Hedwig takes it all the way


OPEN wide: Paul du Toit is Hedwig. Photograph courtesy Pieter Toerien Theatre.

YOU KNOW THAT headache you get when you are grinding your teeth really energetically to ensure that the outer chaos doesn’t make your whole head implode? That is the kind of feeling you may emerge with when you exit Hedwig and the angry inch. It’s a mash up of 1970s David Bowie dress-up values with the fierce weirdness of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, a splash of the aesthetic of Priscilla Queen of the Desert and a generous heaped tablespoon of the kind of stuff that Pieter-Dirk Uys used to fuel Evita Bezuidenhout’s sinister Nazi sister, Bambi Kellerman. Does this make it a transgender anthem? In spite of rave reviews the world over, this is not a certainty.

Telling the story of an East European cabaret singer with a horrid past and a botched sex change operation, it’s a tale of love and disappointment, abuse and self-deprecation, filled to the brim with sexual innuendo. Its hammer comes down not only on the biases tilted at the gender-uncertain,  but on everything and everyone else as well. The Holocaust, epileptics and deaf children are part of the butts in the jokes repertoire and they reach so far down in the bin of distaste that there’s almost a turnabout in your knee-jerk reaction to be offended. Do you laugh, though? Or do you feel the smile freezing horribly on your face?

You don’t get the space to think about that, because on top of all this wretched and ragged humour, are vicious lashings of strobes, in a theatre where the sound is about seventeen times bigger than the space itself. The casualty, as always, becomes the intelligibility of the lyrics, which is a pity – those that you do hear are tight and bitter, strong and wicked.

And while Genna Galloway and Paul du Toit shine unequivocally in their complex genderised roles which dodge stereotypes and stir up discomfort, with humiliation and cruelty spread all around with abandon, there’s just so much of a sensory assault in this work that something of the wit and the wisdom, the schlock and the social critique that you know it embodies feels lost.

It’s staged in a fantastic set that brings all the mess and unglamour, the grubby clutter of a caravan and a drag artist’s sense of self to the fore, where barely an inch of space is left bare. The band performs from above the set and the work is outrageously cluttered with shocking pink spangly stuff, vinyl records and washing pegged on lines.

The songs in this work are potent with potential. They present quirky narratives that resonate with tales from Ovid; and there’s a moment of hand-drawn animation which will make you stop in your tracks to adore it.

A work which leaves you rushing home in a quest for painkillers, but also one that opens your head and eyes to war narratives which have not yet been explored on a popular platform, Hedwig and the angry inch is a strong show with a weak sense of the power of gimmicks. It leaves you pondering what it would feel like if du Toit and Galloway were allowed to wow their audience without the dazzle and flash of the technology.

  • Hedwig and the angry inch is written by John Cameron Mitchell and directed by Elizma Badenhorst. It features creative input by Stephen Trask (music and lyrics), Wessel Odendaal (musical direction) and Niall Griffin (production design), is performed by Paul du Toit and Genna Galloway until April 1 at the Pieter Toerien Theatre, Montecasino complex, Fourways. Call 011 511-1818.

Oz: the sumptuous sum of all its parts

The Look of Enthusiasm says it all. Dorothy (Emma Hayden) centre, with her new found friends: the Tin Man who has no heart (Sean Louw); the  Scarecrow who has no brain (Phillip Schnetler); and the cowardly Lion (Gamelihle Bovana). Photograph courtesy National Children's Theatre.

The look of enthusiasm says it all: Dorothy (Emma Hayden) centre, with her new found friends: the Tin Man who has no heart (Sean Louw); the Scarecrow who has no brain (Phillip Schnetler); and the cowardly Lion (Gamelihle Bovana). Photograph courtesy National Children’s Theatre.

Just when you think that you may have seen the Wizard of Oz – first brought to the silver screen in 1939 with a young Judy Garland in the starring role – enough times, along comes a production like this, bursting at the seams with the kind of freshness and enthusiasm which has the power to take young audience members and transport them for the rest of their lives.

Director Francois Theron has magicked a brand new version of this work which teeters, narratively, between the insanity and surrealism of the Rocky Horror Picture Show and the standard tradition of a yarn like that that informs The Lord of the Rings. It offers a moral by way of a caveat in understanding that things are seldom what they seem and that dreams need to be followed to their logical conclusion, which is wrapped in a bit of sugar and a lot of really top class lyrics, like Somewhere over the rainbow.

There’s not really much that can be done to the tale of Dorothy from Kansas who unwittingly unseats and destroys a wicked witch when her house is blown away by a twister, and meets some idiosyncratic friends en route to finding her way home, but there are subtle tweaks and gestures, which pay important tribute to the film traditions behind the work, and indeed, to the original text, first published in 1900.

With Devon Flemmer as the debonair emcee and tiered curtains evocative of 1950s traditions, the tone is set: and the magic happens from curtain up to curtain down.

The show, featuring shadow manipulation and tight creative engineering is directly premised on the presence of a book: characters jump out of the larger than life publication on set and the emcee himself is armed with an encyclopaediac version of the text that he reads from.

While local children might struggle to understand the deep American southernness of the accents that predominate, particularly on Aunt Em and Uncle Henry’s farm, they will be blown away by the perfection of the colour, light, choreography and sequences, which simply exude faultlessness in their placement and construction; with the cherry on top being fabulous costume design, completely appropriate to the work’s history and tradition.

Patricia Boyer as the Wicked Witch who remains undefeated, until Dorothy (Emma Victoria Hayden) gets into a tussle with a bucket of water, is deliciously incomparable. The role she casts is not unadulterated evil, as we have seen her do elsewhere; rather this physically monumental and monumentally fine performer pegs her evilness down a step or two, creating an unspoken bond of complicity with the children in the audience on the cushions on the floor. She’s an evil witch tempered by an insecurity that makes her human and completely appropriate.

The singing and dancing stakes are not as sophisticated and tight as they were in this theatre’s previous production of the same work, and similarly the dollop of nostalgia is a little diluted; but the work in entirety is beautifully honed, imminently satisfying and smile-inspiring.

When you can vicariously watch a show of this nature through the focus of a little six year old boy who remains completely transfixed throughout its run, you know they’re doing something right.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is adapted and directed by Francois Theron from the original book by L. Frank Baum. It is designed by Rowan Bakker (musical supervisor); Stan Knight (set); Caitlin Clerk (choreographer); Jane Gosnell (lighting) and Chriselda Pillay (costumes) and features performances by Gamelihle Bovana; Patricia Boyer; Devon Flemmer; Emma Victoria Hayden; Suzaan Helberg; Sean Louw; Yamikani Mahaka-Phiri; Nomonde Matiwane and Phillip Schnetler; and child performances by Sakhenati Faniso; Tamara Faniso; Samuel Hertz; Katlego Matihake; Hloniphile Myaka; Khawulani Myaka; Gabriella Oliveira; Boitumelo Phaho; Buddy Sacks; Rufaro Shava; Sebastian Steiner; and Ricci Waksman. It performs at the National Children’s Theatre in Parktown, until  performs at POP Arts in the Maboneng Precinct, downtown Johannesburg until December 21.