Shika Budhoo, who embodies the thickly authoritarian stance of teachers, who remain impervious to the complexity involved in children’s politics and just punish those she sees being naughty at the time, the work is never preachy. It is informative and engaging, and while it might be a little text heavy for the less-than-11-year-olds in the audience, it offers insight into the National Children’s Theatre opening its doors to teen audiences. Using very clever theatrical devices and a set that could easily be packed into a ordinary car, the work extrapolates on how hard it is to express oneself about as niggly and nuanced an issue as bullying, but also, on how it is never cut and dried and there are seldom obviously punishable baddies in the saga.

There’s an element of violence in the piece which is crafted around a teenaged sensibility: enough to get them surprised to see fighting on stage, but not too much that it becomes an inroad to a behaviour.

The Revealers, tweaked and shifted from its earlier manifestation, on the boards in February, is a tight and compelling but important piece of theatre that has the power to reach into a young bully or victim’s sensibilities.

The Revealers: An Anti-Bullying Play by Doug Wilhelm, adapted and directed by Francois Theron, features design by Stan Knight (set); Jane Gosnell (lighting); and Chriselda Pillay (costumes), and is performed by Taheera April; Shika Budhoo; Gamelihle Bovana; Dhaveshan Govender; Sean Louw; Rhee Manganyi; Nomonde Matiwane; and Letshabang Moshime, at the National Children’s Theatre in Parktown, until August 8.