Blood in the water, a sjambok on the wall

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STAINED sheets and the wrath of Mamma: Frikkie (Zak Hendrikz) and Sussie (Liezl de Kock). Photograph by Jan Potgieter.

THE POTENTIALLY SINISTER and foetid context of what goes on — or used to go on — behind closed farm doors in grim and unbending religious South Africa comes under close and gory scrutiny in Reza de Wet’s riveting tale of incest and dirt, horror and gamesplaying. It’s as much a psychological tale of trauma as it is a foray into really graphic representations of violence, sinister complicity and the space between twisted imagination and terrifying reality. With a sterling cast headed by the inimitable Liezl de Kock as Sussie, the work will bleed into the very interstices of your nightmares, but promises to retain its status as a classic of South African theatre making.

Diepe Grond, the work in its original Afrikaans, saw light of day at the Market Theatre in the mid-1980s and some 30 years later, premised on an English translation of the work by de Wet herself, it doesn’t miss a beat in terms of the grim filth of a mixture between staunch Afrikaans righteousness infiltrated with an unwavering sense of religious value, and a clear understanding of what is evil, juxtaposed with moral values that have had their sanity and their heart torn out by the roots.

Sussie and Frikkie Cilliers (Zak Hendrikz) live in abject filth. There is dirt everywhere. It’s in baking tins and disused food cans and all over the table. You can smell the detritus of their body fluids on the stained mattress, in your mind’s nose, as you look at the careful and rich detail of this set. The chamber pot and the basin of water constitute their bathroom. The nanny, Alina (Thembi Mtshali-Jones) is a maternal yet sinister presence, but she is moulded to fit a traditional understanding of domestic maid in an apartheid South African context. But this is dirt and domesticity with a history that has become frozen by an event.

The set embraces everything, with the dun-coloured screen that allows for shadow against muted light and indicates another room in the house, the raw wood made of what seems to be shards of railways sleepers, and the bed itself. The only anomaly is the shiny surface of part of the construct that seems to contradict the rustic values of the space.

These ruins of what was once a farm house, with the children’s mother and father at its helm is the source of a mysterious and destructive relationship between the family and the dearth of water in the land, as well as a repository for hideous secrets. Which brings Mr Grové (Mpho Osei-Tutu) into the mix. He’s a lawyer, a young black educated man, with a job to do. A will to ratify. Information to relate. He has no idea what he’s in for.

There unfolds the kind of madness that you may recognise from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 film Psycho, which sees the characters becoming caricatures of their parents with the flick of an eyebrow, the lilt of a word, the gut-wrenching depth of a screech of pain. And you may think of Yael Farber’s harrowing Mies Julie that too deals very explicitly with the mess and rot behind farm doors in apartheid South Africa. But African Gothic stands its own ground and leaves you feeling wrecked for other reasons. The stories that are told between these siblings, and the stories that are alluded to present an understanding of abuse and madness that will keep you riveted to your chair, throughout.

Having said all of that, the work is not completely flawless. There is a sound track which seems to operate on a loop, and sinister music interjects in places where the machinations of the performances say it all with much more muscle. While the blood-curdling giggles of hyenas in this sound track work, it is the music which strips the here and now from the piece and forces you to remember that this is just a play. Further to that, it is something as small as hairstyle and a physique that affects some of the energy of this piece. Hendrikz’s hairdo is fashionable and primed, blond, curly and tapered, and it clashes with the values of Frikkie’s context and his abjection. Similarly, his body is ripped. And tanned. And we see much of it, which is not necessarily a thing to complain of – but in the context of Frikkie, you expect something baser, something paler and thinner, something you don’t want to look at, but do, as we see with de Kock.

All in all, the work is a violent firestorm of political emotions which reflect an understanding of the land and of life in the isolated reality of a disused rural farm, where jackals bay and the wind seeps willy nilly through the walls, where the spilling of blood is present everywhere and the innocence of utter cruelty is splayed out like a springbok. It promises to be one of those cultural imperatives that continues to raise the bar in theatre-making in this country.

  • African Gothic is written by Reza de Wet and directed by Alby Michaels. It features design by Oliver Hauser (lighting and audio visual), Sarah Roberts mentoring students (production), Jo Glanville mentoring students (costume and props), Nadine Minnaar (set), Franco Prinsloo (sound), Madeleine Lotter-Viljoen (costume construction), Caitlin de Villiers (props construction) and Christelle van Graan (make up). It was performed by Liezl de Kock, Zak Hendrikz, Thembi Mtshali-Jones and Mpho Osei-Tutu in a brief season at the University of Johannesburg’s Con Cowan Theatre. This represents phase four of a 13-month project; the fifth phase promises to see the work hosted on national and international stages in 2018/9.
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Roll up! Roll up! White-faced dark tales for the brave

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WHAT say you, my fine zucchini? Michelle Douglas in Couplet. Photograph courtesy NAF.

THE HIGHLY POWDERED corpse-white face which seems to be disconnected from anything else, pokes through shimmering curtains. It has red cheeks and blackened eye-holes, a startling grimace and a proclivity to spew rhyming lines from its mouth with abandon and complexity. This malleable and mesmerising face sets the tone for Steven Feinstein’s two-hander which tells dark and chilling tales, all cast in rhyming couples. Michelle Douglas – the owner of the face in question – brings to this work which conflates Burlesque and Vaudeville with sleight of hand and Victorian grotesqueries, a sparkly sense of how the tales twist, and from the get-go, it seems as though you’ve stepped into a dinkum PT Barnum experience.

From fearful Freddie to the girl who couldn’t tell a truth, to the tale of Vincent who lived in a world of heartlessness, to the plight of two nasty homeless thoughts and some zucchini narratives, the stories are frisky and bleak in their engagement with evildoings and bad stuff. It might make you think you’ve mistakenly stepped into the Scaffolds’ madcap 1968 song, Lily the Pink, based as it was on a 19th century ballad, framed on the life of a famous concoctor called Lydia Pinkham. But this is no explication of a medicinal compound, it’s a leap and a hop into a world of evilness under the aegis of bawdry, humour, a lot of make up and dresses containing hoops and much cleavage. And indeed, the genre classically points itself to an element of rude meanderings and sexual innuendos, which Couplet doesn’t engage with here, a fact which might lead you to believe it’s a show more for young people than seasoned grown up theatre-goers.

Spiced with fantastic artifice and delightful masks, the work tries hard, but the problem is that you sit there, old or young though you may be, grasping for crispness, and holding on to every rhythm with expectation, so tightly, that the language loses its edge. Given that the nimbleness of a show like this depends on the language, it’s a big blow for the work’s charm. You might think rhyming couplets and believe you can experience predictable rhyme with unpredictable words inserted in hilarious places, but sadly, you don’t get this here. And the laughs don’t come as plentifully as you might wish.

The stories have great potential, but there are many of them and they twist and curve around one another in ways that might leave you so dizzy that you forget what belongs to whom. Rather than telling one story from beginning to end, Douglas and Julie-Anne McDowell, her partner in crime, concatenate them, which leads to bits of scary boys and girls peeking into stories which are not their own.

With a delicious use of masks and puppetry, the work is candy for the eyes, and that powdered face of Douglas’s is its magic ingredient, but the work in entirety might leave you wanting more tightness, as well as a push a tad stronger against those boundaries of permissiveness.

  • Couplet is written by Michelle Douglas and directed by Steven Feinstein. It features design by Feinstein (production), Oliver Hauser (lighting), Lien van der Linde and Christelle van Graan (puppets and masks), Sandy Muller (costumes), Rob Joseph (sets) and Jahn Beukes (music) and is performed by Michelle Douglas and Julie-Anne McDowell until October 28 at the Auto and General Theatre on the Square in Sandton. Call 011 883-8606 or visit http://www.theatreonthesquare.co.za

One for the werewolf in your wardrobe

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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

Mind the gap: an essay on elegant dishonesty

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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 by Jan Potgieter, 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

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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