Feverish for that acid green sedan

GETTING on his boogie shoes: Daniel Buys as Tony Manero. Photograph courtesy http://jozistyle.joburg/saturday-night-fever/

PICTURE THE SCENARIO. It’s the mid-1970s in the boroughs of New York City, and white working class teenagers are dancing themselves wild because there’s nothing else to do to keep body and soul together, other than joining the church or getting a low-key boring job. The opening chords – both musically and visually – of the current production of Saturday Night Fever, punctuated with classic songs from the Bee Gees articulates this with aplomb.

But it is the inadequate balance of sound and vocals, some truly grotesque choreography and underwhelming performances that leaves the production wanting. And yes, it’s a dated show, reflecting petty racisms and sexisms of teenagers in America from 40 years ago, but it’s still deemed an iconic classic; had it been performed with slickness, its sense of anachronism would have been forgivable.

Further, if you’re a die-hard Bee Gees fan, you, too, might be disappointed while you wait to be swept away on a swathe of nostalgia by your favourite tunes penned and originally performed by brothers Barry, Maurice and Robin Gibb in that distinctive falsetto.

Shows recreated in the last couple of years under the Broadway rubric, such as The Jersey Boys, which performed in South Africa in 2013, directed  by West Hyler, or Dream Girls of 2011, under the direction of Brittney Griffin, were performed in such a way that a song could freeze the moment, cause tears to fall and grown men and women to dance, weeping with love, in the aisles, whether or not they were alive when that music was fashionable. This doesn’t happen in this rendition of Saturday Night Fever. Rather, the music seems toned to be beneath the rather flimsy tale of the dreams of a poor boy to find the girl and the dance moves he deems his.

So, what happens is you struggle to hear the dialogue. The microphones attached to the performers’ foreheads force the sound out at such a level, that the words reverberate in the vast shell of the venue and smash against one another, becoming by and large inaudible. The dancing, with lots of really bizarre lifts and front splits for the women, is neither elegant nor erotic. Does it evoke the ethos of disco chaos of the seventies? Maybe. Certainly the costumes fit the era carefully, with the girls’ leotards and boys bell-bottoms – and of course the inimitable white three-piece suit which John Travolta brought into common fashion parlance with the 1977 film.

Daniel Buys in the starring role of Tony Manero has the voice and the moves, but lacks the sense of authority that a performer like Travolta exuded in this work. Instead, you find yourself trying to remember which one’s the one, when he and his buddies are out on the street.

Having said all of that, Matthew Berry playing the hapless Bobby C, one of Tony’s boys opposite Kiruna-Lind Devar as Pauline, Bobby C’s sweetheart arguably create several moments in this show which redeems the trek to the State Theatre. Beautifully cast, both of these young performers embrace the nuances of their – albeit tiny – roles, with fullness, sensitivity and dignity. They sing beautifully and liaise with conviction.

And then, there’s the acid-green 1970s sedan on the set, which is such a remarkably lovely idea that it should have been written about in the programme. Its elegant unpretentious curvaceousness, even the way in which its boot no longer closes properly, lends a tone of the time and flavour of the era which is irrepressible.

Indeed, the machinery of the set of the State Theatre is another element to this production which takes your breath away. Comprising numerous elevators in a variety of sizes, to say nothing of structures which move in on cue and on wheels, the world of the underbelly of New York is brought with all its dirty sham, drudgery and dreams, onto this stage in Pretoria in a manner so beautifully co-ordinated it rips your attention from the dynamics on stage. Here, you get to see inside Tony’s house, with his upstairs bedroom. There’s the park, and the apartment of Stephanie Mangano (Natasha van der Merwe) who grabs Tony by the libido, the bridge central to the tale and the disco venue itself.

Sadly, the State Theatre remains a conundrum for the regular theatre patron, and this old bastion of culture feels like a building site. The downstairs parking leaks and many bays are not accessible because the building’s in disrepair as a result of neglect. There are bits and chunks of the venue that are defined by shrill warnings to the public to stay away because they are unsafe, and huge electrical cords hang in disarray across the opera venue’s walls – a venue which remains as oblivious to safety needs of theatre venues as it was when it was first opened in 1981.

  • Saturday Night Fever based on the eponymous Paramount/RSO film and the story by Nik Cohn was originally adapted for stage by Robert Sligwood and Bill Oaks. It is directed by Greg Homann with design by Rowan Bakker (musical direction), Weslee Swain Lauder (choreography), Denis Hutchinson (set and lighting), Sarah Roberts (costumes) and TrevOr Peters (sound). It is performed by Joanna Abatzoglou, Matthew Berry, Cameron Botha, Vanessa Brierly, Daniel Buys, Kiruna-Lind Devar, Londiwe Dhlomo, Keaton Ditchfield, Toni Jean Erasmus, Devon Flemmer, Zane Gillion, Nurit Graff, Nathan Kruger, Sebe Leotlela, Clint Lesch, Brandon Lindsay, Phumi Mncayi, Bongi Mthombeni, Raquel Munn, L J Neilson, Mark Richardson, Phillip Schnetler, Craig Urbani, Natasha van der Merwe, Steven van Wyk and Charmaine Weir-Smith, and an off-stage band under the direction of Rowan Bakker and Drew Rienstra: Donny Bouwer (trumpet), Jason Green (bass), Maureen Marler (‘cello), Dan Selsick (trombone), Kuba Silkiewicz (guitar), Brian Smith (reeds), P W van der Walt (drums), Daline Wilson (violin), at the Opera Theatre in the State Theatre complex, Pretoria, until October 9. Call 012 392 4000 or visit statetheatre.co.za

Cry the beloved Hunger

The community shrieking their worth in cohesion, in Hungry. Photograph by Sanmari Marias.
The community shrieking their worth in cohesion, in Hungry. Photograph by Sanmari Marias.

An ambitious work, which fills the auditorium with a messy residue of many stories that are either unresolved or resolved so without narrative challenge that they fall flat, Hungry is a play  lent life support by its design, but it doesn’t hold its own in the storytelling, performative or direction stakes.

Like its name suggests, this is a play about hunger as a result of poverty in a generic township, called Lusaka. It’s also about corruption and abuse in a whole range of aspects. And with an astonishing disregard for the power of the medium of theatre, it’s populated with crass over-acting and a disrespect for the audience, couched in gimmicks in which performers spill into the audience, demanding money or sex or body searches. These elements are invasive: don’t touch me physically while I watch your play – perform convincingly enough to touch me emotionally or spiritually.

Coupled with this is a script which reveals the white performers in the cast as insensitive and crude in their interface with the township dwellers.

We meet Gaddafi (a performer whose name is not mentioned in any of the theatre’s press material), a community leader, styled so much on rhetoric from George Orwell’s Animal Farm, that he lacks cohesion with the play itself. He is supported and then subsumed by his sidekicks Mpho (Chokwe) and Maponyane (Molele), in a split of the narrative which slides off ambiguously into financial corruption: this part of the story is told in an element of the set which reads as the home of journalist Johan: wheels on the staircase make this clear, but not before some silly ambiguities set in.

We meet Johan (Auret) and his young adult son Dries (McEwan), with their own issues to bury. In what seems to be a journalistic fact-finding mission, they land up further messing up the lives of a township family, already governed by the vagaries of poverty – and its offspring – illness, hunger, abuse and sex crimes. There are faint echoes of the heartbreaking story line in Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country in a contemplation of how a family gets broken by the lure of money in the big city, but it’s told limp-wristedly and you find yourself working really hard to try and believe or be empathetic toward any of the characters.

And what do we get out of the whole experience? It’s a meandering, messily told tale about values. It’s too long, fraught with red herrings and not convincingly researched: no one knows where the daughter of the township family is, but Dries, a white novice in township values, finds her on a seemingly first attempt – she’s a city-based prostitute – and makes a valiant attempt to get her to talk about her mother, instead of having the proffered ‘suck and fuck’ for R50. It doesn’t tally: neither character is sufficiently developed for this grotesque aspect of the play to hold.

But what drives you and makes you sit up straight in the audience, is how the set interacts with the narrative. As a journalist, Johan handles a very large video camera for his work. Oddly, it seems mostly when his son works the thing that the footage is broadcast onto the set, developing a resonance between what the cast is experiencing, and what you experience, in the audience. Comprising sheets of torn and otherwise mangled plastic, there’s a beautiful sense of the vulnerability of skin, broken, scarred and damaged cast across it.

The set, itself, filled with these untrammeled bits of detritus, is magnificently threatening: it’s a space, replete with hanging fluorescents and bits of brick, that speaks eloquently of disuse, dis-ease and social disease, and enables and transparent embrace of the guitarist, whose raw sounds lend texture to the work.

Sadly, in entirely, Hungry is a very weak show: it reeks of the amateur community engagement that is apartheid’s miserable legacy. And it hurts and disrespects its performers with insufficient direction and structure. It’s a missed opportunity: Pretorian audiences deserve better.

  • Hungry, written and directed by Aubrey Sekhabi, with input by Mpumelelo Paul Grootboom and research by Otsile Ntsoane features design by Wilhelm Disbergen, is performed by a cast of 14, including Brandon Auret, Sanku Bakaba, Tshallo Chokwe, Cameron McEwan and Josias Molele and performs at the Arena theatre, State Theatre Complex, Pretoria, until June 8 (012)392-4000.