Of magic recorders, whacked rats and homeless children

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EYES left: The children, (Pascalle Durant, Gugu Dlamini and Gomolemo Tsosane) negotiate with the rich: the Mayor (Gamelihle Bovana) and his Assistant (Danny Meaker). Photograph courtesy National Children’s Theatre.

UNEQUIVOCALLY DARK IN its condemnation of the hypocrisy and divide in society, the Pied Piper of Hamelin was penned by Robert Browning in 1842. Like Charles Dickens’s work, it holds a strange kind of magic which makes it understood to be for children, but the message is grim and the issues terrifying. It takes a very special directorial hand to be able to magic all 303 lines of the famous poem, in rhyming couplets into a context that is fresh and locally relevant and appropriate for young audiences. This is what you get in the National Children’s Theatre’s production of Pied Piper. Bearing the unmistakable mark of Francois Theron’s artistic innovation and wisdom, the story of corruption and economic divides, of rats and a magical being who knows more about children and their contexts, and music and its value than the stuffy old wealthy blokes do, simply sparkles.

Couching the tale in a South African context, where the mayor (Gamelihle Bovana) is self-contained and filled with air, twiddle twaddle and blah-blah-blah, to say nothing of a lack of empathy and too much self-love, the work centres on the street kids, who have nothing but make do. Gugu Dlamini embraces the role of the lame boy who is something of a hero, articulating the truism that each person has their own talents and tasks, which doesn’t necessarily coincide with what anyone else does or can do. Dlamini’s theatrical robustness lends her presence and credibility, enabling her to carry the work’s local back story in conjunction with Browning’s.

And with the wonderful child performer, Pascalle Durand as Sam, the work has a texture and a local sense of integrity that enables earnest and delightful asides, keeping you focused on the children but not compromising the plot. Durand is a delightful child with unabashed personality. She embraces her role completely, and of course, there’s the adorable factor too, but this young lady grabs the soul of her performance (and you in the audience) simply and directly by the heart.

It’s an adventure like no other, with nuggets of service delivery protests, comments of  local status quo and real dreams of South Africa’s homeless, tucked into its interstices without being crass or silly or hurting the flow of the work. Songs framed by chestnuts from The Sound of Music, or part songs that children still sing, have been wonderfully reworked with lyrics that fit the story, and the set is just completely astonishing – offering a magical yet real sense of space, geography and texture.

Pied Piper resonates like a National Children’s Theatre classic: it’s local, it’s informed, it’s innovative and it will leave you – and your child – with the kind of energy and optimism that a tonic brings.

  • Pied Piper is written by Robert Browning. Directed by Renos Nicos Spanoudes and Sarah Barlin, it is performed by Gamelihle Bovana, Gugu Dlamini, Danny Meaker, Sibusiso Nhlapo Ferguson and Kopano Tshabalala, and a child cast comprising Group 1: Pascalle Durand, Kesiah Irvin, Lwazi Ntombela and Gomolemo Tsosane; Group 2: Shayna Burg, Tlholego Mabitsi, Tlhopilwe Mabitsi and Matthew Ruzsnyak; and Group 3: Erin Atkins, Kefilwe Gaborone, Tebo Moahloli and Hloniphile Myaka. This review is premised on the performance of Group 1 with the cast. It features design by Dale Scheepers (musical directions), Sibusiso Nhlapo (choreography), Stan Knight (set), Jane Gosnell (lighting), Sarah Roberts (costumes) and Mike Koenig, Yo Mama and Daniel Simion (sound effects) and performs until July 15 at the National Children’s Theatre in Parktown. Call 011 484 1584.

Forever gems and smiles to set the world aglow

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WHAT comes around … Cruelty and ugliness become synonymous when Hyena (Sandi Dlangalala) meets Fudukazi the tortoise (Nomonde Matiwane). Photograph courtesy artslink.co.za

Occasionally, very occasionally, a creative work seems to make itself. Is it about the universe taking control? Or God? Perhaps it is about having done a thing so often you go into autopilot and don’t think about the hugeness of what you are doing. Either way, when this kind of small miracle happens, everything, but everything, fits into place, in such a way that you can almost hear it click. This level of theatrical brilliance is what you experience in Khokho’s Treasure.

A couple of years in development, this work, which began as Under the Baobab Tree is a clever cipher for a range of African stories. An old man, beloved by the community in which he lived, has died. His legacy is contained in a big suitcase. And what can it be? Is it money? Is it jewels? Rather than anything crassly material, the suitcase is a repository of triggers to stories, songs and memories. And Francois Theron and his cast take the possibilities of these values and shine them up to an astonishing level, which will touch you – and your child – deeply.

Stripped of cliché, the stories are told with a developed sense of empathy and a generosity of spirit. The cast, including established NCT performers such as Suzaan Helberg and Nomonde Matiwane, and newcomer Kealeboga Tshenya, is young enough, yet mature enough, to inject a fine level of wit and self-deprecation into the range of characters that inform the material, which makes you love each and every one, not only for his or her good qualities, but for his or her flaws too. Arguably the highlight is a new tale by Gcina Mhlophe, about Fudukazi, the magic tortoise, epitomised in beautiful detail by Matiwane, who is not afraid to lend such heart to her performance that you weep out of love for the hapless beast.

But something must also be said for Helberg’s smile. This young actress, who plays the gogo and narrator of the work, in her very competent and linguistically flawless performance, exudes a sense of happiness which is so uncontrived and so giving that you get swept up in its glow. Indeed, the positive energy of this work is infectious, as it sidesteps triteness. Not all of the five stories told are happy ones, but each of them presents an energy that gives cultural miens – and South Africa’s different languages – a place. From Afrikaans to Ndebele, isiXhosa to Sesotho, there’s an easy and legible flow of the idea of cultural relevance, be it with a blanket in hand, or under the spell of Nomhle, the African Cinderella, be it in a soccer tournament or on the rural hills of KwaZulu-Natal.

Brightly coloured and direct, Khokho’s Treasure could be an ambassador to all that it good and hopeful in this beautiful land of ours. And while very little tots might become restless before interval, because of the work’s length, as a creative manifestation, it’s as good as it gets.

  • Khokho’s Treasure is adapted and directed by Francois Theron and features design by Stan Knight (set and costumes), Nicol Sheraton and Phillida le Roux (choreography), Jane Gosnell (lighting) and Dale Scheepers (musical direction). It is performed by Sandi Dlangalala, Sibusiso Nhlapo Ferguson, Suzaan Helberg, Nomonde Matiwane, Mark Tatham and Kealeboga Tshenye at the National Children’s Theatre in Parktown until September 3. Visit nationalchildrenstheatre.org.za or call 011 484 1584.