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

Startled by Coriolanus

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#MartiusMustFall! A young cast tells the dense tragedy of Coriolanus. Photograph courtesy reviewonline.co.za

IT’S RATHER AN odd kind of name to be trending around senior high school students at the moment. Coriolanus is arguably one of Shakespeare’s densest and more difficult works. With no witches or ghosts, monsters or weather patterns to give it verve, it’s a tragedy of political violence and class struggle which resonates with the political morals of our own times, and it’s also this year’s and next year’s English matric setwork for South African schools affiliated to the Independent Examinations Board. This production casts the National Children’s Theatre in a previously unexplored framework: that of the teenaged audience.

And all these elements are to the theatre and the production team’s credit. The pared-down set, and cleverly adaptable costume changes lend starkness and boldness to this rendition. The young enthusiastic cast and their dry-mouthed passion in articulating the tale is infectious and your focus is caught and held very quickly. The play, featuring some astonishing fight choreography, is geared to adapt easily to a range of different venues and to travel easily, but, it seems, having seen the work at the intimate theatre of the NCT in Parktown, the cast has not been adequately prepped in modulating their volume in different spaces.

While it may be all fun and dandy to bang sticks on the floor of a high school stage and shout with great volubility into the faces of youngsters who are studying the work, doing something similar to adult audiences in a tiny space hurts not only the play’s clarity, but the audience’s ability to engage the material. The cajoling of a mob could have been as effective – if not more sinister – had it been conducted in a whisper, in this venue, for instance.

It’s a curious thing: a porous reflection on the theatre’s fourth wall is understood to loosen up the material and render it more casual but offer a more developed understanding of the characters being performed, because responding to audience members effectively changes the nub and current of the performance. Each night. Noble goals, indeed. But it makes some rather astonishing assumptions on the robustness of said audience members. There’s a give and take that happens in this context which puts you, in the audience, who has paid for your ticket, at a disadvantage. This feels wrong: Don’t shout into my face. Move me with your conviction and your skill and your supreme understanding of what you are doing.

The play is sensibly cut to a workable duration of 90 minutes or so. But Coriolanus is not marketed as one of Shakespeare’s more ‘sexy’ works, for a range of reasons. The material, dealing with everything from the ethics of honouring your parents to remaining true to what you believe in, is replete with nuance that takes it back to ancient Rome where it is set. It is dense with cultural references and this young cast doesn’t play a strong role in clarifying the work’s narrative spine. Pieces like Just Antigone and (After) The Flies, for instance, meshed complex historical works with a contemporary understanding, as well as audience engagement, without compromising the material or the focus. But in spite of some hashtag-evocative chants throughout the work, Coriolanus doesn’t offer you any of that loose, wise astuteness, and you leave the work not really entertained or even informed but still startled.

Having said all of that, the difficulty of the initiative must be taken into account. This is a tremendously talented group of creative professionals. Their articulation of Shakespeare’s words is uncompromised and beautiful and their interaction onstage is sophisticated and bold. It’s just their friendliness to an audience that needs more sharpening.

  • Coriolanus by William Shakespeare is co-directed by Rohan Quince and Nicola Pilkington. It features design by Sarah Roberts (costume and set), Jane Gosnell (lighting), Stan Knight (set construction) and Ryan Dittman (combat choreographer). It is performed by Cassius Davids, Emma Delius, William Harding, Maxx Moticoe, Emilie Owen, Thapelo Sebogodi, Carlos Williams and Sanelisiwe Yekani, and is performing a travelling season under the auspices of the National Children’s Theatre, which will be touring to high schools nationally. Call 011 484 1584 or visit nationalchildrenstheatre.org.za