One for the werewolf in your wardrobe

IrmaVep

DON’T stint on the smiles, my dear: Jane, the maid (Jonathan Roxmouth) and Lady Edna, her new madam (Weslee Swain Lauder). Photograph courtesy Montecasino.

FEEL LIKE AN evening of manners and frippery, ghosts and howling wolves, complicated hairstyles and seriously big dresses? The Mystery of Irma Vep has something for everyone, and it’s a slick, quick and deliciously fine production that will keep you laughing for months.

The Pieter Toerien theatre has become known for staging crisp and fabulous farce, but this piece of theatre ramps things up considerably. Mashing together the notion of the Victorian penny dreadful with Charles Ludlam’s inimitable approach to the ridiculous, in an utterly over the top two-hander, which offers not a little sleight of hand magic in the wardrobe department, The Mystery of Irma Vep is utterly brilliant. The performances of Weslee Swain Lauder and Jonathan Roxmouth beg comparison with those of no less than Michael Caine and Sir Lawrence Olivier in the fabulous 1970s film, Sleuth.

It’s a mad little yarn involving many things that go bump in the night, as well as a maid of a Victorian manor who has a couple of unexplainable talents and a hairdo to match. She’s obliged to serve the manor’s new mistress, one Lady Edna, of whom she isn’t awfully fond. There’s a painting with a weird aura, a werewolf or two, an oddly sinister ragamuffin manservant with a wooden leg called Nicodemus as well as some anagrams to spice things up. And of course, as the genre demands, there’s a foray into Egyptian tombs, a couple of jagged chases around the auditorium, and a delicious peppering of sound effects. Not to forget an unforgettably terrible improvisation for dulcimer and recorder which is so bad that it is fabulous, and some wigs and costumes that have so much personality, they should be listed on the cast list. But that’s not all: Lady Edna’s facial expression in times of great horror blends faux high drama with the ludicrous so finely, it deserves programme credits of its own. In short, this production is exactly what the doctor ordered.

Think of Mary Shelley’s Dracula, with the earnestness contorted into utmost hilarity, and the characters drawn at the bizarre and pants-wettingly funny tilt of caricatures emphasised to the hilt, and you might get a sense of the fun that is to be had as you discover the unrolling mystery of Irma Vep. But be warned: you will be lost in your own laughter way before the plot grabs you by its own tale. It’s a convoluted one, but it doesn’t matter. The work is so crisply constructed, and utterly flawless, it just doesn’t miss a beat. Clocking in at about ten minutes too long, it’s a theatrical experience in which you may find your face begins to ache as a result of too much laughter, but the funny never stops.

  • The Mystery of Irma Vep: A Penny Dreadful is written by Charles Ludlam and directed by Elizma Badenhorst. It features creative input by Wessel Odendaal (composer and sound design), Pierre du Plessis (wardrobe), Oliver Hauser (lighting) and Nadine and Louis Minnaar (Set), and is performed by Weslee Swain Lauder and Jonathan Roxmouth at the Pieter Toerien Theatre, Montecasino, Fourways, until July 30 and at the Theatre on the Bay, Cape Town, August 3-19. Visit pietertoerien.co.za
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Mind the gap: an essay on elegant dishonesty

betrayal

AWKWARD reminiscences: Jerry (Tom Fairfoot) and Emma (Carly Graeme) meet in a pub. Photograph by Philip Kuhn.

IT’S THE SILENCES and gaps between words and the construction of the unspoken beat in this intriguing Pinter work, that lends it its potency and dramatic verve, but it is this potency mixed with extremely classy performances, an understated set and an unequivocal elegance that gives it the edge that keeps you focused. However, as the play reaches closure, you might question yourself as to whether there can be such a thing as just too much elegance and too many manners.

And as the name dictates, Betrayal is a tale of complicity and untruths. Of secrets and lies. And of revelations.  Emma (Carly Graeme) is married to Robert (Antony Coleman). She’s a gallerist. He’s an editor of a poetry journal. They have two small children.

And for a period of seven years, Emma has had a lover. He knows. Her husband, that is. She knows he knows. But does the lover know she knows he knows? Without the classic English understatedness, this narrative could descend into farcical humour, but it’s kept tight and succinct, demure and hilarious in its own capacity.

We meet Emma and Jerry (Tom Fairfoot) in a pub. They’re excruciatingly awkward with one another, but as they hem and haw and blurt out long sentences of memories of their friendship, and then retract them, you quickly realise this was no ordinary association. Love came into the mix.

But then it left.

This is a tale of how men and women dialogue over the deed of love, sex and relationships. It’s beautiful in its elegance, somewhat anachronistic in its costume choices – this is, after all, a period between 1968 and 1977 as the projection tells us – and the clothes the characters wear are a lot more refined than the period dictated. That said, the Bauhaus-style furnishings that quietly comprise the set are as fitting and as versatile as necessary: they’re just right.

One of the biggest challenges of a play of this nature is the danger of the work descending into blandness. Indeed, once you’ve figured out all the different levels of betrayal articulated from scene to scene, there seems little else, and the plot is exactly that – an unravelling of several intrigues. Looking at it in this capacity, the conclusion of the piece seems unsatisfying: but this is less a criticism of the work invested in it than a reflection of the original.

What happens next after the philandering partners have owned up? Why, that’s another whole story, you might suggest. Betrayal is an elegant, eminently watchable and utterly competent work to watch.

  • Betrayal is written by Harold Pinter and directed by Greg Homann. It features design by Homann (set) and Oliver Hauser (lighting), is performed by Antony Coleman, Jose Domingos, Tom Fairfoot and Carly Graeme until July 1 at the Auto and General Theatre on the Square in Sandton. Call 011 883-8606 or visit http://www.theatreonthesquare.co.za

Hypocrisy’s crowning glory

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A heady mix of irreverence, theatricality placed in a set simple in its magnificence, that is ramped up all the way and features contrivance pushed to the giddy hilt, Tartuffe is a tightly focused, beautifully choreographed tribute to Molière, which indulges in such an array of over-the-top shenanigans, you become embroiled in the madness and don’t want it to end.

Featuring actors physically large and small, from Vanessa Cooke as the maid Dorine to Neil McCarthy as Orgon, the beguiled father of the house, it’s an impeccable celebration of overstated gesture, eavesdropping and intrigue in the face of utter unabashed hypocrisy. A tale which enjoyed credence in the 17th century, it remains remarkably prescient in contemporary culture: Tartuffe (Craig Morris) is the charlatan smarmily secreted in the church’s moral values for his own benefit. He slips into the confidence, the heart and the intimate family values of Orgon, to almost devastating – but utterly hilarious – effect. But fear not, there’s a grim and sinister twist in the tale that lends it a devilish tone.

There are some strange anachronisms in the language:  the work was originally written in rhyming couplets and has by and large been translated as such in this version. This is a quality which sometimes causes the flow of the poetic metre to stumble and feel uncomfortable. Nevertheless the couplets that do work and the clarity of their articulation will hold you focused and keep you staving off your own laughter, because the hairpin turns of the plot need to be heard to be properly appreciated.

Capitalising on the physical attributes of her cast, director Sylvaine Strike works like a true caricaturist, making the simple gesture of walking up three steps into a sonata, and the act of crossing one’s legs a sonnet.  Indeed, Madame Pernelle, played by Morris is virtually all mouth, and her presence evokes Lewis Carroll’s Queen of Hearts, to excruciatingly funny proportions. Monsieur Loyal, the lawyer, played by William Harding, takes immoderate to another whole level with his size, his sausage and his utterly ingratiating quality which might call up characters such as Dickens’s Uriah Heep, in your mind’s eye.

The music, which represents a pastiche of sound and tunes from the 1920s, is, however, too heavy handed in its approach and it does tend to crush the scenes it infiltrates, jarring and bouncing off the venue’s walls at times. The heaviness of the sound is balanced with acuity with the madly flexible bodies of the cast, however, and this tale of hypocrisy and love, sex and trust is something you wont want to drag yourself away from.

  • Tartuffe is written by Molière, translated from the French by Richard Wilbur and directed by Sylvaine Strike. It features creative input by Sasha Ehlers and Chen Nakar (set), Sasha Ehlers (costume), Oliver Hauser (lighting), Dean Barrett (music composition) and Owen Lonzar (choreography). It is performed by Adrian Alper, Vanessa Cooke, Khutjo Green, William Harding, Vuyelwa Maluleke, Neil McCarthy, Craig Morris, Anele Situlweni and Camilla Waldman at the Fringe, Joburg Theatre, Braamfontein, until June 25. Visit tartuffe.co.za

The terrifying secrets that bind us

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LOVE and loss in Lebanon: Wahab (Mpho Osei-Tutu) with Nawal (Ilse Klink). Photograph courtesy artslink.co.za

SOUTH AFRICAN AUDIENCES are not generally privy to strong theatre works that engage meaningfully with a Middle Eastern narrative, clean of the clutter of political positioning. Standard Bank Young Artist for 2016, Jade Bowers, brings you Scorched a play written by Wajdi Mouawad in 2003 and in many respects, the narrative muscle of this work holds it all together. Beautifully written, it is a complex tale of the atrocity of war, the bond of family and the immutability of maths, cast in the Lebanon wars of the 1970s that presents hairpin narrative twists and turns in its denouement that will simultaneously frighten and replenish you.

With an ingenuous and haunting pared down set, featuring an astonishing fine use of suitcases and red thread that demonstrate a foray into not only the predicament of the alien, but also into the ritual of burial itself, set designer Nadine Minnaar presents an eloquent, sophisticated reflection on what it means to be a civil war refugee. Death and the inability to belong, are issues that are allowed to segue together magnificently in the manipulation of the suitcases, which become so much more than repositories of possessions.

Further, Bowers has cast a guitar and mandarin player in the form of Matthew MacFarlane who lends the work the precise, gentle and sometimes witty interplay of sound and texture that makes the piece sing and never forces it to bend in the direction of fashionable harsh electronic sound that would have crippled the delicate dynamics at play here.

But beyond all of these elements, Scorched boasts a script replete with the kind of rich and subtle weaving of contemporary narrative with legendary notions that filters through the novels of Turkish writer and Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk, playing with the preciousness of ancient tales and giving them a relevance you can taste like blood on your lips. It’s a mix of values that makes your head spin as you are plummeted into the rich aesthetic of Middle Eastern story-making.

Sadly, most of Bowers’s cast of seven, a couple of days into the work’s brief Johannesburg season, seemed to be trying so hard in shouting out their words and overacting, that this almost three-hour long work becomes rather bamboozling. There is a great focus on the minutiae of travel and conversational details, which feel like they muddy the flow of the story, at times.

But then, you get sucked into the plight of Nawal Marwan (Ilse Klink), a woman who has loved and lost and held quietly to terrible secrets. You lose yourself in how this character has been scripted, and how her twin children, Janine (Cherae Halley) and Simon (Jaques de Silva) deal with the mysteries of her life, but it is the harshness of the set which seems to come back to bite the work ultimately.

With the exception of Halley’s genteel and focused performance, and some moments of singing by Ameera Patel, so utterly refined that it makes your hair stand on end, the characters, embodying a multitude of roles, seem to be attempting to compensate for the emptiness of the set, by making unnecessarily grand gestures with their bodies and often shouting in a way that hurts the subtleties of this beautifully evolved and emotionally devastating work.

It’s a pity – this piece brings together some of the cream of South African theatre talent, including Klink and Mpho Osei-Tutu, but they seem to struggle with the rather brutal concrete space that the theatre offers.

  • Scorched is written by Wajdi Mouawad and directed by Jade Bowers. It features design by Nadine Minnaar (set), Oliver Hauser (lighting), Camille Behrens (costume construction) and Matthew MacFarlane (music) and is performed by Gopala Davies, Jaques de Silva, Cherae Halley, Ilse Klink, Mpho Osei-Tutu, Ameera Patel and Bronwyn van Graan at the University of Johannesburg, in Auckland Park until August 5. Visit jadebowers.com

 

Polished fireworks for ballerinos and plastic girls

The Last Attitude - Mamela Nyamza- photo by John Hogg_ (2)

ME AND MY PLASTIC GIRL: Mamela Nyamza in The Last Attitude. Photograph: John Hogg

Silence is a complicated medium to use in contemporary dance. As is ballet. Particularly if it is being put under a rich loupe filtered with a deep understanding of gender binaries, 19th century European frills and trills and crazy little mannerisms that have become something looked up to with God-fearing respect by loyal audiences.

Veteran dancers who both started their careers in classical ballet, close to 20 years ago, Nelisiwe Xaba and Mamela Nyamza have pooled their considerable energies, talents and inner fires to create a fantastic piece of deeply polished work that unashamedly and relentlessly rips into the vulnerable underbelly of European culture and all the pretentious nuances it represents. They do so with the kind of sophistication, savvy and wisdom that doesn’t rubbish or disrespect the genre, but instead holds it – and our society – up to a telling and incisive mirror.

The Last Attitude teases out an understanding of the role of both genders in classical favourites like Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, Don Quixote and La Bayadère, and in doing so, it makes biting fun of the insipid, almost ghoulish female ensemble, and the emotionally piffling but physically taxing role of the male leads, but there’s a twist in the tale that opens up questions about gender and to a lesser extent, race, most compellingly.

European classical ballet brings with it relentless rules and a sense of order which is respected by dancers across the board as the most rigorous and fundamental training. Many of them have been outspoken in describing it as the best formative structure a dancer can get. But it brings with something else, that is equally rigid: Gender binaries. Whether you are a boy or a girl, ballet has a very specific uniform and characterisation for you. If you’re neither all boy nor all girl, but have a talent and a yearning for the discipline, what do you do?

While The Last Attitude has the kind of levity and wisdom that keeps even the most restless of audience members focused, it never stoops into a sense of victimhood: Taking a reflection on the politeness of ballet and ripping it to haunting shreds, Nyamza and Xaba are effectively doing what France-based performance artist Steven Cohen did in 2000 – only they’re working from within the ballet conventions and not from a position of “undance”.

They’re working from within the safety of the formal stage and not constructing their piece as dance guerrillas, and yet, the fierceness and the antagonism toward a whole litany of tradition that they articulate with their bodies, their costumes, their plastic mannequins and their gestures is made of the same kind of dynamite as Cohen’s.

The Last Attitude is an important work, not only for Dance Umbrella, but for the genre of contemporary dance. Along the lines of what Dada Masilo is doing in her oeuvre with the questioning, twisting and stretching of great classics, this work opens doors, asks questions and throws out exclamations. And yes, it’s very technical in how it is rendered, but the mesmerising presence of both dancers is simultaneously so pointed and poised that you hesitate to breathe as it might break the work’s impeccable silences.

  • The Last Attitude is choreographed and performed by Nelisiwe Xaba and Mamela Nyamza. It features work by Boyzie Cekwana (dramaturge), Oliver Hauser (lighting design), Carlo Gibson (costumes) and music by Tchaikovsky and Minkus. It is also performed by Amy de Wet, Samkelisiwe Dlamini, Megan Gottscho, Nthabiseng Modau, Jade Morey, Chanelle Olivier, Nicole Oriana, Kemelo Sehlapelo and Celia van Tonders. It performs at the Dance Factory in Newtown, until February 28, as part of Dance Umbrella 2016. Visit danceforumsouthafrica.co.za

Siva: Seven layers of dance perfection under Sidiya’s capable hand

Magnetic: Julia Burnham in Siva. Photograph courtesy cue.ru.ac.za

Magnetic: Julia Burnham in Siva. Photograph courtesy cue.ru.ac.za

You are led into the space by a series of lit thick short candles, evocative of the memorial-imbued candles of Jewish tradition. You encounter a woman being washed by another, in a ritual context that is achingly intimate even though it is cast in the thick of audience traffic. From this point, an emotional stillness is evoked; it is something that is carried through the duration of this exquisite piece, with respect and dignity, fire and heart.

As Siva, this year’s Standard Bank Young Artist work for dance choreographed by Luyanda Sidiya, unfolds, bringing together isiXhosa words, flames and some of the most extraordinary physical manoeuvring you might have ever seen, so something remarkable takes place. The work is premised on an understanding of godhead and religious ritual. The number seven features significantly in the work’s iconography.

It was conceived and birthed through the input and energy of both Moving Into Dance Mophatong under the leadership of Sylvia Glasser and Vuyani Dance Theatre, under the leadership of Gregory Maqoma, and here is the resolution of a dance language that melds African traditional aesthetic with contemporary dance rhetoric, taking the values of Glasser’s Afrofusion to a new level.

The work is enervating to look at: it sweeps you body and soul into its complex vortex as it stretches the notion of physical and anatomical possibility. The dancers become like magicians, drawing back to the roots of art making, as they segue with one another, in sequences that will make your head spin.

But more than all of this is the astonishing astuteness which with the work is created. It’s a large cast, comprising ten dancers and an ensemble of three musicians on stage. Like line work in a beautifully made drawing, each component of this work has his or her own place, there is no sense of messy collaboration, and yet, the whole is as complex and imposing as the intricate work of a grand orchestra.

And while each dancer operates with scalpel-like intensity, it is the performance and stage presence of Julia Burnham which sets the work on fire and captures its sense of magic, completely. Already quite a seasoned performer, demonstrating a great and brave repertoire for a diversity of approaches and a willingness to cock a snoot at boundaries, Burnham has, in this work, clearly come of age. She grabs your eye with a ferocity that doesn’t allow you to properly focus on the other dancers, even when she is at apparent rest. It has something to do with her immense sense of physical beauty and vulnerability, something to do with the utter skill in which she intertwines between her colleagues and lavishes within the movement and the sound.

And the sound is the other magic ingredient. Like the inimitable tenor and soprano saxophone of Norwegian Jan Garbarek, the music slithers in and out of the choreography, offering an understanding of dance and music and the magic in between that will haunt you, relentlessly.

The season for this magnificent piece was painfully short. It’s booked to travel to China in November. But between now and then, there are seasons pencilled in: seeing this piece should be a cultural imperative on anyone’s agenda. It will change your life.

  • Siva is choreographed and directed by Luyanda Sidiya. It features design by Xolisile Bongwana (musical direction); Gerard Bester (dramaturge); Oliver Hauser (lighting); Fried Wilsenach (sound) and Andrew Chandler (costumes). It is danced by Xolisile Bongwana, Julia Burnham, Roseline Keppler, Peter Lenso, Lulu Mlangeni, Phumlani Mndebele, Otto Nhlapo, Phumlani Nyanga, Nomasonto Radebe and Edwin Ramoba, and features performances by musicians Phosho Lebese, Tebogo Mokoena and Mpumi Nhlapo at the John Kani Theatre, Market Theatre complex, August 12-16. Watch this space for announcements of other seasons for this work.

Lulu’s Page 27 casts crepuscular rays on woman

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Just when you think you know who’s hot and who’s not in contemporary dance, just when you’re catching your breath after Dance Umbrella, there comes a showcase work so utterly perfect, that all the parameters shift and you’re privileged to see the bar being raised again. Lulu Mlangeni is back on our stages, and it’s reason enough to celebrate.

Mlangeni hasn’t been on the headlines of dance in the last couple of years. She’s not one of the usual suspects in the litany of dance, and while she’s a senior dancer with Vuyani Dance Theatre, she’s diversified her talents, earning accolades in spheres as diverse as the Naledi Awards, So You Think You Can Dance and Dance Umbrella.

This brand new work, Page 27 is quite simply, astonishing. It’s a diptych, featuring Mlangeni herself in the first part, and the VDT ensemble in the second part. Loosely, it speaks of South African women and the torsion and bruising and breaking they have faced through the challenges of apartheid and in a society scarred by domestic abuse and homophobia. It’s a focus on a 27-page journal, and the celebration of Mlangeni’s 27th year of life.

It casts a moving nod in the direction of Miriam Makeba and Winnie Madikizela Mandela, as it casts a fearsomely fine glance at the universal woman, imprisoned and beaten, victorious and traditional, in a skirt that is a mix of Xhosa fabric and camouflage fatiques and beads that splay traditions old and new, without ever being disrespectful or boring. Mlangeni is oddly androgynous at times, and overwhelmingly feminine at others. She becomes impossible to describe as she flexes and streamlines herself against the very present shafts of light, like God’s fingers through a cloud.

Using text and light as though they are tangible substances, the work is muscular and disarmingly tight, running in satisfying correlation with the music. There are choreographed fight sequences to rival those by Sunnyboy Motau and Rachel Erdos, which we saw a few weeks ago on Dance Umbrella, and there is a reflection of a love-hate dichotomy that is so sophisticated, it transcends verbal description. This is the kind of dance that South African dance audiences deserve: it is beautiful and thoughtful, wise and outrageous, without stooping to foolish gimmicks or obscurity. There is an underlying astuteness in the material: while you are aware of the directorial hand of Luyanda Sidiya you will fight to catch your breath in watching the flow of bodies, light and music. And in the end, the tears and the sweat on your cheeks will be indistinguishable.

This show deserves a full house every night of its too-brief season.

  • Page 27, directed and mentored by Luyanda Sidiya, is choreographed by Lulu Mlangeni and performed by Mlangeni and the ensemble for Vuyani Dance Theatre: Julia Burnham, Roseline Keppler, Peter Lenso, Phumlani Life Mndebele, Otto Andile Nhlapo, Phumlani Nyanga and Keaoleboga Shadrack Seodigeng. It is designed by Oliver Hauser (lighting), Veronica Sham (costumes) and Wesley Mabizela (musical arrangements), using work by Dustin O’Hallaran, Steve Reich and Atomos VII. It performs at the John Kani Theatre, Market Theatre complex in Newtown, Johannesburg, until April 5. 011 832 1641.