My African queen

AntonyandCleopatra

HERE is my space: Mark Antony (Ben Kgosimore) with Cleopatra (Sanelisiwe Yekani). Photograph courtesy National Children’s Theatre.

THERE’S NOTHING QUITE like a foray with the world’s most famous illicit lovers, told by young voices to young audiences. It’s like being witness to the passing on of the baton to another generation of theatre makers and it might give you goosebumps, when you see Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra under the directorial hand of Neka da Costa. It’s currently on a programme touring schools, where the work is part of the national syllabus.

When you watch this troupe of performers, you wouldn’t be wrong to think of actors such as British performers Robert Lindsay and Dorothy Tutin, to say nothing of South Africa’s David Dennis and Camilla Waldman, for instance, who earned their stripes in Shakespearean trope as well as everything else. These young South African thespians continue to prove their robustness and versatility in redefining no less than the work of the Bard himself – you’ve seen them on the stage in a range of other capacities in the last couple of years, including contemporary storytelling and Greek tragedy.

The rendition of this work is gently and judiciously cut by Shakespeare specialist Rohan Quince to fit into time-based parameters and it runs just on 90 minutes with no interval. Interjected with a local drum beat, songs of mourning and gladness that reach from a South African heart and a peppering of ululation, it’s a piece which skirts and weaves the notion of Africanness in the ethos of Egyptian queen Cleopatra (Sanelisiwe Yekani) with competence and intrigue, but without feeling forced.

Indeed, Yekani embraces the complexity of Cleopatra with finesse and authority. She’s sly and manipulative, passionate and beautiful and as the central focus to the work, she holds it together with magnificence and utter potency. In short, she’s dangerous. Ben Kgosimore is a superb Mark Antony, the emperor who is her lover, a tough guy who is embroiled in a morass of political marriage, friends and foes. He’s vulnerable yet macho, sophisticated yet impressionable. And this royal couple takes things to the max from their passionate lovemaking and display of anger to their strategising, to their suicides.

In the role of Caesar, Cassius Davids shimmers with a focused performance which is utterly convincing and Campbell Meas in several roles, including Agrippa and Cleopatra’s hand-maiden lends tight focus and articulation to the work. Neo Sibiya, in a range of gender-ambiguous support roles also commands a sense of authority which makes you sit up and look.

Squeezed into a tiny space which is electrified into clean narrative lines with the device of freezing movement, and some highly innovative prop choices, the work is deftly made. There’s a battle scene and a scene of ships at war which will make you feel you’ve skipped the bounds of possibility and are now sitting in the folds of a dramatic fresco.

Having said all of that, the work is bruised by its shoutiness. And yes, while much of the drama necessitates exclamations in bold, not all of it does, and what you might find is something a little similar to how the NCT’s production of Coriolanus two years ago was flawed. The declamatory accents of everyone most of the time tends to collapse a sense of nuance in the dialogue.

It is, however, an immensely strong and invaluable resource for learners all over the country, because there’s nothing quite like seeing the work in flesh and blood – and local, young flesh and blood, at that. And also, because under astute direction, this complicated piece’s story is clearly evident.

  • Antony and Cleopatra is written by William Shakespeare and directed by Néka da Costa. It features design by Sarah Roberts (set and costumes) and Jane Gosnell (lighting) and is performed by Cassius Davis, Ben Kgosimore, Kevin Koopman, Campbell Meas, Sibusiso Mkhize, Neo Sibiya, Megan van Wyk, Carlos Williams and Sanelisiwe Yekani in a season that is touring several schools countrywide, until May 22. It is a project of the National Children’s Theatre. Call 011 484-1584 or visit www.nationalchildrenstheatre.org.za

Five little girls and Mamiwata

Crucifixion

THERE’S SOMETHING INESTIMABLY exciting about a new production that is conceived of, written and brought to life by a group of practitioners that is fast becoming recognised as a repertory group in the classical tradition. Why? Simply because you have seen their work in the past, and know that you’re in safe hands when it comes to exceptionally fine theatre that tweaks the edges just that little bit to keep your focus riveted.

Think of British director Alan Bleasdale and the performers of the ilk of Julie Walters, Robert Lindsay, Lindsay Duncan and David Ross from the mid-1990s, who put together an unrivalled level of collaboration with classics and new work that even made it to South African tv screens, in the form of miniseries Melissa and Jake’s Progress. While you’re thinking of this splendid work, think of this very ensemble, headed in this production by Jovan Muthray and Mlindeli Zondi, who are quietly redefining theatre making in this country, one production at a time: their relentless energy promises the Bleasedale equivalent in South Africa.

But let’s not digress. The Crucifixion of Amagqwirha is a tale woven around the values espoused in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (1953). But it is moored in contemporary South Africa, and amidst a rich concatenation of superstition and self-belief, members of a community who are young and ambitious and others who are old and hold onto tradition, and little girls who are vanishing with no explanation. And there’s also speak of the ghostly presence of Mamiwata, a creature, believed to be half woman, half snake, who patrols deep and quiet waters.

Blending shadow puppetry that engages the sinister in a manner so much more direct and fearsome than actors on a stage can project, the work is beautifully balanced and hard hitting in terms of social foibles and mob mentality.

But it is the performance of Nyakallo Motloung, Sanelisiwe Jobodwana, Campbell Meas and Star Anka that unequivocally capture the fierce yet tender bravado of little girls, while they embrace the elderly and punctuate the broader, scary tale with home truths and real South Africanisms. The work will take you from laughing out loud to shivering in your shoes, at the eerie prospect of the things out there that we cannot fathom.

The energy of the entire ensemble in creating this piece is palpable; there’s a give and take in dialogue and thinking which brings to mind the feisty dynamism in their work, Just Antigone, performed last year. When the four little girls are debating issues, it’s there. When the elders of the community are calling for a witch hunt, it’s there too.

The only downside of this extraordinarily beautifully crafted work is that it enjoyed but one performance at this festival. It deserves legs in many more contexts.

  • The Crucifixion of Amagqwirha is written and designed by the ensemble. It is directed by Jovan Muthray and Mlindeli Zondi and features creative input by Jovan Muthray and Mlindeli Zondi (lighting) and Binnie Christie (puppets and set). It was performed by Star Anka, Sanelisiwe Jobodwana, Campbell Meas and Nyakallo Motloung at the Downstairs Theatre on July 21, as part of the Wits 969 Festival. Visit webtickets.co.za or visit Wits 969 on facebook.

Oliver brings the sheen and texture of Industrial Age London to Parktown, seamlessly

"He asked for more?!" with Samuel Hertz as Oliver, Kayli Elit Smith and Miles Petzer as Mr and Mrs Bumble and Ben Kgosimore as the Beadle. Photograph courtesy www.jozikids.co.za

“He asked for more?!” with Samuel Hertz as Oliver, Kayli Elit Smith and Miles Petzer as Mr and Mrs Bumble and Ben Kgosimore as the Beadle. Photograph courtesy www.jozikids.co.za

Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist is one of those stories that has been consumed by the children’s theatre industry, thanks in part to the eponymous West End and Broadway musicals of the 1960s featuring glorious songs by Lionel Bart. It’s also been deemed a children’s story because the main protagonist is but 9 years old. In truth, the tale is a quirky one, bringing together the harsh contradictory morals and deeply violent behaviour endemic to the squalor of 19th century English society. In this version of the work, Francois Theron yields a sterling mastery that balances between the heaviness of the original piece and how the musicals injected sweetness and readability into it.

Part of the work’s sublime success is through the creation of its texture; the stuff of which Industrial Age London is made. From the signage on the walls to the raggedy and posh curtains which signify the set change, life is germinated and fleshed out in the set, costumes and the casting of the work.

Showcasing Kayli Elit Smith in the role of Nancy, opposite Luciano Zuppa as the inimitable Fagin and Ben Kgosimore, the core of the story is embraced with a sense of crafted verity that will keep you spellbound, whether you are five years old and have a scant understanding of the work’s tensions, dynamics and trajectory, or you are fifty and have read the original 15 times. Smith has a powerful stage presence and she gives the fragile, tragic heroine Nancy the spine and guts to make her leap out of the book and onto the stage.

Zuppa projects a roly-poly Fagin, offering insight into the sinister nuances that such a character upholds. He’s fun, yet immoral, bad yet it’s difficult to pinpoint his level of evilness, in contradistinction, for instance, with Kgosimore’s Bill Sykes, who is so chillingly cold, his very presence makes your hair stand on end.

There’s a satisfying interplaying of cast members and the children are beautifully co-ordinated to sing and dance and interact with the theatre’s appurtenances which brings grubby suburban London into Parktown, seamlessly. On opening night, Gabriel Poulsen was Oliver. He embraces the realities of this small boy in a world rotten with other people’s greed that rendered him an able cog in their evil plans, with an integrity that belies his extreme youth.

But more than all of this, the story of the workhouse foundling Oliver Twist is told from the inside out and the novel only reveals the grand narrative at the end, where you encounter Agnes Leeford and understand who Monks is. Arguably, the only version of this work which turns it upside down is the 1999 mini-series of the work, written by Alan Bleasdale and featuring such luminaries as Robert Lindsay, Julie Walters and Keira Knightley, among others. And what is revealed when the audience is put in the know, while the narrative unfolds, is the fabric of the story is robust enough to take such a turn about.

Sadly, this is where the National Children’s Theatre’s version stumbles a little: it sticks to the original sequence of events and omits the more graphic ones. Granted, the tale is harsh and terrifying. Murder is part of the tools used to tell it. It would be inappropriate to present this level of horror to young audience members, but Theron has begun his version with the child telling his own story: this adds an inestimable value and depth to the material, but is not followed through in the second half of the work. Rather, after interval, we fast-forward through Twist’s tribulations in coming to terms with his extraordinary childhood. Nancy is magicked off the scene and Oliver becomes a child adopted and everyone lives happily ever after: if you know the narrative well, or have been watching the play carefully, a couple of untied threads peek through.

Overall, this is forgivable: The Adventures of Oliver Twist is an exceptional production that blends sweetness with harshness in a way that never jars. But be warned, the tale wriggles and squirms and diversifies and changes tack frequently. It’s not all song and dance and children under the age of 8 might become restless or bewildered.

  • The Adventures of Oliver Twist, based on the novel by Charles Dickens is adapted and directed by Francois Theron with design by Rowan Bakker (musical supervisor); Nicol Sheraton (choreographer); Graham Brown (set); Willie van Staden (scenic set up); Jane Gosnell (lighting) and Chriselda Pillay (costumes). It is performed by Teekay Baloyi, Ben Kgosimore, Miles Petzer, Schoeman Smit, Kayli Elit Smith and Luciano Zuppa, with four alternative child performers playing Oliver: Samuel Hertz, Gabriel Katz, Gabriel Poulsen and Max Stern, and three alternate child ensemble casts comprising: Claire de Korte, Lethabo Mwase, Boitumelo Phaho, Kathryn Price, Paige Schmidt and Isobel Shires; Kathleen Clark, Tlholego Mabitsi, Tlhopilwe Mabitsi, Tlhotlego Mabitsi, India Milne, Julia Smith and Casey Watson; and Nandipha Backler, Yarden Dagan, Pascalle Durand, Talitha Komen, Tyler Komen and Ricci Waksman. It is at the National Children’s Theatre in Parktown until July 19. 011-484-1584 or nationalchildrenstheatre.org.za