The boy who loved cats

Agony

CHERRY red lips on a bed of snow. Craig Morris is Malcolm Leask. Photograph by Aman Bloom.

PERFECTION. IT’S SOMETHING every parent wants of their child, no matter how dysfunctional they may be in the rest of their lives. Taken to another level, that quest to make your child the best at ballet, at tennis, at maths can become pathological, twisted and poisonous, and it is on this bizarre relationship that Agony is premised. Written with an impeccable sense of texture that enables you to experience the smell of cat food and that of new tennis balls in your mind’s nose, the work is an unforgettable cipher to the sadness of a life stuffed to bilious satiety with other people’s dreams.

It is here, in this dingy flat filled with cats, that we meet Malcolm Leask. He’s alone. Nine months’ rent in arrears hangs over his head, and the crackle of Puccini on his record player fills the vacuum. That, and the cat food. That, and the memories, which bang and twist against one another in a way that will make you panic and weep as you sit there watching this tale of make believe and other people’s filthy secrets and threats unfold.

It’s a story told by several highly skilled professionals – with light and with puppets, with direction and with writing, which might make you think of Irish actor Patrick Magee and how his physical presence embraced the task of Krapp’s Last Tape which was written by Samuel Beckett with his voice in mind. It’s a story naked of gimmicks which evokes that of Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy in transient ways. But this is no paean to discovering one’s sexuality. It’s no celebration of distant youth. It’s a direct, often ruthless portrayal of what happens when all that pressure to excel is turned inside out, exposing instead the flaws of the one who imposed that pressure. It’s about what happens when one runs by chance into secret fantasies of others that smash one’s life into so many smithereens they can’t be put together again. It’s a story about the intimacy of a theatre’s wardrobe and one that sees the dolphins on the shower curtain weep at the bad things they’re made privy to, and it’s one about reclaiming a sense of self in a world broken by other people’s ugly greed, as it is one that glories in the perfection of closing that last clasp above the zip, of a beautiful ball gown.

And at its core is Craig Morris. Dancer, performer, magician with light and space and bodily presence, Morris gives Malcolm Leask the unequivocal dignity he warrants. To the world, this character might be considered tragic. Within Morris’s reach, he’s a hero making his final curtain call in the face of all the sham and drudgery and punishment that has been dished to him. This play will haunt you with its idiosyncrasies as it will pepper your thinking with what ifs.

  • There’s a brief season of this riveting and completely magnificent work – in loving memory of Greg Melvill-Smith – at Centurion Theatre, in the beginning of November, if you have missed the current season.
  • Agony is conceived by Greg Melvill-Smith and Douglas Thistlewhite, written by Iain Paton and directed by Megan Willson. It is performed by Craig Morris and features design by Jenni-lee Crewe (puppets) and Barry Strydom (lighting). It was performed in the Downstairs Theatre as part of the So So1o Festival at Wits University, on September 29 and 30 and October 8. It performs at the Centurion Theatre on November 3 and 4. Visit centurionteater.co.za or call 012-664-7859.
Advertisements

Lessons from the moon

Manandhisdog

DOWN boy! Nhlanhla Mkhwanazi in A Man and a Dog. Photograph by Jan Potgieter (NAF).

THERE’S AN INSTANT in A Man and a Dog in which you fall irrevocably in love with Nhlanhla Mkhwanazi and it happens right at the beginning of this piece. It has something to do with the gusto he injects into his performance and something to do with the utter sense of brazen vulnerability which infuses the characters he sketches as the piece unfolds. Reflecting a careful portrait of a dog with all its canine foibles, from the outset, the work takes you through the terrain of a young Zulu man: it’s a rocky terrain that is pocked with crevices, but you know you are in very safe hands.

A Man and a Dog is a foray into the values of community, and the idiosyncrasy of traditional storytelling and oral narrative. Interwoven into the text – which is about five minutes too long – is a sophisticated reflection on the tough socio-economic challenges that millions of South Africans face, from being raised by grandparents in the city to being rejected by a mother’s husband in the village; challenges that reflect how a world can shatter and shift with the smallest of accidents and challenges that force one’s mother to become a maid to a rich madam, taking her away from you again.

It’s a heartbreaking and true tale peppered with digressions into beliefs and legends, and the boldness with which Mkhwanazi performs conflates beautifully with the way in which the texture of South African society is revealed. It’s never a pretty image, and the work is evolved to contain elements of nuance which angrily reflect on how men have let down women and how women are impossibly burdened with trying to keep it all together.

While the anger in the text towards the end becomes, from time to time, so pervasive that some of the magic at the work’s outset loses some of its spark, the piece is a strong and convincing extrapolation on the underbelly of life in South Africa. It’s mottled with Catch-22s, which sees a young Nhlanhla of eight being tossed in this direction and that, his dog a loyal follower.

But you always hurt the one you love most, as the saying goes, and the work presents with a couple of sharp bends in the flow of narrative: Unexpected ones that will make you weep.

A Man and a Dog is a strong piece of theatre, told with sophistication and directness. But it is Mkhwanazi’s presence on stage that sets it afire.

  • A Man and a Dog is written and directed by Penny Youngleson based on a story told by Nhlanhla Mkhwanazi. It is also performed by Nhlanhla Mkhwanazi and features set and costume design by Penny Youngleson. It is performed in the Amphitheatre as part of the So So1o Festival hosted by Wits University, tonight (October 7) at 7pm. Visit webtickets.co.za or www.wits.ac.za/witstheatre

Lies that bind us

tracks-e1507362153353.png

MY grandfather, myself: Maude Sandham tells her family’s tales. Photograph courtesy Wits.

WHAT DO YOU do when you discover an implacable secret that effectively will cause tectonic shifts in your relation to the world in which you’ve lived up until now? Do you try to secrete it back where you found it? Do you address it and follow up all its innuendos even if it brings you to a point where you’re addressing the dead and don’t know which way is forward? This is part of the rich and beautiful challenge Maude Sandham set herself in honouring the life and secrets of her grandfather, Alan.

And there follows a very richly constructed text written with a strong hand and a sophisticated sense of timing and of clarity. The language is lucid and poignant and runs directly from the heart with a sense of unwavering frankness. The tale is a true one, unfettered with sensationalism or unnecessary detail or fluff, but a wrenching one premised on apartheid’s draconian values and rules. And it is immediate: we meet Maude’s grandfather, a husband and father, a bricklayer employed by the railways, and a man who is stoic in the face of the indignity of being poor and white – but he is utterly bereft of a true sense of belonging because of a secret that would shatter everything he stood for.

Generations succeed generations and children are born, plastering away a past that is understood for its damaging consequences. It’s a tale that resonates with that of the Afrikaans film Vaselinetjie, and one that serves as a potent hit back to generalisations about what skin colour means. Centred on the Johannesburg suburb of Crosby, known for being a repository for poor people who were white, the work is coupled with a set that comprises projected images of old family snaps that have not been digitally cleaned up, and in consequence, it is deeply haunting, hanging on to authenticity with photographic grain. And the optimistic young face of the boy in one of the photographs becomes a cipher for complex levels of betrayal.

The revelation of the secret is the nub of the play and it is evolved in layers of devastating subtlety that give voice to the depth of value in a sense of belonging; a subtlety that remembers the bond of sibling love even through the horrors of separation.

The complicated challenges of telling your own story and being the pivotal character in the unfolding tale is clearly one not lost on Sandham who embraces the text with a fulsome sense of directness, but an engaging humility, sweeping you into the values of self-doubt, classical music and memory.

Criss-crossed by references to the other side of the tracks, the work skirts deftly from cliché, and features a humble armchair and a standing lamp, on a carpet; there’s a small table on which a framed photograph stands, its back to the audience. It’s a play in the internal context of a domestic environment, and yet, in being so, it’s a play that opens its heart to the helter-skelter emotional values central to what being raised in a world where the brutality of racial segregation felt obvious.

Unflinching yet vitally important in saying what it does, it is a play of this nature, crafted with a keen sense of aesthetics and a potent understanding of the magic of storytelling that makes you remember what theatre is all about. This kind of work is the kernel and heart of a festival such as So So1o. It deserves legs all over the country – and publication.

  • Tracks is written by Maude Sandham and Nicola Pilkington. It is performed by Maude Sandham and directed by Nicola Pilkington and is the So So1o commissioned play for 2017. It performs in the Downstairs Theatre, Wits University, until October 8. Visit webtickets.co.za or www.wits.ac.za/witstheatre

The things we’ll do for rain

CursedVagina

CASTING light: Hannah Van Tonder is Ntombizonke. Photograph by Tahlia Govender.

AT FIRST, IT’S difficult to believe or understand that that small incident which corrupts a great sheet of fabric covering the stage, is a human being, and yet as the play unfolds and takes you hither and yon through ritual and ancient tradition, contemporary quasi-urban values and a whole litany of prayer, you get to understand how the gesture and belief, the need for water and the love of the land interface, under the steerage of this one performer.

The work is brought to astonishing life by a concatenation of props which recalls, in a sense, Paul Noko’s earlier work Fruit, in which the props held the nexus of the material. Here, though, there’s more, but there is also less. Ntombizonke is the young woman born of a bride who is not a virgin. It transpires that her virginity becomes the suggested sacrifice that must be made to appease the gods in the name of much-needed rain.

Thus follows a tale of fantasy and religious-evocative gesture, but one bruised by too much enthusiasm — the kind of enthusiasm that packs the work so full of references, that it leaves scant space for the simple act of breathing. As a result, everything is brought into the mix, including envelopes of what seem to be seeds cast among the seating, sugar and water for the audience to dip its collective hands into and a pervading sense of ceremony, much of which becomes a red herring as it is not caught up with clarity in the work’s logic. Indeed, even the title of the work becomes sensational in its sense of taboo.

While Hannah Van Tonder in the title role, represents all the voices of this community, which reach back through generations, sometimes her diction is a casualty to too much speed. She is, however, beautifully choreographed, and the work takes on its own dance momentum, which is almost more compelling than the words themselves.

The value of this play which engages a fantasy ceremonial past cannot, however be understated. As it stands, it feels like a young draft in the development something that warrants growth and maturity.

  • The Cursed Vagina is written by Hannah Van Tonder and Paul Noko and directed by Paul Noko. It features design by Thulisa Phungula (music) and Teresa Phuti Mojela (choreography) and is performed by Hannah Van Tonder, in the Amphitheatre, as part of the So So1o Festival hosted by Wits University. The work performed on October 5 and performs at the Nunnery on October 7. Visit www.wits.ac.za/witstheatre or www.webtickets.co.za

Poppie and her beastly baes

MyKoek

TAKING the cake: Poppie Plaatjies of Khomasdal, Windhoek (Abby Molz). Photograph courtesy Obett Motaung.

A YOUNG WOMAN’S quest for acknowledgement and the kind of basic ordinariness that comes of marriage and babies in a world fraught with abuse, sexual interference, utter loneliness and other irrevocable and intimate disruptions is the focus of this compelling one-hander. But this ain’t no pity party. Poppie Plaatjies comes home from work, where she is a Checkers cashier, discards her high-heeled shoes and her push-up bra in the same dismissive sense that a man would discard his tie – but with more complex manoeuvring, and tells us her tale.

Abby Molz becomes the character with a ferocity that is potent and emotional and the performance she yields is strong and three-dimensional. She offers an insight into Poppie’s life and universe in a way that will make you consider the socioeconomic realities of the Afrikaans-speaking Coloured community of Namibia and South Africa. It’s not dispassionate, but it will leave you with the sense of a whole evolved world, all its grit and filth intact.

The character’s sex is important to the machinations of the story: it features in the title – koek being Afrikaans slang for vagina – and throughout the gestures she makes and the narrative that unfolds. It’s about brothers and lovers, old men and violent men, it’s about her mother’s boyfriends and the way in which she is putty in their hands. But ultimately, it is about the lone voice of a chronically vulnerable young woman fraught with fragile bravado and aware of the complexity it takes to be human in a world which has conspired to break you because you’re a girl and that’s what the culture allows.

Molz’s performance is, however, slightly bruised by her miming in parts of the piece, which reveals a sloppy engagement with the imagined objects at hand. You’re often not sure exactly what she’s doing as she mimes the kitchen chores or pages through a magazine. She irons with a gusto that would break any iron – mimed or not – and she twists things in a way that renders their identity blurred.

The work is scripted with a literalness and a sense of the predictable, but in being so, it comprises a rich and palpable texture that does credit to the medium of the monodrama and the slice of life it promises. Molz’s is certainly a name to watch, in this industry.

  • My Koek is Moeg (My Cake is Tired) is written by Nashilongweshipwe Mushaandja and directed by Obett Motaung. It was performed by Abby Molz on September 29 and October 1 in the Amphitheatre, as part of the So So1o festival, hosted by Wits Theatre. Visit wits.ac.za/witstheatre

The drab mundanity of working nine to five

Ninetofivers

A young woman sits chained to her chair, with a long noisy chain. The room is a quiet cacophony of cheap plastic wall clocks, some suspended from the ceiling, one serving as the lid of a dustbin. A gentle sense of the surreal is cast across the space as it is punctuated by a recording of a pianist playing Beethoven’s Für Elise. But as the lights open the scene, as the music fades and you look at the elements that constitute the set of this work and contemplate the work’s title: everything is revealed. Everything. Nothing is a surprise. The unfolding work, handled with a great deal of effort on the part of young performer Swankie Mafoko, contains an astonishing lack of nuance or sophistication as the notion of a young adult working for her living in an office is extrapolated. And sadly, the Beethoven is left to hangs arbitrarily and feels like an afterthought.

Nine to Fivers Anthem is the kind of work that begs and pleads loudly for the input of a more experienced eye or hand in its development. The language is riddled with easy cliché and the narrative, stripped clean of character development and of light and dark tone in its splaying of details, is earnest, yet skitters feebly around issues of job exploitation, the need to earn a living and the challenges one faces in the time one spends at the service of an organisation or individual who pays one’s salary. The material is bold, but lacks freshness.

Almost teetering into the realms of poetic development, the work contains refrains and repeated elements, which are not formulated with a sufficiently honed sense of rhythm and dynamic to enable the performer to sync with the sound and texture of the words she articulates. Almost resonating with the kind of harsh social critique which a writer like Jack Livings sculpts in his astonishing tales that gut Chinese communist society, such as The Crystal Sarcophagus and An Event At Horizon Trading Company, the heart of Nine to Fivers is in the right place.

But the work needs more time on its drawing board. And the performer’s skills are not stretched enough to reach you there in the audience.

  • Nine to Fivers Anthem is written by Lotanang Makoti and directed by Mahlatsi Mokgonyana. It was performed by Swankie Mafoko, as part of an extended version of the So Solo festival, at the Nunnery at Wits University, on December 11 and 12

The importance of Johnny

Bosbefok: Craig Morris is Johnny Boskak. Photograph by Kate Janse, courtesy cue.ru.ac.za

Bosbefok: Craig Morris is Johnny Boskak. Photograph by Kate Janse, courtesy cue.ru.ac.za

Very occasionally there comes a play which confronts an era from the inside out, with both a sense of empathy and one of hard-edged objectivity, with as complete and yet vulnerable an understanding of how riddled with complexity a given issue can be. Even more occasionally, do you find that the text of the work is completely impeccable: authentic to what it reflects, entertaining and satisfying to hear, and able to splay and contain emotion with a sense of mastery. And hardly ever, do you find a performance that melds the beauty of a text with physical theatre, interpretative possession of the material and an unrelenting ability to hold you, in the audience so mesmerised from the word go, that you can barely breathe. This is what you can anticipate in the current season of Johnny Boskak is Feeling Funny, performed by Craig Morris, which closes this year’s So So1o festival with astonishing aplomb.

The work grew out of a cameo character in playwright Greig Coetzee’s White Men With Weapons, and arguably holds an even more dynamic sway over the complex material it handles. Touching everything from the horror that white young men were compelled to face in the South African army, which was mandatory for them under the apartheid regime, to Jesus – with a Capetonian accent – and a distinctly Coloured devil rapping in tandem, to love, and death and rhyme and mime and hatred and racism, Johnny Boskak evokes the kind of seemingly-effortless perfection you find in works such as Steven Berkoff’s Decadence. Bringing the unique culture which surrounded the South African apartheid army and seriously damaged so many white South Africans, the piece plays with unfashionable taboos in its exploration of white society, replete as it is with 1980s white slang.

The language fills the story it tells with an exuberance which never allows it to be too slick, but holds its grittiness with a sense of moral itchiness. You want to hold onto each magnificent turn of phrase and astonishing metaphor, but alas, they slip through your sensibilities and memory as others vie for your attention, and yet others after that. The language is so rich with local colour, viciousness and malignancy in its description of a world tainted by conflicting and complicated values, you want to eat it: it’s rich with its own wisdoms but it never becomes silly or self-indulgent and flows with a rapidity and a fineness that leaves you breathless: you can’t hold onto it, but are left the richer for having experienced it.

And it all could very easily have been written for Craig Morris who embraces it all with such provocative focus that he is hauntingly magnetic. Armed with just an army kitbag and a piece of the kind of traffic barrier that separates a highway from the landscape it severs, some brilliant lighting work and the 1980s sound of Syd Kitchen, Morris evokes a whole wide landscape, from Estcourt to Van Reenen’s pass en route to Durban, coloured with drugs, sex and violence, conflicting values and terror, reality and scary dream fantasies, all seamlessly conjoined in a breathless stretch of 70 precious minutes.

It’s a complicated tale which feels like Bob Dylan’s Masters of War meeting one of Bitterkomix’s more graphic stories.  As the narrative unfolds, you feel as though you’ve been tossed into a cauldron of delicious evil and terrifying South African history, which blends the hateful illogic of Kafkaesque horror with the conundrums of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.

In short, it’s a ten-out-of-ten production which is not only completely flawless, but serves as an important theatrical anthem to that troubling and messy era in South Africa’s history.

  • Johnny Boskak is Feeling Funny is directed by Roslyn Wood-Morris and Craig Morris. It is written by Greig Coetzee and features costume and set design by Craig Morris and lighting design by Barry Strydom. Featuring original music by the late Syd Kitchen, it is performed by Craig Morris, as part of the So So1o 2015 festival, hosted by Wits University. It performs in the Wits Downstairs Theatre on Saturday October 10 at 14.30 and 19.30 and Sunday October 11 at 14.30 and 18.00. Tickets through co.za. Visit http://www.wits.ac.za/witstheatre