Incendiary youth: SA style

MyChildren

MY opinion is correct! Student debate with Isabel (Christine van Hees) and Thami (Phumlani Mdlalose), while Mr M (Msuthu Makubalo) goads them on. Photograph courtesy National Children’s Theatre.

A WHITE HIGH school girl lies on her belly on a school bench to read a spot of King Lear as she munches on an apple.  There’s a sense of ‘how things should be’ in everything from her school uniform to her engagement with what is obviously homework. A black high school boy filters a petrol-soaked piece of cloth into a bottle as he fingers a cigarette lighter.  The chasm in values breaks your heart, but says it as it must be said if you’re engaging South African values. Indeed, it’s difficult to get into the shoes of another person, and easier to judge their circumstances with the harshness of your own perspectives. Particularly if you’re a half-formed teenager, even a very bright one. This is something that the cast and the audience discover in Athol Fugard’s My Children! My Africa!. It’s being reprised by the National Children’s Theatre as a touring programme for high schools, and the prescience of this work cannot be understated even if you are all done with high school.

It’s a play about the raw and bleeding discrepancy between haves and have nots that is so central to the complexities of South African existence. Cast in the mid 1980s, in the Eastern Cape, it showcases the fire and passion of black youth attempting to address the horror and shame of apartheid, counterpoised with the traditional educational values of white privilege. And it is here where we meet Isabel (Christine van Hees) and Thami (Phumlani Mdlalose), the respective cream of their own communities, in a debating match that’s something of an experiment, bringing together the energies of youth from contexts not that far from one another, geographically, but a million miles apart in every other way.

The teacher is an elderly man, fondly known as Mr M (Msuthu Makubalo) and while he’s the catalyst for the experiment, his values too are informed and potent. But in being of the previous generation he is intensely vulnerable.

The tale is not an easy one, peppered as it is with language that we just don’t use anymore, as it is a cipher of the kind of extreme violence that set our country on fire, literally in the mid 1980s. This play, which enjoyed its stage debut at the Market Theatre, with Kathy-Jo Wein and Rapulana Seiphemo opposite John Kani in 1989 is one that reaches beyond adults and to the youth in the audiences. It’s about choices and literature, the fury of impotence and how your well-intentioned parents can embarrass you into silence. Or your substitute parents can incite you into violence.

It is creatively staged, with a simple set that can be broken into metaphors of violence easily, but it isn’t clear why the decision was taken to erase the play’s interval. It’s a meaty work with lots to consume and the gap in the telling of the tale is a necessary one, particularly for younger audiences.  Also, a valuable decision is taken in the cast changing into their costumes on stage. This lends a reflection that these are indeed performers, and the manner in which they adopt the age-specificity of their roles is strong and cogent.

Mdlalose plays the young firebrand from the ‘location’, who, armed with an intellect that surpasses most, is subject to the indignities of Bantu Education because he is black. It’s a crucial role, but his articulation is not always understandable, which is a pity as the text is rich with 1980s realities. He’s beautifully supported by the performances of van Hees and Makubalo who lend the texture of the age of their characters as much as they give the text vehemence.

It’s a play that will change your perceptions and your mind, and make you realise that student shenanigans in the 20-teens are as hot and relevant as they were nearly 40 years ago. Or vice versa.

  • My Children! My Africa! is written by Athol Fugard and directed by Siphumeze Khundayi and Francois Theron. It features creative input by Sarah Roberts (set and costumes) and Jane Gosnell (lighting) and is performed by Msuthu Makubalo, Phumlani Mdlalose and Christine van Hees in a touring programme hosted by the National Children’s Theatre, in Parktown. The theatre will be staging a couple of public performances toward the end of May. Visit their website, or call: 011-484-1584.

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

Pixie dust and make believe

magicalmoon

TRANSFIXED by our big sister, Wendy. Michael (Danny Meaker) and John (Daniel Keith Geddes), little boys who love stories. Photograph courtesy National Children’s Theatre.

ARE THERE STILL children in this world who make forts out of blankets and cushions, from which they conduct complex battles and adventures? Do children in this day and age still go on wild adventures in their own back yards, where they lie on their backs and peer at the moon and pretend they can fly? This is a play that with an incredibly sophisticated understanding of the potency of childhood, articulately explores make believe, and in doing so, it takes the JM Barrie tale of Peter Pan by its horns and doesn’t let go, not for a minute.

It’s a fascinating scenario. Barrie lived in the latter part of the 19th century, dying 37 years into the 20th. The yarns he wrote are wild and manic, but the English he used reflects his times, and is often prohibitively detailed for young readers to access. Mike Kenny – like others before him, including Walt Disney in 1953 – has taken the thread of Peter Pan and with a solemn nod to Barrie and a wink to the children in the audiences, set it free, in contemporary language with beautiful songs.

And Francois Theron and his creative team in turn, have taken this lead even further, dotting it with a deliciously idiosyncratic set, magnificent choreography and music on the part of the cast that lend an element of sheer perfection to the work. The cast, headed by Nirvana Nokwe-Mseleku as Wendy Darling, the authoritative big sister, and Daniel Keith Geddes in the role of John, the middle child – as well as Captain Hook, give it an edge that will set your child’s heart on fire. Supported by Danny Meaker as Peter Pan – and Michael, the youngest Darling child – and Phiphi-Gu’mmy Moletsane in the role of Tinkerbell, the oft sulky fairy, the work sings with synchronicity and wisdom.  It has to do with a mix of the sense of possibility and that of ordinariness that can bring a crocodile with a ticking clock in his tummy into the context of lost boys who fell out of their prams and mermaids who are beautiful but not nice.

Touching on everything that is central to what being a child means, the work is rough and tumble all the way, punctuated by the ‘aarghs’ of pirates, a beloved absent daddy’s beloved dressing gown, and some delicious cameos with a ukulele and a mouth organ. It engages with gender issues and power struggles, with the fear of growing up and becoming something or someone else – and in the process forgetting the fairies in the garden. It’s a tale of madcap adventure in the confines of your big sister’s love and care and creativity and one which opens your heart to the what ifs that dot the horizon. Along the same kind of lines as The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe staged some months ago by this theatre, the work lacks forced contrivance. It is premised on the children themselves and the magic in their hearts. And this becomes a gift to your child, something he or she will never forget.

  • Underneath a Magical Moon is adapted for stage by Mike Kenny, based on Peter Pan by James Barrie. It is directed by Francois Theron and features creative input by Cathrine Hopkins (musical direction), Tandi Gavin (choreography), Sarah Roberts (set and costumes) and Jane Gosnell (lighting). It is performed by Daniel Keith Geddes, Danny Meaker, Phiphi-Gu’mmy Moletsane and Nirvana Nokwe-Mseleku until April 15 at the National Children’s Theatre in Parktown, Johannesburg. Call 011 484 1584.

Moving into Dance’s hope and glory

MIDM

ODE to the value of being differently abled. A scene from Moving Into Dance and Enable Through Dance’s The Call for Hope. Photograph by John Hogg.

COMPLETE WITH FEATHERS and upside down books, disabled dancers and movement evocative of ancient African dance traditions, to say nothing of their own, Moving Into Dance Mophatong presented itself on Dance Umbrella this year, with due aplomb and an earnest attempt at a snap shot of life, the universe and everything.

This was clearest – showing flaws in the desire to put everything, but everything, into the pot – in the first piece on the bill: Art Life Life Art Art Life Art, choreographed by David Gouldie. Beginning with some really interesting use of stage lights which evoked the faux rape scene in Peter Greenaway’s 1993 The Baby of Mâcon, it’s an image which doesn’t develop. And it’s one of many.

The potential of each metaphor presented gets muddied with everything but the kitchen sink. Indeed, there may have been a kitchen sink in the mix, which included a migraine-inducing flashing of images, Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, open books on the head, giant feathers and much else.

As you read the programme, you realise there was even the work of L’Atelier artists in there. Sadly, with the speed at which this piece was thrust at the audience, you only had the time to recognise the things you knew very well, such as Edvard Munch’s The Scream, whose pose you might have been subconsciously emulating as the work reached closure. The dancers did admirably under these circumstances, but with discombobulated lights and flashing sequences, it became a piece more about technological flamboyance than history, or, indeed dance.

Fortunately, it was the programme’s starting point and it really did get better and even better from that point. Next up was the fruit of collaborative work between dancers associated with Enable Through Dance, and MIDM’s company: A piece entitled The Call for Hope. Featuring multiply abled dancers under the mentorship of Gladys Agulhas, the work was moving and beautiful, a little long, but clear in its narrative trajectory. With a broken chair in the midst of the stage, the idea of brokenness is cast, and as a one-legged dancer brings himself onto the stage, you understand. But then, you don’t. The skill with which so-called disabled dancers, ranging from people with dwarfism, cerebral palsy, down syndrome and the like, converted gesture into poetry made you forget that the ‘ordinary’ world utters pity in their wake. These are empowered dancers, making the world just a little more magical.

The final work on the programme reached right back to MIDM’s heart and South Africa’s dance history with Stone Cast Ritual, a work choreographed by the company’s founder, Sylvia Glasser in the 1990s. It’s a formulaic work along the choreographic lines of her ground-breaking piece Transformations (1991), in which sequence and gesture are melded with the poetry of shadow and coordination. As you sit in the audience of this piece, you wonder what energy a collaboration between this aesthetic and these dancers could bring with Jayesperi Moopen’s Tribhangi dance company with its distinctly classical Indian style.

You also wonder what the whole work would feel like in the start absence of piped music. The music prevails in certain aspects of the work, but not all. And when there’s no evidence of the music, something else happens; the work has a vocal energy of its own. The stones in the dancers’ hands touch one another with gentle specificity and you feel yourself swathed in the hypnotic energy of the piece.

The one irregularity in this work was spacing, however: where dancers were not always consistent in ensuring how they fitted into the spaces between one another, which messed a little with the work’s aesthetic.

The value of Embracing Gravity as a teaser showcase – the company celebrates its 40th year this year – to the achievements of MIDM cannot be under estimated. But it does reveal a glaring hole in Dance Umbrella’s programme. Another contemporary dance company, in addition to Tribhangi and MIDM, celebrates its 30th this year – and that’s Benoni-based Sibikwa. While there are dancers who boast history with the company, there’s not a special dedication to its aesthetics or achievements on the programme.

  • Embracing Gravity, the Moving into Dance showcase performed in the Wits Theatre, Braamfontein, part of Johannesburg’s Dance Umbrella in its 30th season, on March 15 and 16. It comprised the following works:
  • Art Life Life Art Art Life Art choreographed by David Gouldie and featuring creative input from David Gouldie (lighting), Karen Logan, Jacobs van Heerden and Mark Edwards (video), Liam Magner and Karen van Pletsen (music soundscape), Llian Loots (text), and showcasing the visual art work of Jessica Junga, Gideon Appah, Banele Khoza, Temba Sifiso and Thierry Amery;
  • The Call for Hope directed and staged by Lesego Dihemo, Otsile Masemola, Sussera Olyn and Mark Hawkins featuring lighting design by Wilhelm Disbergen and performed by Dineo Bofelo, Kaho Britou, Mickey-lee Cooper, Tshwarelo Golelwang, Ranell Malapan, Chardonnay Mars, Mapaseka Mokebo, Thabo Naha, Vuyo Qhaba, Justino Rickets, Kgopotso Siabe, Asanda Sobandla, Angie Venter, Jabu Vilakazi and Philile Vilakazi, with Enable Through Dance facilitators, Tshepo Molusi and Andile Nzuza; and
  • Stone Cast Ritual choreographed by Sylvia Magogo Glasser with creative input by Muzi Shili and Portia Mashigo (restaging), Wilhelm Disbergen (lighting), Gabrelle Roth (music) and Sarah Roberts (costumes).
  • The MIDM company comprises Oscar Buthelezi, Lesego Dihemo, Teboho Gilbert Letele, Otsile Masemola, Eugene Mashiane, Thabang Mdlalose, Sunnyboy Motau, Sussera Olyn, Asanda Ruda and Thenjiwe Soxokoshe.
  • Visit danceforumsouthafrica.co.za or call 086 111 0005.

How to realise you are beautiful

ColorPurple

MY sister, my best friend forever: Celie (Didintle Khunou) writes a letter to her sister Nettie (Sebe Leotlela), who lives in Africa. Photograph by enroCpics

THERE ARE SO many “wow” moments in the South African stage version of The Color Purple: The Musical, you’ve got to hold onto your seat with both hands. Supported by a set that features diagrammatic representation of space and texture, a cast that sparkles with magnificent voices and fine acting skills, and a classic narrative that just doesn’t get tired, this is the cultural imperative of the year so far, in this city.

The translation of Alice Walker’s 1982 classic black women’s liberation novel into a stage musical is simply gorgeous, offering a gloss on the horror of black women’s lives in America between 1909 and 1949, punctuated as it was by rape, battery and an implicit understanding as chattel. The songs are wrenching and potent but jazzy and full of poetry. And the choreography in this work represents an understanding of the rhythm of the spoken language, the lyrics and the context that will completely satisfy your head and heart. Ultimately, The Color Purple a tale of victory and it is a six-tissue show – you’ll shed tears of outrage and of joy, in an unmoderated way, from beginning to end.

With magnificent Didintle Khunou in the role of Celie – a role performed by Whoopi Goldberg in the original 1985 Steven Spielberg film – the brilliance is cast. And while the production is not flawless, there is a moment in the second half of the piece, where Khunou, slight of size, stands alone on the stage and embraces the whole huge space and all its audience, with her rendition of “I’m Here”. It’s a moment which will stay in your heart forever.

But Khunou is not alone in giving this production incredible vocal muscle. Stand out performances by Lerato Mvelase in the role of Shug Avery, the catalyst to Celie’s abusive marriage, who teaches her that sex can be fantastic, Neo Motaung as Sofia, Celie’s daughter-in-law, who gives as good as she gets and who has a voice that reaches across generations in its heart and soul, and Dolly Louw, as Doris – an ensemble member – who has physical presence onstage that makes you simply fall in love with her.

Mister, played by Aubrey Poo and Harpo, his son, played by Yamikani Mahaka-Phiri, collectively offer an understanding of flawed black American maleness, which is violent and crude, aggressive yet still capable of love – and indeed capable of turning around. The work is replete with sarcasm and the power of defiance in the name of unfairness and it is funny and rich and nuanced with gossip and jazz.

It is supported by a set that simply takes your breath away. Slats of wood are hammered in place to set up a sketched illusion of context. It’s free of gimmick, strong and direct, and does exactly what a set should do. There are moments when you stop noticing it, simply because it cleaves so perfectly with the work. Similarly, the costume designs are understated yet appropriate, they’re comfortable on the eye, on the cast members and on the context being represented.

And while the individual voices in harmony and alone are beautiful enough to make you weep, by themselves, there is a glitch in the work — or rather, two — which stand like two book ends for the show. The ensemble songs, at the beginning and the end of the work, which feature the whole company belting it out, fight mercilessly internally and with the orchestra and as a result, they’re very shouty. And the casualty: the lyrics and the clarity. You get a bit of a fruit salad instead. Occasionally also, in the sphere of sound design, some of the voices, including notably Funeka Peppeta’s, goes rogue and turns into a shriek.

One other glitch in the overall show’s identity is weak design on the part of the production poster which is emblazoned on the highway as a massive billboard. The work is so much more than those bleached out sad faces which take the colour purple to dreary and corpse-like lengths: it really doesn’t do justice to the colourful, rollicking monster of wisdom and intimate poetry that you see on stage.

That said, the work, a tale of unmitigated sisterly love and extreme hardship, of church values and the magic of discovering one’s own sexuality, is one that celebrates women’s pants in the most delightful of ways and continues to be a benchmark work in the name of black women’s identity, liberation and voice. But be warned: Just one viewing just might not suffice.

  • The Color Purple: The Musical is written by Marsha Norman based on the eponymous novel by Alice Walker. Featuring music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray, it is directed by Janice Honeyman. Performed by Zane Gillion, Didintle Khunou, Sebe Leotlela, Dolly Louw, Andile Magxaki, Yamikani Mahaka-Phiri, Venolia Manale, Namisa Mdlalose, Phumi Mncayi, Neo Motaung, Lerato Mvelase, Tshepo Ncokoane, Thokozani Nzima, Funeka Peppeta, Aubrey Poo, Senzesihle Radebe, Lelo Ramasimong, Zolani Shangase, Ayanda Sibisi and Lebo Toko, it features design by Sarah Roberts (production), Mannie Manim (lighting), Richard Smith (sound), Rowan Bakker (musical direction) and Oscar Buthelezi (choreography). The orchestra, under the direction of Rowan Bakker, comprises Dale-Ray Scheepers (keyboards), Leagh Rankin and Brian Smith (reeds), Kuba Silkiewicz (guitar), Viwe Mkizwana (bass), Donny Bouwer (trumpet) and Mike Ramasimong (drums). It performs at the Nelson Mandela Theatre, Joburg theatre complex in Braamfontein, until March 4. Call 011-877-6800 or visit joburgtheatre.com

Scrooge! Glorious Scrooge!

Seussified

WHAT a little turkey for Christmas! So says Mrs Cratchit (Nieke Lombard) and her husband, Bob (Alessandro Mendes), feeling the pinch, courtesy of Scrooge. Photograph courtesy National Children’s Theatre.

WHAT DO YOU do with a fine and classical tale of Christmas told in Dickensian language, if you want to add a bit of sprite to its shenanigans and a bit of verve to your audience engagement? That’s easy. You Seussify it. So says American theatre-maker Peter Bloedel with his pen as much as his passion for things that make the name Dr Seuss shimmer with recognition, eclecticism and general cartwheeling madness. This fine and beautifully directed work offers the whole package –  with a sniff of classical Seussical self-deprecation, in rhyming couplets, electric green hair and hilarity; and a glut of Dickensian shlock.

It’s all rolled together by a delicious team of performers and designers, under the directorial eye of Francois Theron with Daniel Geddes adding a twinkle of choral energy while he also performs the main character. In short, A Seussified Christmas Carol is everything you would expect from Dr Seuss, and from Dickens, only more, because you get both for one ticket.

The charm, delight and flippancy departments in this work go full out in giving linguistic faux earnestness to the idea of Seussical grammar, and they don’t stoop in showcasing the talent of Blaine Shore. A newcomer to this theatre, his stage presence — be it in the role of Old Fesswig, the dead Jake Marley or other characters — is bold and clear and lends an energised, camp, fleshed out and nuanced insight into the insanity of what Seuss means to his fans.

Ebenezer Scrooge is the kind of bloke that offers insight into why Christmas is a time of goodwill to all beings, kindness and joy to the world. And that’s simply because he’s the utter corollary. With his fingerless gloves, his elaborate dressing gown and his penchant for real miserliness he embodies the notion of meanness down to the tips of his slippers. And who’s he mean to? Bob Cratchit (Alessandro Mendes), for one – his loyal employee. Bob’s a man who has the short end of the stick, but sees it all as a half full glass. Is he simple? No. He’s kind. And he’s poor.

Stepping aside from the notions of Victorian poverty as reflected in Dickens’s 1843 Christmas chestnut, Bloedel injects the kind of rhyming charm which would enthral Dr Seuss himself, and you get delicious, bold and well-formed performances from everyone, including the child performers on board, collectively ramped up with the presences of electric green hair, Seussical red and white stripes and wild, almost callous hilarity. While some of the articulation is not as clear as it could be, the gist of the work is upheld with the kind of Seussical tempo that first put the National Children’s Theatre on most people’s must do lists close to 10 years ago.

With inventive and hilarious language that pokes fun at many things, both historical and contemporary, it’s a tale of an emotionally short-sighted man, four ghosts and the value of holding a mirror up to one’s heart. It might make your heart brim over a little, but it’s all in a good cause.

  • A Seussified Christmas Carol is written by Peter Bloedel and directed by Francois Theron. It features design by Daniel Keith Geddes (choral arrangement and vocal direction), Sarah Roberts (set and costumes), Stan Knight (set construction), Jane Gosnell (lighting) and is performed by Cassius Davids, Jessica Foli, Daniel Keith Geddes, Nieke Lombard, Nomonde Thande Matiwane, Alessandro Mendes and Blaine Shore, in collaboration with three alternate children’s casts co-ordinated by Liz-Mari Botha: Group 1: Joshua Hibbert, Onkagile Kgaladi and Vuyile Zako; Group 2: Brayden Steenhoff, Kaih Mokaka and Shayna Burg; and Group 3: Asher Steenhoff Paidamoyo Mutharika and Aaralyn Muttitt; and understudy Erin Atkins. [This review is premised on the performance featuring Group 2] until December 23 at the National Children’s Theatre in Parktown. Call 011 484-1584 or visit www.nationalchildrenstheatre.org.za
  • There are currently three productions on the boards right now, which deal with Charles Dickens’s great classic: this play, A Christmas Carol directed by Elizma Badenhorst, which is reviewed here, and the film The Man Who Invented Christmas, directed by Bharat Nalluri, which is reviewed here.

Blood in the water, a sjambok on the wall

AfricanGothic

STAINED sheets and the wrath of Mamma: Frikkie (Zak Hendrikz) and Sussie (Liezl de Kock). Photograph by Jan Potgieter.

THE POTENTIALLY SINISTER and foetid context of what goes on — or used to go on — behind closed farm doors in grim and unbending religious South Africa comes under close and gory scrutiny in Reza de Wet’s riveting tale of incest and dirt, horror and gamesplaying. It’s as much a psychological tale of trauma as it is a foray into really graphic representations of violence, sinister complicity and the space between twisted imagination and terrifying reality. With a sterling cast headed by the inimitable Liezl de Kock as Sussie, the work will bleed into the very interstices of your nightmares, but promises to retain its status as a classic of South African theatre making.

Diepe Grond, the work in its original Afrikaans, saw light of day at the Market Theatre in the mid-1980s and some 30 years later, premised on an English translation of the work by de Wet herself, it doesn’t miss a beat in terms of the grim filth of a mixture between staunch Afrikaans righteousness infiltrated with an unwavering sense of religious value, and a clear understanding of what is evil, juxtaposed with moral values that have had their sanity and their heart torn out by the roots.

Sussie and Frikkie Cilliers (Zak Hendrikz) live in abject filth. There is dirt everywhere. It’s in baking tins and disused food cans and all over the table. You can smell the detritus of their body fluids on the stained mattress, in your mind’s nose, as you look at the careful and rich detail of this set. The chamber pot and the basin of water constitute their bathroom. The nanny, Alina (Thembi Mtshali-Jones) is a maternal yet sinister presence, but she is moulded to fit a traditional understanding of domestic maid in an apartheid South African context. But this is dirt and domesticity with a history that has become frozen by an event.

The set embraces everything, with the dun-coloured screen that allows for shadow against muted light and indicates another room in the house, the raw wood made of what seems to be shards of railways sleepers, and the bed itself. The only anomaly is the shiny surface of part of the construct that seems to contradict the rustic values of the space.

These ruins of what was once a farm house, with the children’s mother and father at its helm is the source of a mysterious and destructive relationship between the family and the dearth of water in the land, as well as a repository for hideous secrets. Which brings Mr Grové (Mpho Osei-Tutu) into the mix. He’s a lawyer, a young black educated man, with a job to do. A will to ratify. Information to relate. He has no idea what he’s in for.

There unfolds the kind of madness that you may recognise from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 film Psycho, which sees the characters becoming caricatures of their parents with the flick of an eyebrow, the lilt of a word, the gut-wrenching depth of a screech of pain. And you may think of Yael Farber’s harrowing Mies Julie that too deals very explicitly with the mess and rot behind farm doors in apartheid South Africa. But African Gothic stands its own ground and leaves you feeling wrecked for other reasons. The stories that are told between these siblings, and the stories that are alluded to present an understanding of abuse and madness that will keep you riveted to your chair, throughout.

Having said all of that, the work is not completely flawless. There is a sound track which seems to operate on a loop, and sinister music interjects in places where the machinations of the performances say it all with much more muscle. While the blood-curdling giggles of hyenas in this sound track work, it is the music which strips the here and now from the piece and forces you to remember that this is just a play. Further to that, it is something as small as hairstyle and a physique that affects some of the energy of this piece. Hendrikz’s hairdo is fashionable and primed, blond, curly and tapered, and it clashes with the values of Frikkie’s context and his abjection. Similarly, his body is ripped. And tanned. And we see much of it, which is not necessarily a thing to complain of – but in the context of Frikkie, you expect something baser, something paler and thinner, something you don’t want to look at, but do, as we see with de Kock.

All in all, the work is a violent firestorm of political emotions which reflect an understanding of the land and of life in the isolated reality of a disused rural farm, where jackals bay and the wind seeps willy nilly through the walls, where the spilling of blood is present everywhere and the innocence of utter cruelty is splayed out like a springbok. It promises to be one of those cultural imperatives that continues to raise the bar in theatre-making in this country.

  • African Gothic is written by Reza de Wet and directed by Alby Michaels. It features design by Oliver Hauser (lighting and audio visual), Sarah Roberts mentoring students (production), Jo Glanville mentoring students (costume and props), Nadine Minnaar (set), Franco Prinsloo (sound), Madeleine Lotter-Viljoen (costume construction), Caitlin de Villiers (props construction) and Christelle van Graan (make up). It was performed by Liezl de Kock, Zak Hendrikz, Thembi Mtshali-Jones and Mpho Osei-Tutu in a brief season at the University of Johannesburg’s Con Cowan Theatre. This represents phase four of a 13-month project; the fifth phase promises to see the work hosted on national and international stages in 2018/9.

School ties, serge skirts and unmitigated magic in the cupboard

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NOTHING to do on a rainy day: Pevensie siblings Peter (Sandi Dlangalala), Lucy (Nomonde Matiwane), Susan (Nieke Lombard) and Edmund (Daniel Keith Geddes). Photograph courtesy National Children’s Theatre.

WHEN REAL MAGIC prevails in a situation, the mystery can be so great that all ideas of play-acting illusion and scepticism are cast aside spontaneously, mesmerising young and old unashamedly in the sense of ‘what if’ that it conjures. This is exactly what happens in the stage version of C S Lewis’s beautiful classic novel, which has been changing children’s lives since the 1950s. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is the quintessential fantasy that takes a bored and rather lonely eight year old through a cupboard in a strange house and into another world, filled with romance and mythology, conquest and the clash of good and evil.

It’s an immensely complicated tale, which some critics have reflected upon as a parable or an allegory. Involving the emotional detritus of the Second World War, the rubrics of heraldry and the story of the resurrection of a great and powerful leader, it’s the kind of work that you might think a children’s theatre director would shy from: replete with so much nuance and detail, it’s a terrifying prospect to stage in a comprehensive manner, and a tight time frame, particularly for little ones.

Director Francois Theron is clearly up for this task in this completely new and stripped down approach to the work. Armed with a couple of bedsheets, a few branches painted white, some baskets with lids and a whole bunch of ingenuity, not to forget a lion which is completely noble in its presence, this fabulously directed cast of four create the whole narrative through children’s eyes. While the specifics of this tale might not be completely accessible to the very young in the audience, replete as it is with the unapologetically complicated language of the original, the magic most certainly will, and as a very fine and boisterous Lucy Pevensie (Nomonde Matiwane) takes us by the hand (alongside her older siblings) into the core of utter magic, which introduces classical mythological beasties such as the Faun, Mr Tumnus (Daniel Keith Geddes), suddenly you are transformed into the nine-year-old that you once were when you were bewitched by this novel decades ago.

It’s not only sterling performances, and utterly wise casting which sees the oldest boy, Peter (Sandi Dlangalala) as the responsible 14-year-old and Susan, the big sister (Nieke Lombard) as one imbued with her own sense of importance in the pecking order, not to forget the less-focused Edmund (Geddes) who becomes susceptible to the allure of the White Witch (Lombard) and her beguiling Turkish Delights; there’s also magic in the set itself. Using echoed circles of magic, ones in twigs and others cast by light, the space is set alight with an impervious sense of possibility that plays with abstraction and make believe as it flirts with true magic. The kind that rests in the hearts of any undeveloped artist, waiting to unfold.

It’s a dream-come-true production which doesn’t lose itself in the details of the original book. Rather, it boldly takes possession of the nub of the tale, keeps the cast in their classic 1950s English school uniforms, and with the device of a shadow casting the texture of lead-lighting in casement windows of English period architecture, the tone is set for the magic to begin. This work is about the craft of the discipline, the necessary suspension of belief as well as all the bits and pieces of magnificence that keep it glowing.

  • The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is based on the eponymous 1950 novel by C S Lewis, dramatised by Le Clanche du Rand and directed by Francois Theron. It features creative input by Sarah Roberts (set and costumes) and Mathew Lewis (lighting), and it is performed by Sandi Dlangalala, Daniel Keith Geddes, Nieke Lombard and Nomonde Matiwane, at the National Children’s Theatre in Parktown, Johannesburg, until September 3 and then, from September 25 until October 15. Visit nationalchildrenstheatre.org.za or call 011 484 1584.

Make-believe and tiger shenanigans

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OH, mummy, he’s hungry! The Tiger (Jonathan Raath), relishes the remains of dinner, delighting and shocking Sophie (Pascalle Durand) and mummy (Louise Duhain). Photograph courtesy National Children’s Theatre.

WHAT WOULD YOU do if a great big orange, stripy tiger was an unexpected guest at your mummy’s tea table? Like the other tots in the audience, you would undoubtedly be blown away with an excess of cuteness, fluffiness and delight, and forget about the practicalities of feeding a very hungry beast, even if he has mostly dashing manners. The National Children’s Theatre is rapidly honing yet another feather in its proverbial cap, by developing work that caters to the 2-5 age group, and they’re doing it with utterly professional aplomb.

The stage adaptation of Judith Kerr’s The Tiger Who Came To Tea, directed by the inimitable Francois Theron is spot on in terms of the collaborative energies of the piece. Eight-year-old Pascalle Durand as Sophie, the child for whom this orange-striped extravaganza happens, shimmies like a real professional. She carries her role with directness and dignity and her singing voice is like a little bell, loud and clear enough to inspire joy into the hearts of the oldest and most craggy of curmudgeons, let alone the babies in the audience. Above all, she collaborates with the grown ups on the cast as a real team member. This is a child to watch.

The story is gentle and direct, espousing a 1960s normalcy that is about daddy (Kefilwe Mohlabane) going to work in a suit and tie, mummy (Louise Duhain) doing mummy things such as shopping and cooking, and Sophie enjoying the variety of delights that comprise her life, from receiving a kitty in the post to joking with the milkman (Jonathan Raath), and watching the tick-tock of the clock as the day passes.

The Tiger (Raath) in his head-to-toe costume interrupts things, but he’s a very welcome routine-quasher. This brightly coloured work with brilliant black and white props that do not pretend to be the ‘real’ thing, represent a perfect introduction for your littly to the make-believe magic that theatre offers. Clocking in at 45 minutes, and featuring some dance-along activities and some “He’s behind you!” intrigues, it’s a work that is just right for the little tiger in your life. The question must be posed, however, as to whether, like this theatre’s recent production of the Library Lion, audience members can anticipate an isiZulu or perhaps an isiXhosa tiger at their tea table, in the near future?

  • The Tiger Who Came To Tea is adapted for stage by David Wood, based on the eponymous book by Judith Kerr. It is directed by Francois Theron and features creative input by Dale Scheepers (musical direction), Sarah Roberts (costumes), Stan Knight (set) and Jodie Davimes (choreography). It is performed by Louise Duhain, Kefilwe Mohlabane and Jonathan Raath and an alternating child cast of Zoe Buitendag, Pascalle Durand and Luca Teague. This review is premised on the performance featuring Pascalle Durand. It performs at Wynnstay, on the National Children’s Theatre campus in Parktown, until August 20. Visit nationalchildrenstheatre.org.za or call 011 484 1584.

Victory in true style for Mr Toad

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OUT, damned opportunists! Mr Toad (Gamelihle Bovana) and his buddies save Toad Hall from the weasels and stoats. From left Badger (JT Medupe), Water Rat (Bradley Nowikow) and Mole (John Tsenoli). Photograph courtesy National Children’s Theatre.

IF YOU GREW up under the spell of Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, you will remember that there was always a delicious ferocity about Mr Toad, with his short squat body, his big toady eyes and his enormous mouth. It’s difficult to recall whether it was the wild yet sedate original illustrations of EH Shepard that conveyed this, or Grahame’s impeccable descriptions. Either way, and even if you are not a Wind in the Willows groupie, the fact is that Gamelihle Bovana in the title role of this production of The Adventures of Mr Toad conveys this fabulous mix of bravado and vulnerability, courage and sheer character: he’s a toad to melt your heart.

Indeed, Francois Theron’s rendition of this great classic about friendship and naughtiness, scary forests and bad weasels, as well as comforting cups of tea in moments of great stress and comeuppance for breaking the law, is one of those works which leaps off the stage and into your child’s awareness. For one thing, it is beautifully cast. The three fellows – the pedantic and short-sighted Mole (John Tsenoli), the adventurous and proper Water Rat (Bradley Nowikow) and the wise old Badger (JT Medupe), who has a low tolerance for misbehaviour – form a gorgeously formidable phalanx of dependable friends on which the maverick Toad can rest.

With a complex tale of adventure and prison, the hijacking of a 15th century manor by weasels and ultimate victory, it’s a work that features language that doesn’t patronise; while a very young audience might find some of the words unfamiliar, it’s a show replete with such a beautiful understanding of music and movement, gesture, colour and the rhythm of sound, that the story remains strong even if its subtleties are lost for the tots.

Structured around turn-of-the-century British properness, the adventure, focused on the lives of river folk is as anthropomorphic as possible. There’s a resonance between the costumes and concept that informed this theatre’s production of A Year With Frog and Toad some seasons back, and also an element of the hilarity that brought Martin Rosen’s interpretation of Richard Adams’s Watership Down to filmed life in the 1970s, where rabbits prate away like real English gentlemen.

The set, complete with utterly ingenious elements that are hinged on the horizontal and enable a whole landscape to be magically erected, embraces the work magnificently and with great simplicity. In the first half, we’re introduced to the foursome and get to understand the challenges of having the Toad, he of old wealth and inherited luxuries as a buddy: he’s a faddish bloke, who gets bored easily, but who also takes things to their giddy limit.

In the second part of the work, you will be swept off your feet by Senzesihle Radebe as the magistrate in full command, with a voice to match.

Beautifully structured and gem-like in its crafted quality, where all the elements fit together unmistakably well, it’s a play that is about the novelty of the motor car as it is about the majesty of Toad Hall. In short, this is a work which will leave you glowing with its unequivocal sense of humanity and decency as it balances with an unbridled sense of moral irresponsibility and naughtiness. An utter delight.

  • The Adventures of Mr Toad is based on the book The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame and directed by Francois Theron. Featuring creative input by Piers Chater Robinson (lyrics and music), Neil Brand (musical arrangement), Clint Lesch (musical supervisor), Jodie Renouf Davimes (choreography), Stan Knight (set), Jane Gosnell (lighting) and Sarah Roberts (costumes), it is performed by Gamelihle Bovana, Philip Hanly, Kirsty Marillier, JT Medupe, Garth Meijsen, Bradley Nowikow, Senzesihle Radebe and John Tsenoli, and three alternate children’s casts: Pascalle Durand, Christina Moshides and Keisha van der Merwe, Telaine Tuson and Naledi Setzin; and Emma Martin, Erin Atkins and Julia Johnson, at the National Children’s Theatre in Parktown until July 23. Visit nationalchildrenstheatre.org.za or call 011 484 1584.