Hillbrow’s people, great and small

Young@Home

CELEBRATING the Gogo in a flurry of love. Young@Home, photographed by Mark Straw.

THERE’S A VERY precious kind of gem being honed in the poor suburb of Hillbrow, which without Pollyanna high-jinks or saccharine overstatement, has the potency and power to literally change the world. Young@Home is an initiative which, like Donkey Child, a couple of years ago, is parented by the Hillbrow Theatre, and like Donkey Child features the melding of skills and experience great and small, and what you get out of it ultimately is a theatre experience so cogent and rich that it reaches right back to the sacred roots of what theatre-making is about, for the community, with the community and by the community.

It’s an assemblage of real stories, melding a cast of young people and one of old people:  the elderly on stage are residents of the Tswelopele Frail Care Centre, which is in Hillbrow and the children on stage are members of the Hillbrow Theatre Project. While you might anticipate a bit of a Christmas pudding of a show, given the wide range of amateur performers, and the largeness of the cast on stage, it’s not what you get. This community-centred cast is honed and shaped into a level of poetic articulation, by the work’s creative team, and whether or not you understand the languages used to tell the stories, almost becomes irrelevant: there’s a flow of energy and empathy between the nubile young people with their white costumes and red scarves, and the frail old ones in a dignified black and white, which articulates that give and take between generations that makes the world turn.

As tempo and volume, song and layering of words infiltrates the piece, the sway and rhythm of narrative is allowed to unfold, allowing everyone – from the Tswelopele resident who is confined to a wheelchair yet tells her tales and sings, to the one who flits silently through the choreography, her arms outstretched, like a small and determined, yet crumpled bird – a place in this narrative that matters.

It’s the kind of show that will touch you very deeply. Advocacy theatre at its most profound, like Sibikwa and other projects addressing and giving voice to the poorest of the poor, Young@Home has artistic integrity, but also presents a value for society at large that is real and filled with the texture that makes us all human and skirts and confronts the meaning and sense of theatre at its core. This is a theatre experience that will change the world, if it’s given the chance; it’s something you should include among what you consider a ‘must-see’.

  • Young@Home is told by the cast, written by Jefferson Tshabalala assisted by Phana Dube and directed by Gcebile Dlamini consulted by Peter DuPont Weiss. It features design by Sonia Radebe and Nhlanhla Mahlangu (choreography and music), João Orecchia (soundscape), Gcebile Dlamini (set) and Phana Dube (lighting). It has a cast from the Hillbrow Theatre Project: Nonjabulo Chauke, Rendani Dlamini, Nyiko Kubayi, Violet Ledwaba, Sbusiso Nkosi Mabethu, Brandon Magengele, Tisetso Masilo, Amahle Mene, Zinhle Mnguni, Jackson Moqotlane, Lesley Mosweu, Dakalo Mulaudzi, Abongiwe Ndlovu, Lihlithemba Ngcobo, Prince Nyathi, Aminathi Radebe, Surprice Seete and Bayanda Junior Xolo; and a cast from the Twelopele Frail Care Centre: Harry Card, Florah Nkoana, Benjamin Pule, Milton Sibiya, Adelaide Tukuta, Vicky Walker and Themba Xaba. It opened on April 1 at the Hillbrow Theatre, and travels to the Olive Tree Theatre in Alex on April 3 at 2pm; to the South Rand Recreation Centre on April 4 at 10am; to POPArt Theatre, Maboneng on April 8 at 3pm, to the Drama For Life Conference at Wits University on May 6 and to the Assitej World Congress and International Theatre Festival for Children and Young People in Cape Town on May 23-24. Visit facebook.com/HillbrowTheatreProject or call 011 720 7011.
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How to spice Christmas with shlock, shock and socks

cyrilandshirley

GETTING on like a house on fire: Son and mother, Cyril Dene (Robert Colman) and Shirley (Toni Morkel). Photograph by Dean Hutton.

THE YEAR’S BEEN grim, callous and ugly to most of us. We’ve lost people we’ve loved. And jobs we’ve relied on. War’s been apparent all over the place. As has disappointment in those who lead us. What better way to herald its closure than to indulge in easily the best nativity play you can imagine. Taking the earnestness from the tale and sprinkling it liberally with cabaret, intimate drunken mother/gay son dialogue and other fine spices, this nativity was a sock puppet drama, with schlock and shock ramped up all the way.

Arguably a character who is set to become iconic in South Africa is Sheila Shler. Last month, wig askew, lipstick smeared, but her posh Saxonwold accent still intact, she reported to facebook audiences from the SQs (servants’ quarters) of her grand estate, announcing that her (former) maid, Tryfeena had captured her house and moved her to the servants’ quarters while she slept. It was a tale constructed by veteran performer Robert Colman, contingent on the ‘Saxonwold shebeen’ saga spouted by Brian Molefe formerly of Eskom in his urge to prove himself clean of a Gupta stain, but that’s another whole story.

Sheila has since begun to enjoy a series, which is developing as we speak. And a family. Of sorts. While she did do a guest appearance in the nativity saga, involving baking and boogying, it was Sheila’s very very good friend, Shirley (Toni Morkel) and her son Cyril Dene (Robert Colman) who hosted the delicious revue. Confused yet? Well, you shouldn’t be.

This collaboration by unquestionably the country’s greatest veteran performers, in their sparkly slingbacks, double-decker wigs and bathing suits, to say nothing of long plastic eyelashes, as they lip synced perfectly to opera and delved with grubby issues of old age, sex and death most deliciously, was simply fantastic. It was a slice of Doo Bee Boobies and a soupçon of what might happen next in Sheila Shler’s life. And it was replete with many hilarious cherries on top, including a performance by the inimitable Irene Stephanou as Jesus’ granny with a strong Greek accent, who resents being omitted from the bible; the unforgettable Christine by Mark Hawkins who has terrifyingly dead eyes and other surprises; and a reflection on Welkom as being a little piece of hell for the aged, by Fiona Ramsay and Tony Bentel (who played Death).

With repartee as filthy and direct as is necessary and puppetry by Margaret Auerbach and Eduardo Cachucho that had the audience bordering on hysteria, there were nubs of poignancy and reality that pierced the show and lent it heart. You didn’t just go away with a grin hurting from too frequent use. Cyril and Shirley’s Sock Puppet Nativity and Xmas Variety Show has the potential of being a trailblazer in a whole range of directions, from Stephanou’s Jesus granny tearing into biblical narrative a la Kazantzakis  and his Last Temptation of Christ, to Sheila Shler’s ongoing tale of woe as a beacon showing the other side of what is happening in this country. This was a one-night-only event, but if there’s a chance it will regenerate itself come the end of 2017, there’s certainly something to look forward to in the year ahead!

  • Cyril and Shirley’s Sock Puppet Nativity and Xmas variety show was written, directed and performed by Robert Colman and Toni Morkel. It featured puppetry Margaret Auerbach and Spellbound Puppets, as well as performances by Tony Bentel, Mark Hawkins, Roberto Pombo, Fiona Ramsay, Irene Stephanou. It performed for a one-night-only season at Pop Arts theatre, Maboneng precinct, downtown Johannesburg on December 15. Visit popartcentre.co.za

When the Old and the Beautiful becomes the Dark and the Lovely

Doing it in the dark: Tony Bentel on the piano, with Fiona Ramsay on vocals. Photograph by Germaine De Larch.

Doing it in the dark: Tony Bentel on the piano, with Fiona Ramsay on vocals. Photograph by Germaine De Larch.

Picture the scenario: the scene is cast, with a fabulous director, a seasoned duo of performers and a tuned piano. Chairs are placed, the tone is set. And then the power goes down. “It’s scheduled!” yell some. “It’s not!” yell others. But still, it’s dark as pitch, and the show’s about to start.

This is what happened for the opening performance of the second season of The Old and the Beautiful, tonight, a song and piano work which tears apart and glories what it means to age. And in spite of incipient darkness, acts of God or other irritating lurgies, the show must always go on, and it did: against the velvety blackness of the night, the wavering harsh circle of a torch or two and in the glow of some strategically placed candles, the performers gave a very privileged audience a taste of the full production.

It was perfect. Glorying in the gravelly, ‘telegram from hell’ kind of work of Marianne Faithfull, the breathless and breathtaking ‘Maybe this time’ from the 1972 film of Cabaret and a piece from the rich experimental heady days of Johannesburg’s Market Theatre, the work is funny and subtle and humble with its self-deprecating pizzazz moments, but one in which the centre is firmly cast with a great deal of soul. And a hefty dollop of cynicism.

Watching this in the dark with the performers – Fiona Ramsay on vocals and Tony Bentel on piano – unable to rest on any gimmicks by way of amplification and lighting, you realise the value of true commitment to a discipline. And it makes you shiver. And weep.

Nine years ago, in 2005, a production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, featuring Bill Flynn as Bottom, suffered a similar indignity. It was load-shedding season at the time and half way through the work, the power was out and pandemonium began to break out in the theatre. But the tale wasn’t allowed to end with disgruntled audience members blindly feeling their way home. No: director Dorothy Ann Gould clapped her hands and announced that the show would go on, in the garden. It was a midsummer’s night. And the magic was real.

Similarly, the Old and the Beautiful began its December season with priceless and classy aplomb. It’s a true gem of a work, bringing together the considerable talents of Bentel and Ramsay. You might not be privileged enough to see it in the utter dark, but see it, you should: a delicate and gritty reflection on the fabric that make us all human and vulnerable.

The Old and the Beautiful is compiled and performed by Fiona Ramsay and Tony Bentel and directed by Janna Ramos-Violante. It performs at POP Arts, Maboneng, in central Johannesburg, until December 7.

Oh, father!

Huddled together, the three basement bound sisters in Father Father Father (from top) Roberto Pombo is Sonya, Joni Barnard is Lucy, and Rachael Neary is Marcy. Photograph by Ellen Cherry.

Huddled together, the three basement-bound sisters in Father Father Father (from top) Roberto Pombo is Sonya, Joni Barnard is Lucy, and Rachael Neary is Marcy. Photograph by Ellen Cherry.

Take three sisters. Clad them in severe black lace tops, white skirts and insufferable black tresses. Cast around them a vague tale of a missing father, an ever-absent black horse and tuna crumbs. And put vulgar hysteria and arbitrary cruelty into their mouths and souls, and you will have what amounts to Father, Father, Father, a collaborative work which might make you question the value of driving to downtown Johannesburg.

Horror and cruelty are interesting elements to depict onstage. They’re a bit like showing sex: the more that’s implied, the sexier it is. The more that’s shown, the more ridiculous it can become. Father, Father, Father treats all those potentially fascinating notions of mental illness, sinister intent, horror and pain with as much subtlety as a blunt instrument deployed by a hefty child. The work lacks tonality or nuance, and its consistent off-key-ness makes it lose impact.

These three sinister girls would work honed into a vignette in a larger story. They make you think of Dickens’ Miss Haversham, or Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca or the mad woman in Jane Eyre, played out and touched upon by their respective authors with a great sense of wariness, leaving you, as the reader, or the audience to deal with your own horrors in conjuring up these scary women.

Film director Stanley Kubrick achieved this with split second extreme horror in his 1980 film The Shining: there are twin girls in that tale who have screen presence for maybe four seconds, but whose impact lasts a viewer a lifetime.

All this wisdom is missing from Father, Father, Father: instead we see everything about Sonya (Roberto Pombo), Marcy (Rachael Neary) and Lucy (Joni Barnard) and very little of it hangs with conviction, savvy or sophistication. There’s too much screaming and running about. Too much bald cruelty and no back story.

If you’re past the age of believing in the value of blunt scariness, you might feel you’re too old to see theatre of this nature. With a sniff of Chekhov, a poke at narratives of abuse and a whisper at Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty, Father, Father, Father is the kind of play that makes you wish this theatre auditioned work with greater stringency before they presented it to the public.

It lacks convincing narrative, a meaningful denouement, and above all, a sense of balance. The story is a roly-poly display of too much guttural emotion with no evidence of strategy or beauty. And the use of the piercing scream is the clincher: rather than tilting at genuine scariness, its potential to disturb factor sways toward the deeply annoying and you may find yourself edging to the exit before the play finishes.

Father, Father, Father is conceived, written and performed by Joni Barnard, Rachael Neary and Roberto Pombo and directed by Toni Morkel. It enjoyed a four day season at POP Arts in the Maboneng Precinct, downtown Johannesburg during November.

Gross Indecency will make you laugh till you weep

Rita Haywire (Robert Colman) and Lana Turna-me-over (Robert Whitehead) giving it stick in their spoofed up radio-drama, Gross Indecency. Photograph courtesy POP Arts.

Rita Haywire (Robert Colman) and Lana Turna-me-over (Robert Whitehead) giving it stick in their spoofed up radio-drama, Gross Indecency. Photograph courtesy POP Arts.

If you need a bit of a tonic to set you on your feet again, Gross Indecency might be just the thing. It’s loud, it’s crude and it wields a strong and hilarious attack on the stupidity of homophobic bigots.

Featuring Robert Whitehead – aka Barker Haines in Isidingo – opposite Robert Colman, as Lana Turna-me-over and Rita Haywire, respectively, it’s billed as the true story of a big party in Forest Town, a larny suburb of Johannesburg, in 1966.

Gross Indecency is not your typical drag act, though it’s littered with words and phrases in queer slang or Gayle – described by Ken Cage as the language of Kinks and Queens – as well as all kinds of complicated and delicious references to gay stereotypes and metaphors.

A gloriously complicated story of discrimination and lasciviousness, where the characters change roles as they change sunglasses, it’s spoofed on radio theatre, decorated with several glorious dollops of nostalgia and brought to pants-wettingly funny incongruities, which don’t stop throughout its just over an hour’s duration. Featuring characters as hateful and fantastic as legal counsel Morris Finger opposite psychiatrist Shirley Cochran, Balthazar John Vorster, one of South Africa’s former State Presidents, and some cops with shady Bloemfontein-based histories, it’s doesn’t stop for an instant in its unravelling of a rich and brocaded reflection of ageing South African gay identity, complete with metaphorical feathery boas and glittery stuff.

Armed with a puce wig, Whitehead in many respects steals the show. His beautiful face stretches and contorts into the most inglorious of expressions and he carries his effervescently over-the-top character with grotesque charm that makes you strain to take your eyes from him. Lana’s sidekick Rita (Colman), replete with his endearing gap between his two front teeth is no less fabulous and lewd, but is the lesser character in the whole ramshackle tale, which involves gross indecency in a whole range of permutations.

The text is really hilarious, particularly when it forays in the thorny area between English and Afrikaans, highlighting and savouring the extremely rude nuances, as it creates glissandos of queer sub-text that will make your head spin. But it also makes your heart roar: underneath all the outrageously funny stuff, which is brought to an astonishing sense of polish with Tony Bentel on keyboard, the work is a raw essay on the reality of homosexual discrimination under apartheid.

While the piece is maybe five or ten minutes too long, and gets a little lost in its own flash backs and repeated moments, it’s something that you leave from with a huge smile on your face, but a depth of focus in your heart around the desperate horror of being different in a militaristic society.

Gross Indecency is written, directed and performed by Robert Colman, Toni Morkel, and Robert Whitehead with Tony Bentel as the orchestra. It performs at POP Arts in the Maboneng Precinct, downtown Johannesburg until August 17.

Amateur Hour is flippant and fun and flipping funny!

Glen Biderman Pam and his hapless puppet. Photograph supplied.

Glen Biderman Pam and his hapless puppet. Photograph supplied.

Something of an idiot’s guide as to what never to do on stage in front of an audience, Amateur Hour! is a flippant and fun production in which we see Jemma Kahn and Glen Biderman Pam stretching their mettle in a direction that takes the mickey out of rank stage amateurs with almost cruel abandon. It’s really funny.

From the girl doing a mysterious esoteric dance in which she mistakenly unravels the wrong bandage that reveals her naked breasts rather than her face, to the stand up comic with his fly down and his confidence left at home, to the puppet who loses his head by chance, and the mime who gets an insufferable urge to call her mom, mid show, this is a fabulous spoof of a show, which ends all too soon.

Featuring 12 distinct acts, the work blends real ‘ag shame!’ cringeworthy moments with the breaking of simple rules that can reduce a show with serious (read self-indulgent) intent into something so helplessly hilarious that you laugh until you cry. While one or two of the skits are slightly incomprehensible, the bulk are centred on a performer’s inability to grasp the ‘this is it!’ moment where you can’t come back and say ‘sorry, I did that wrong, let me try again.’

It’s a show that would not benefit from any narrative spine, but given the skill of the production team, never teeters into the believably amateur. It holds together with an engaging tightness and a laugh a second sense of acumen. This ain’t Shakespeare (though he does appear in the funniest of circumstances) and you don’t need to be on high intellectual alert to enjoy it: Quite overwhelmingly, it’s a tonic all round.

Amateur Hour! is written by Gwydion Beynon and directed by John Trengrove. It features Glen Biderman Pam and Jemma Kahn and performs at POP Arts in the Maboneng Precinct, downtown Johannesburg until August 10.