How to make them come back for more

FreeAssociation

STEVEN BOYKEY SIDLEY has a most engaging gift. His writing flows with congruency and cunning, dipping and splashing through conceptual bumf, popular rhetoric and conventional trends, with wisdom and ease. It is searingly witty and hard-edged and reads with a fluency that makes you not want to put it down as it cuts to the heart of sacred cows in every paragraph. The narrative he constructs in this, his latest novel, plays with the values of the social-media-heavy world in which we exist, turning it this way and that, stretching its possibilities and madnesses tight and exposing its underbelly in a way which puts the reader in amongst the ‘in-crowd’. You know the flaws of the character, you recognise the secrets of his heart, and you’re there just to see how it all fits together.

And thus you get to meet Max Lurie. He’s a podcaster of 33 with credentials and history but scant self-belief as a therapist. A Los Angeles-based Woody Allen-type character, he’s excruciatingly self-deprecating. And often annoyingly so. Sometimes callous, he’s a loving son and brother who often masks his vulnerability with sheer bravado. During the slice of Lurie’s life that Sidley exposes us to, he’s rattled from side to side by issues of sex and others of lies, by violence and cruelty and by plots that don’t always pan out exactly as you might anticipate they do.

The book is constructed of interspersed podcasts and chapters which build up the narrative spine of the text very well, enabling you, as the reader, to engage with what Lurie’s listenership is being exposed to, not to forget the truths which he dilutes and dresses up in making them more palatable to said listeners. There’s a potent South African link in Lurie’s producer, a young man by the name of Bongani Maposa, who immigrated to the States and has found himself a niche and has the wordage to justify his every move and is not afraid to use it.

Then there’s a love interest with a shaven head and a tight grip on UX technology, and a couple of characters which are cast around the rapidly shifting world of hits and likes, shares and the ability to grab audience attention. Oh, and there’s also a schizophrenic homeless guy who is most likely a scientific genius, whose also the lynch pin in a tale that goes in a direction you really won’t expect.

But more than a tale about a man who makes his living out of entertaining a public to listen to his personal diatribes about nothing – the kind of thing for which Seinfeld is famous – the novel is a critique of the vanities of our world. Loosely drawing on the idea of free association which made the surrealists famous last century, his is a terrain where anything goes. It’s bitingly acerbic and surprisingly gentle in its engagement with everything from the Deep Web to Alzheimer’s. An illegal fire arm is tossed into the mix, as is a vial of Nembutal, the suicide drug.

This book, like Sidley’s play Shape, which he wrote with Kate Sidley in 2016, is an unabashed product of today. It engages with all the issues that are so central to the multiple personality disorders characteristic of our era, with charm. Words get inserted into characters’ mouths that enable them to reflect with wisdom and naiveté about the splendid and mesmerising cacophony of values and complete moral conundrums that this world is heir to. Free Association doesn’t let go until the last page: even the issue of misery making better ‘art’ than happiness comes under Sidley’s loupe, as he tears strips off the preciousness with which contemporary society views itself.

It’s a bracing novel, which dismantles nostalgia willy-nilly. Beautiful in its tightness and flippant in its sense of self, this kind of writing does fall in danger of becoming too slick, but Sidley keeps this aspect reined in. It’s a tight, easy read which has long and deep conceptual and contextual threads. You won’t be disappointed.

  • Free Association by Steven Boykey Sidley is published by Picador Africa (2017).
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Electric rain and ill winds

suddenlythestorm

WHO, really, are you? Namhla Gumede (Renate Stuurman) comes face to face with Dwayne Combrinck (Paul Slabolepszy). Photograph by Suzy Bernstein.

DWAYNE COMBRINCK IS a man with demons. You can see this as he walks into his workshop, a bloodied baseball bat in hand. You can see this in the anger he articulates and the acerbic vitriol he spews when provoked. But not all of his demons are fuelled by the sheer force of anger or terror. He’s a much more complicated character than that. He may be a white South African, in his early 60s; but penned and performed as he is by Paul Slabolepszy, he embraces a profound vulnerability that counterpoises his toughness and explodes stereotypes in three-dimensions.

To the world, he’s a tough guy. A “debt collector” – who uses whatever tactics, however dirty they may be, from his “Far East” Rand premises, to get money out of difficult customers. He also welds security gates.

Dwayne’s married to Shanell (Charmaine Weir-Smith), a blonde poppie with her own sense of what is morally right in the world, with a fashion and linguistic verve that will take you back to stereotypes of Brakpan in the 1970s. Hard as nails around the broken dreams she holds in her heart, and beautifully fleshed out by Weir-Smith, she too is a product of very specific apartheid induced bruises and scars.

The vignette of their life together that we are exposed to in this play is thwarted by loss and gain in surprising ways that catches you slipping into stereotypical assumptions. When you hear that someone has died at Dwayne’s business, you jump to startlingly violent conclusions. When the Combrincks discover a potential lottery win with unimaginably huge moral ties on their premises, you jump to others. But the tale woven by Slapolepszy is curiously less predictable in its nuances and realities than you may anticipate.

When Namhla Gumede, an elegant, self-possessed young black woman with an English accent (Renate Stuurman) shows up on their doorstep, mystery pervades. With a warm heart triggered into life by her loneliness, Shanell confides in her, gives her hardly a moment to get a word in edgewise, but in doing so, offers her – and you in the audience – the tools to figure out why she’s there. And this aspect of the story, embedded in a series of hairpin bends as it is, is fairly predictable.

Having said that, conjoined with a fantastically convincing set, the absolutely appropriate coordination of sound and light brings the violent Highveld storm in the title to Shakespearean splendour in this tale of exile and identity. Conceived and crafted to have been launched to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the 1976 Soweto Uprising – which it did: it debuted at the Market Theatre in June – its season now, amid the hail of racist accusations and violent antagonism that is still rocking our world, remains deeply prescient.

It’s a work, similar to plays such as Steven Boykie Sidley and Kate Sidley’s play Shape, and Mongiwekhaya’s I See You, which offers an introspective and thoughtful but not soft voice to embrace a reflection on the fact that not everything is as it seems and that nuance and even deep love can exist even in the most apparently blatant of racially-infused situations. Like the whole repertoire of Slabolepszy’s work written in the voice of its era, Suddenly the Storm is an important and beautifully written work that encapsulates issues that will set many a post-theatre dinner table afire with dialogue.

  • Suddenly the Storm is written by Paul Slabolepszy and directed by Bobby Heaney. Featuring design by Greg King (set), Wesley France (lighting) and Ntuthuko Mbuyazi (sound), it is performed by Paul Slabolepszy, Renate Stuurman and Charmaine Weir-Smith at the Auto & General Theatre on the Square in Sandton until November 19. Call 011 883-8606 or visit theatreonthesquare.co.za  

I see you: the voice of a new generation

'I See You' Play by Mongiwekhaya performed at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs, London, UK

Hey Wena! Buthelezi (Desmond Dube) takes on Ben (Bayo Gbadamosi). Photograph by Alastair Muir.

How well do you know your own history? Would you be able to talk to it under scary scrutiny by a cop with a past replete with anger? With this premise, playwright Mongiwekhaya makes his debut in a beautifully constructed piece of theatre which feels like the opening lines of a brand new chapter in South African narrative.

Ben (Bayo Gbadamosi) is a 19-year-old law student at Wits University. He’s armed with the casual high-spiritedness of youth, his virginity and a personal history which took him out of the South African context as a very young child. Skinn (Jordan Baker) is about the same age. Does she turn tricks or is she just a good-time girl? We don’t get to find out.

Their rendezvous is intruded upon by members of the South African police who are on a mission, and Ben and Skinn just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, forcing Ben into a terrifying merry-go-round of mockery, brutality and cultural identity. This hard-edged piece of work cuts deep into an understanding of contemporary politics, fears and vulnerabilities. It features a smooth cleavage between performance and script – the work is well-written, the characters, satisfyingly three-dimensional and the narrative boldly constructed.

Similar in many respects to Steven Sidley and Kate Sidley’s recently staged play Shape, I See You offers potent and important insight into what it means to be a young South African right now, 22 years after democracy and Mongiwekhaya takes no prisoners in flaying open the issues of black privilege as he looks on abandoned roots and history of resentment.

It’s a high octane, visually minimal set, which is dotted with choreographic moments and a dj, that from the outset feels like a novelty that doesn’t really contribute to the work. Looking beyond a red herring of a prologue which sets a night club scene, you will find extremely fine performances by Desmond Dube as Buthelezi as well as Gbadamosi and Jordan, as you will find an engagement with the audience and the space and the narrative which belies the youth of the performers.

While the cast does seem unnecessarily large, there’s a maturity in the unpacking of this fresh young tale that offers hope to the theatre industry going forward. This is the voice of theatre’s future: it’s bold, it’s bare and it knows where it is going.

  • Read further social commentary on I See You here.
  • I See You is written by Mongiwekhaya and directed by Noma Dumezweni. It features design by Soutra Gilmour (set); Richard Howell (lighting); Luyanda Sidiya (movement); and Giles Thomas (sound) and it is performed by Jordan Baker, Desmond Dube, Bayo Gbadamosi, Austin Hardiman, Sibusiso Mamba, Amaka Okafor and Lunga Radebe. The work is a collaboration between the Market Theatre and the Royal Court Theatre in London, and it performs at the Laager Theatre, Market Theatre Complex in Newtown until May 1. Call 0118321641 or visit co.za

And now for something completely shapely

shape

MUSCULAR MAYHEM: Stuart (Craig Hawks), Stella (Camilla Waldman) and Vusi (Nyaniso Dzedze) test their steel. Photograph courtesy artslink.co.za

Whatever else we may be, South African society has become virtually paralysed by the godalmighty demon of political correctness. Enter writers Steven Sidley and Kate Sidley. Not playwrights, but highly skilled and creative professionals, they have put all the mumbo jumbo of new fitness lingo and a whole gamut of potentially derogatory terminology into a splinteringly fine theatrical mix which braces like a tonic.

Featuring scalpel-like retorts which tear into the South African context with utter hilarity and scant mercy, the text ripples with wisdom and poetry, but more than just that, it’s a well-developed, satisfyingly structured piece of brand new theatre that should not be missed.

The context is an upmarket gym in Johannesburg. The characters, Stella (Camilla Waldman), Stuart (Craig Hawks) and Vusi (Nyaniso Dzedze) are carefully fleshed out stereotypes that reflect astutely on a viable cross-section of South African society. Well-crafted, they’re characters you would recognise in any gym: The do-gooder human rights worker, in her late 40s, Stella is trying to bounce back from a divorce. Stuart is an advertising executive labelled ‘sensitive’ by his parents when he was a child, who is vehemently still fighting to win back his masculinity and as much casual sex (with girls) as he can get. Vusi is a young maverick, with a privileged education and a street savvy that will make your head spin.

The gym, premised physically and contextually between the universal emblems for male and female lavatories, fits into the core of this niftily constructed and delicious work. It’s the context for not only an utterly hilarious extrapolation of the bleak and grotesque mysteries of the male or female cloakrooms, but it’s also the repository for some astonishingly blunt and fabulous political incorrectness, in the field of everything from fat-shaming to homophobic jibes and crude racism. Armed with all the tools of our confused society, this play never teeters into abject silliness or even offensiveness: the writing is crisp, the performances convincing and tight, and the whole narrative completely compelling.

The work features a “disembodied voice” played by Zimkitha Kumbaca, which does lend a small red herring to it, however: Kumbaca sits in the audience; the stage presence of her voice begins as a public address system, but slips into the folds of the characters’ conversation. While it is scripted to say some really pertinent things, its existence is not meaningfully developed. Is this an inner dialogue that the audience is privy to? Is it the voice of conscience? You don’t get to find out.

While Shape won’t have the longevity of a classic, or the universality to travel the world, it goes admirably head to head with a refreshing boldness for any curious South African, grappling sensibly and wittily with the verbiage and garbage and potholes in which we find ourselves today. And it will make you laugh. A lot. In spite of – or because of – the morass into which South Africa has tumbled.

  • Read this piece on Shape as well, here.
  • Shape is written by Steven Boykey Sidley and Kate Sidley and directed by Greg Homann. Featuring design by Denis Hutchinson, it is performed by Nyaniso Dzedze, Craig Hawks, Zimkitha Kumbaca and Camilla Waldman at the Auto & General Theatre on the Square in Sandton until April 16. Call 011 883 8606 or visit theatreonthesquare.co.za