Hobson’s choice; moral compromise

GreenManFlashing

MY husband, my everything: Happier times with Gabby Anderson (Michelle Douglas) and Aaron Matshoba (Litha Bam). Photograph courtesy Auto and General Theatre on the Square.

“HAVE YOU SEEN Green Man Flashing?” was a statement uttered with urgency everywhere you went in 2004/5. It was a play that rocked South African society’s equilibrium when it first saw light of day. One of the first works from the pen of Mike van Graan, it fitted the idea of a cultural imperative which forced theatre attendance and was premised on the stuff that made dinner conversations meaty. Fourteen years later, does it still have the shock, the verve and the relevance it did then?

Directed again by Malcolm Purkey – it was his directorial debut in 2005 when he took up the position as artistic director of the Market Theatre – this is a work that brings together a number of important theatre cornerstones, which include it being a part of the high school syllabus in this country.

It’s a rippingly well developed story which poses a gut-wrenchingly hard conundrum about rape in our society. If you’re the victim, how willing might you be to allow your case to be split wide open under public scrutiny, particularly if you’ve been given a possible route out to a new life with the idea of making the blemish on the rapist’s reputation disappear? But more than this issue, it engages with layers of truths, trauma upon trauma in the name of political status, and ugly histories that don’t really go away, from either the private or the public context.

Staged at the moment at Auto and General Theatre on the Square in Sandton, the work is clearly articulated and riveting in its narrative energies and replays of sequences to inform and develop the story. Several directorial decisions enhance the work’s potency, but the set is enormously bland and odd casting decisions affect the play’s texture.

Further to that, punctuated with angry anti-apartheid posters, from the 1980s and earlier, the work’s backdrop offers tricks of lighting which do not make sense in the context of the story being told. You find yourself pondering which poster will be arbitrarily highlighted at the end of the next scene, as you have to force yourself back to listen to the dialogue.

And the word ‘listen’ is quite key to this – in fact, it could very easily have been a radio drama. You might, as you watch this work, recall Consider Your Verdict, a courtroom series broadcast in the 1970s on Springbok Radio, featuring legal conundrums tossed in the audience’s ear.

Cast-wise, many of the performances feel wooden; the characters are not feasibly three-dimensional and you find it hard to believe that the central protagonist Gabby Anderson (Michelle Douglas) is indeed the mother of a child. There’s a dispassionate harshness in her performance, which makes you question her love for her seemingly much younger husband Aaron Matshoba (Litha Bam) – with the exception of one key moment, where all resistance crumbles and credibility is fleetingly won.

But we digress: Green Man Flashing is a richly constructed work which presents mixed loyalties, unmitigated corruption and scary political priorities in the face of domestic realities in a fresh and new democratic South Africa. The finest performance in this production is that of Sechaba Morojele who plays Luthando Nyaka, the VIP security guard with a loose tongue and a sticky end. You want to trust him from the moment you see him, but his history and his smarminess prevail.

The work remains fabulously prescient in its blurry ideals of what is moral high ground, and scarily focuses on how political expediency can whitewash almost any heinous crime. It’s about the truths revealed in a court case, and the other truths which remain untold, as it presents and dissects deep layers of hate and distrust forged through apartheid impimpis, and a precarious teetering with sexist values. It’s compelling viewing, where the storyline remains king.

  • Green Man Flashing is written by Mike van Graan and directed by Malcolm Purkey. It features design by Denis Hutchinson (set) and Margo Fleish (costumes), is performed by Litha Bam, David Dennis, Michelle Douglas, Kate Liquorish and Sechaba Morojele until May 12 at the Auto and General Theatre on the Square in Sandton. Call 011 883-8606 or visit http://www.theatreonthesquare.co.za
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Theatre to stay home for

Kobus

AT the helm of the theatre of the mind: Kobus Burger, RSG’s executive producer for radio drama. Photograph courtesy RSG.

WOLWEDANS IN DIE skemer (the popular afternoon serial by Leon van Nierop) was my programme, as a child,” says Kobus Burger, executive director for drama on Radio Sonder Grense (RSG), South Africa’s Afrikaans-language Public Broadcasting Service, which is under the aegis of the SABC. “If I missed an episode, it was a very serious matter.”  Radio is alive and well in this society, or is it? Burger chatted to My View about the station’s upcoming season of radio dramas, which starts on March 30 as well as the challenges of the medium.

Drama has always been close to Burger’s heart; he’s enjoyed stints as an art critic and a teacher of writing skills in his career trajectory. Indeed, he initiated the RSG Kunstefees, an arts festival all on radio, in November of 2014. It was a fascinating initiative which brought theatre fare into your life through the wireless. No jackets required. Sadly, the festival was put on a back burner, last year.

“It was budget that put this project on hold,” he says. “It was a lovely project but not part of our mandate. It was part of our innovation strategy, but not a must have. Last year we followed it up with a smaller boutique festival, called RSG Skatkis. And hopefully, if there is funding, RSG Kunstefees will be back.”

Curiously, RSG’s listenership comprises people who might not be fluent Afrikaans speakers. Burger explains that they listen because it is good quality programming and there’s something for everyone. Built on a model which evokes Springbok Radio (1950-1985), it’s a medium which warms the cockles of people’s hearts and hits on the nostalgia button, every time.

“Audio is so amazing, particularly in South Africa,” he adds. “Video is much more expensive and inconvenient because of the priceyness of data. The research says radio is still the most accessible, because people don’t always have access to TV.

“It’s immensely creative and completely non-visual. And with these kinds of limitations, you can do amazing things. You can go anywhere, do anything. It’s never a budget issue, because with audio you can literally travel to the moon, and back.”

From March 30 (Good Friday), a season of 14 Afrikaans plays will grace your radio. A play is broadcast each Thursday evening at 8pm – after Easter Friday, that is. The season begins with an Easter play by Helena Hugo – which is part of the station’s mandate. Then, with the exception of a translation of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, directed by Suzanne van Wijk, the season is rich with brand new names and fabulous yarns written by winners of the radio drama writing competition which has been sponsored by Sanlam for the past 22 years.

The competition generates between 120 and 130 new plays each year. With a purse of R100 000 for all the winners collectively, it’s not a bad incentive. If you win first prize, you’re looking at R37 000. And that’s for a piece of sustained writing of between 40 and 50 pages.

Growing playwrights is not uncomplicated, but it can be very rewarding, he continues. “You have to nurture your writers. New and original drama scripts can be a challenge with some Afrikaans theatre festivals. That’s probably why we see so many translations and adaptations of novels. And sometimes playwrights get precious about their work and won’t take criticism. Some insist that their first draft is the final draft. With our writers, we’re very strict in terms of enabling the best possible work to develop out of an idea. And luckily most of the radio writers like the suggestions and are excited about taking another look at their script.”

Over the next 14 weeks, My View undertakes to bring you reviews of and links to the plays comprising this year’s season of RSG winners, as we did toward the end of last years, with such remarkable works as an Afrikaans translation of Pirandello’s The Man with the Flower in his Mouth, and Dalene Matthee’s exquisite Judasbok, as well as Marion Erskine’s chilling Akwarius, among others. We’re in for another delightful rollercoaster of diversity.

The playwrights responsible for these works include:  Sophia van Taak, a magazine journalist and TV presenter who brings Springgety to air; Lee Doubell, with his work Rommel, Rommel (Rubbish, rubbish) has written before for SAfm; Albert Short, the playwright responsible for ‘n Voorlopige begrafnis (A provisional funeral), is in the finance world, then there’s a new science fiction work by seasoned writer, Schalk Schoombie.

Hittegolf (Heat wave) by Martyn le Roux is about the ozone layers breaking up – it’s a small family drama which takes on a surrealist madness. Martyn’s very interesting and he’s won a lot of acknowledgement so far in English and Afrikaans. At the moment he is developing one of his RSG radio drama scripts into a full-length feature film. It’s called Die Pelsloper and its scheduled to be screened in 2019. Martyn’s grown remarkably and he’s eager to develop with criticism. He might very well be the new generation’s PG Du Plessis.”

So what else is on the radio theatre horizon? There’s a murder mystery with nudist elements, a translation of an old folk tale which sees a father making the ultimate sacrifice when his son is trapped in a borehole. There’s a tale about the damage that gossip can bring and another is an ode to poetry and literature through the eyes of the elderly. The season is wide, the pickings are there for the listening.

 

Drive my car

MissDaisy

BACKSEAT driver: Hoke Colburn (John Kani) and Miss Daisy (Sandra Prinsloo). Photograph courtesy Brooklyn Theatre.

THE ACHIEVEMENT OF theatrical perfection is very rare. And when it happens, you have to grab it with both hands, and make a point of seeing it, whatever it takes. The Afrikaans rendition of the 1989 American story of an elderly white woman and her black driver seems so seamlessly South African, it’s difficult to force your mind around remembering the Jessica Tandy, Morgan Freeman Academy Award-winning version of this work, as you sit and watch South Africa’s unequivocal best doing greatness.

This is simply what you get in the brief season of the work under Christiaan Olwagen’s directorial hand, and with no less than Sandra Prinsloo and John Kani in the respective leads. It is a supremely beautifully crafted work, from top to toe – from the manner in which the costumes fit the context, to the manner in which the performers fill the skins of their characters, to the ingenious understanding of a car as a stage within a theatre, and an audio-visual component that is spot on.

In short, this is as good as it gets. A gentle and empathetic paean to the horror and indignity of ageing, against the changing forces at play in contemporary history and politics, the story is about an elderly Afrikaans woman (Prinsloo) and her son Boolie (Jacques Bessenger). It is his difficult job to gently prise his ageing mum’s hands from the steering wheel of her car and face the implications that this will have on her life and her sense of self.

Enter Hoke Colburn (Kani), a black man who can drive and needs the job. He might not have been formally educated, but he’s completely savvy as to the crooked way of the world – the story takes place in the grim crux of apartheid – and armed thus, without anything on his side, he takes the old lady’s backchat with mostly a pinch of salt and a developed understanding. A story unfolds. Not quite a love story, but an essay about love. It’s also a gentle yet gritty foray about Springbok Radio and learning to read in a cemetery. It’s about the silence that comes of dementia and the quiet dignity of being able to call oneself someone’s best friend.

While the cell phone reference early on in the work does feel slightly anachronistic, the work flows with an easy fluidity – but there is so much more. To see Kani performing in a role that is about the tough discriminatory energies of apartheid, and to see him doing it in Afrikaans, of all languages, lends a deep and resonant understanding of what true performance skill and dignity is all about. His Hoke leaps through politics and time. His Hoke is a man ageing too, who looks death in the eye with a touch of laughter and a lot of soul. His Hoke speaks Afrikaans like a local and he will make you weep with his sense of brave vulnerability. Prinsloo’s Miss Daisy is profoundly brittle and immersed in the egotistical bravado that comes of age. She encapsulates that sense of an old woman that makes you recoil from her and love her, simultaneously. In short, she’s the feisty mum who is the repository of innocent racist values that infused an ideology.

And yes, it is uncomfortable: it reveals all the ugliness of bias couched in wisdom and context. It’s predictable in its structure, but resonant in its articulation of values. Without pussyfooting in political rhetoric or attempting to be politically correct, it casts some magic in the world. In short, seeing the Afrikaans rendition of Driving Miss Daisy is the best reason to be in Pretoria, right now.

  • So Ry Miss Daisy is written by Alfred Uhry and translated into Afrikaans by Saartjie Botha. It is directed by Christiaan Olwagen and features creative input by Rocco Pool (set), Wolf Britz (lighting) and Birrie Le Roux (costumes). It is performed by Jacques Bessenger, John Kani and Sandra Prinsloo at the Brooklyn Theatre, Menlo Park, Pretoria, until August 19. Visit brooklyntheatre.co.za or call 012 460 6033.

A splendid afternoon with the naughtiest boy in the world

justwilliam

“Cor! Blimey! Crikey!”  “You would say that, wouldn’t you?!” There is a very special place in the heart of many a former radio theatre fan, for real British radio drama; the kind that we in South Africa used to hear on the ‘A Programme’ on radio; the kind that is blithely politically incorrect, as it takes a chunk out of the preciousness of societal norms while it is gingerly yet viciously rude and has the internal doubts and give and take that make the whole discursive domestic culture so very endearing and barbed. Think Dame Margaret Rutherford. Think Maggie Smith, and indeed, think of the crisp and sarcastic, farcical and totally hilarious writing of the calibre of Agatha Christie, Edith Nesbit, and of course, Richmal Crompton, the creator of Just William.

This theatre work, drawing from the pen of Kenneth Williams and under the powerful directorial eye of Alan Swerdlow brings together a whole range of anachronisms and theatre traditions – on radio and on stage – utterly flawlessly. In the hands of Malcolm Terrey who plays Williams playing William, the naughtiest boy in the world, eternally an incorrigible 11-year-old, the three stories told here are just not enough: they come with a level of colour and detail that is at once innocent and delicious in its girl-hating mischief. And you will wish there were more – or that you could tune into the same programme tomorrow afternoon and hear some more of William’s madcap adventures with his mates.

Terrey, a man who won’t see 50 again, is completely perfect in this complex play within a play: he skips from being the six-year-old tyrant Violet Elizabeth to being Aunt Emily with her dentures, large bosom and thigh, seemingly limitless capacity for bread and jam, to say nothing of cake, and her propensity to snore, but then, Terrey bounds back as little William Brown himself, a boy who is the centre and the generator of some of the most farcical mishaps you can imagine.

Just Carry on William is a scrumptious bit of nostalgia which will enable you to laugh uproariously at the obnoxiously ridiculous without feeling the need to check in your political correctness. The character was written from the 1920s until the 1970s and spawned several generations of warm following and much theatrical and film interpretation. While this isn’t a show for children, given the complexity and honed nature of the language, it’s certainly one about children and their fierceness and foibles, their idiosyncrasies and petty yet very vicious and real brutalities. It’s an essay on social manners but it’s also a jolly good laugh and the kind of tonic that we all need after a rather stressful year.

  • Just Carry on William based on the stories by Richmal Crompton is directed by Alan Swerdlow and performed by Malcolm Terrey at The Studio theatre, Montecasino, Fourways until January 17. Visit www.montecasinotheatre.co.za or call 011-511-1818