Mary’s boy-child

The Man Jesus. Starring: Lebohang Toko. Directed by: Robert Whit

FOR what shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world and suffer the loss of his soul? Lebo Toko in The Man Jesus. Photograph by Suzy Bernstein, courtesy The Market Theatre.

IRISH WRITER COLM Tóibín did it with the Testament of Mary. As did Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis with The Last Temptation of Christ. South African-born playwright Matthew Hurt steps into this hallowed terrain in taking one of western culture’s most known biblical tales and splaying it out in a quasi-fictional stage production. And under the directorial reach of Robert Whitehead, there’s an element of chutzpah and wisdom for which this production should be commended. But it is not all pervasive.

Armed with a greenish robe, a lightly brocaded shawl and thong sandals, Lebo Toko takes on the whole community surrounding Jesus, which comprises a mêlée of men and women and a whirligig of serious political, biblical and apocryphal figures. He is supported in the multiple criss-crossing tales he tells, with a set comprising wooden pallets and paper scrolls and a soundscape which brings the texture and presence of village dynamics to unsettlingly jagged life.

While the mottled flavour of the theatre, painted as it is in patches of turquoise, browns and whites, is distracting and fights with the set, which serves as a multitude of hiding places rather than as something that has direct functional value, it is the sound design and music that lends much of this work its poignancy and fierceness.

Toko generally does an admirable job, but is stretched in a myriad of directions – some of which seem too far or far-fetched – and the casualty in this work, which is maybe 15 minutes too long, is often in either the articulated language, which, when it reaches the outer margins of shrill, loses its clarity; or in the characters represented: from Judas to Simon, Mary to Johanna, John the Baptist to King Herod, they’re handled with a similarity in tone, boldness and focus that leaves you a tad bewildered as to who is who; sometimes the camp key is pressed a little too vehemently, and sometimes nuance flies out the window.

If you’re not completely familiar with the twists and turns in the way in which the biblical tale and its fictional counterparts duck and dive around one another, you may get lost in the folds of this work, which oddly blend a sometimes two-dimensional reflection of what Judaism means – or meant – with all its loaded connotations of history, belief and politics.

Structured in such a way as to carve out an understanding of Jesus not through direct representation of him, but through his implied presence in the opinions and the gossip of others, the work is rich in text and resonates with general competence, but it is the way in which the presence of Mary, mother of Jesus, enfolds the whole production that lends it the maternal edge that holds it together with a universal energy that is haunting.

She’s a young, unmarried pregnant woman, at the outset, looking critically and not without horror at the way in which her society seems to have lost its moral compass. And when all is said and done, at the other end of the tale, she’s a woman who has had to face any mother’s most awful nightmare. Throughout this work, at times Toko gleams and sparkles, shines and glistens, but it is his portrayal of Mary that is unequivocally a victory for him.

  • The Man Jesus is written by Matthew Hurt and directed by Robert Whitehead. It features design by Noluthando Lobese (set and costume), Mandla Mtshali (lighting) and João Renato Orecchia Zúñiga (composer and sound) and is performed by Lebo Toko at the Barney Simon Theatre, Market Theatre Complex, until November 5. Call 011 832-1641 or visit markettheatre.co.za
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Doo Bee Boobies comes of age deliciously

Robert Whitehead heads up Doo Bee Boobies. Photograph by John Hogg, courtesy Auto & General Theatre on the Square .

Robert Whitehead heads up Doo Bee Boobies. Photograph by John Hogg, courtesy Auto & General Theatre on the Square .

Even before the lights go down, in anticipation of the start of this, the 21st season of Doo Bee Boobies, Eartha Kitt’s 1953 number I want to be evil filters through the bordello-like redness of the theatre, lending a lush and earnestly hilarious tone to something so extraordinary, skilful and delicious, it will lift and move you and make you laugh with sheer abandon, no matter how dreadful your day was. And as the lights go down, and the mascara brushes are raised, that lushness is taken and stretched in every conceivable definition of the term. There are even a couple of sisters bearing it as a surname as they shakily emerge from the confines of the Betsy Verwoerd Rehab Centre.

On and off stage since the early 1990s, this fantastic slice of men only burlesque would make Fanny Brice, a queen of the discipline, proud. The ‘horrible prettiness’ we see on stage in Doo Bee Boobies is about the very nub of what entertainment means. In stripping down the petty vanities informing stage divas, in taking apart the notion of ageing bodies and in celebrating seriously mature stage presence, it will make you laugh till you sob.

There isn’t a moment in this lipstick-smeared revue where you catch yourself thinking deeper into the shenanigans you see on stage, but as you wend your way home, drunk as you are with having laughed too much, the reality of the show having reached the milestone of 21 years is a sobering thought. This all male revue is not a drag show. But it is a show which celebrates sex as frankly and directly as it can. It’s gay, it’s crude, it’s direct and it’s most certainly not for the easily offended. Embracing a contemporary world that would have done more than frown at the gay abandon of the piece 21 years ago, it is about a level of freedom of expression that we have imbibed in this internet-riddled generation.

The production wasn’t banned in the 1990s when it first debuted, but it might have been less gritty in its hilarity: the stalwarts of the piece, Robert Whitehead, Mark Hawkins and Tony Bentel may have been more svelte and beautiful than they are now, on one level, but as they become longer and longer in the tooth, their performance becomes more and more delicious in its wise, fond and developed celebration of life, the idea of ageing and our irrevocable ownership of this moment.

Stephen van Niekerk, who has been with the production since 2010, has one of the finest voices we’ve seen on stage for a while, reaching across registers. Kingsley Beukes, formerly of Kelsey Middleton’s KMad is a beautiful young dancer and reprises the role of The Baby. Both of these performers touch classical beauty in their approach. Their solo works are curious: when they happen, your mouth is already so strained from laughing, you’re not always sure how to respond to their pieces: are they too pretty to pump up the laughter stakes? Ultimately, their presence lends the piece balance, even in the presence of dancers armed with cigarettes and supported by aluminium walkers and extremely high heeled shoes.

With a thin storyline of mayhem and badness that reaches from Madrid to India, the work comprises a range of music – from Saint-Saëns’ Swan to Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake; from a celebration of James Bond and Pussy Galore to a hilarious lip sync of Tammy Wynette’s (1968) Stand by your Man. Some of it is spoofed lyrically. Some of it is spoofed through movement. With a bit of Afrikaans poetry tossed in here and the excruciatingly funny Bulgarian Balloon Dance there, it’s a rollicking tribute to the tawdry, the tempered and the tiresome; it’s a context in which you might get to see more of Robert Whitehead than you’ve ever wished for, but one in which you might well be tempted, unsolicited, to rush onstage and dance.

  • Doo Bee Boobies, the 21st Anniversary Season is conceived and directed by Mark Hawkins with lighting by Nicholas Michaletos, choreography, set design, costume and jewellery design, staging and musical arrangements by Mark Hawkins. It is performed by Tony Bentel; Kingsley Beukes; Mark Hawkins; Robert Whitehead; and Stephen van Niekerk, with guest appearances at Saturday shows by Mark Banks, Bruce Little and Robert Coleman, until November 15 at the Auto and General Theatre on the Square in Sandton.

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.