Blessed (and cursed) by the need to draw

AsherLev

YOU made this? The father (Alan Swerdlow), the mother (Louise Saint-Claire), and Asher Lev, the son (Robert Fridjhon). Photograph by Suzy Bernstein.

IN THE AGONISING moment when Asher Lev’s parents are revealed as utterly out of place in Asher’s world, the tectonic plates of this classic Jewish art story which first saw light of day in 1972, shift. It is a pivot crafted with sheer brilliance that holds this whole play together. But sadly, this interpretation of arguably the go-to novel for any young person who is born into a religious context and blessed or cursed with a talent to create art, is not completely flawless.

The stigma of iconoclasm in a strictly religious Jewish context is a very real one, and adapting this work for stage is complicated. It’s about the challenges a young boy with a talent for art in Hassidic America in the 1940s faced, a tale which spoke directly to the heart of every reader who has ever felt the passion of creativity. The adaptation is by and large solid, but it does feature the narrator speaking directly to the audience quite a lot, which does affect the tone of the material, making it unwittingly seem comedic in its sense of timing. Similarly, there are anomalies in the choice of costume for Asher Lev (Robert Fridjhon), which greatly affects the credibility of the role.

For one thing, he wears a yarmulke embroidered in silver thread and made of glossy satin that speaks of a stream of superficial Jewish fashion that would most certainly not have been de rigueur with a Brooklyn Jew who digresses from the rich phalanx of monolithic values and traditions with which he was raised. For another, he wears a natty little waistcoat which places him uncomfortably between the world of his parents and that of his teacher, not allowing him to belong credibly to either.

But the clothes are the least of it. Indeed, this is not Fridjhon’s best role. We’ve seen him shine and eclipse the stage with his craft, his wit and his wisdom, but his performance here lacks the kind of fierce agony that would contain the horror of banishment so central to the novel. You don’t see the child of six, ten or 13 who is depicted in the text. You don’t see Lev growing before your eyes. You don’t see the kind of raw energy and fierce determination that you may have seen in John Logan’s Red, performed a couple of years ago in this city, with a similar theme revolving around a young artist and his older teacher.

Rather, you’re brother to tears by the pain and authenticity articulated by Alan Swerdlow in his various rabbinical roles, and Louis Saint-Claire as the mother, the model and the gallerist, in turn. To her credit, director Moira Blumenthal doesn’t stint on the use of Yiddish and Hebrew words or religious references, which retain something of the work’s authentic texture, though it could alienate an audience not familiar with some of the terms.

Supported by a mediocre set, which teeters with the aid of numerous thin vertical panels between abstraction and realism, the work contains allusions to the crucifixion painting that draws the threads of the story together to its difficult end, but these allusions are at times hammered home with an obviousness that hurts the story. Also, that moment of banishment that Asher, as a young man, faces, once he has overstepped the line separating art from the rest of his values, seems too low key in the face of the enormity it would represent to a real Asher Lev.

Whether or not you have read the original text, you might well leave this play wanting to seek out your inner Asher Lev and enable him or her to grow the kind of courage to make art that defies all logic and astonishes and frightens the world. And for this, the basic nub and richness of the story which remains intact, much of the flaws in the work become by and large forgivable.

  • My Name is Asher Lev is adapted for stage by Aaron Posner, based on the eponymous book by Chaim Potok. It is directed by Moira Blumenthal and performed by Robert Fridjhon, Louise Saint-Claire and Alan Swerdlow in the Studio Theatre, Montecasino complex, Fourways, until September 3. Call 011 511 1988 or visit pietertoerien.co.za
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How to face up to a man in a panda suit

Breakyourface

TAKING no prisoners: Robert Hobbs is Brett in ‘Break Your Face’. Photograph courtesy Montecasino Theatre.

<<Warning: this show features strobe lights and deep base>>

When a show brings out all the technological tricks including violent strobes and deep bass too big for the venue before the story it tells has the time to stretch its wings and prove its fire, be afraid, be very afraid. Chances are, under these circumstances, said wings will not get their chance to flex and the banging and crashing of techno-boosts will become assaultative. This is the first impact of Robert Hobbs in Break Your Face, a violent and somewhat raw tale of love and truth, Beijing and pandas, which casts a rich spoof with a steady hand on the whole culture of motivational speaking.

Taking you from a depressed former bouncer in a Boksburg night club through to a five star restaurant in China and love and death amongst the petals and pandas, this is a piece enhanced by the kind of clowning performed by Klara van Wyk in You Suck! And Other Inescapable Truths, where the pathos of the central character is performed with devastating accuracy, leaving you feeling alive with a sense of moral queasiness and cringing in your seat.

Brett is the main character, drawing as he does, deeply into the white South African jargon, asides and idiosyncrasies. We get to meet a stereotypical reflection on Chinese culture and explore the gnarled and oft frot underbelly of what it takes to be a bouncer in a nightclub as we get on board a non-stop in your face array of an understanding of what the face means and does for an individual.

Certainly not the best work on the part of either Viljoen or Hobbs, this work mashes together our culture of violence, with our tendency towards taking self-deprecation to its extremes. Spoofing traditions of performance and dignity in a context in which hearts get broken, the piece places audience members in limbo on stage, baseball bat in hand, and nothing to hit.

In short, it’s a messy little show with a strong premise that is overshadowed by too much bombast and loud technology. As a result, the nub, value and fire of the piece itself are sorely compromised. Hobbs performs valiantly, but the material is not on his side. And the truly tragic image of a grown man in a panda onesie losing his temper on the phone is not something you can erase from your memory with enough rapidity.

  • Break Your Face is written and directed by Greg Viljoen and performed by Robert Hobbs, at the Studio Theatre, Montecasino until July 23. Visit pietertoerien.co.za or www.safferland.com

Man to man over a brandy

dop

POWER of three: the man (Andre Odendaal), his drink and his barman (Wilhelm van der Walt). Photograph by Jo Spies.

It’s a great rarity when you are privileged enough to see a play so ununtterably perfect that you feel were you to never see a play again, it would suffice. Fairly low-key, Dop is unequivocally a play of this standard. Premised on the clichéd honest friendship between a man, his drink and his barman, the work reaches into the subtleties of Beckettian nuance as it boldly celebrates the priceless legacy of Afrikaans balladeer Johannes Kerkorrel.

Indeed, Dop is a play with prescience, dealing as it does with the schism between South Africa’s white Afrikaans-speaking contemporary youth, bruised and damaged by fear and immigration,  and the previous generation. Frank Venter (André Odendaal) was born on February 29, 1960, and his father was so mean that he only ever got a birthday present every four years. And at that, it was something manly and utilitarian, like a screwdriver or a spanner. Tim (Wilhelm van der Walt), the barman is a ‘laaitie’, born in the 1990s, but he too has suffered the pain and conflict of love and bias and uncertainty, and he’s quite content to not speak of it.

The brandy nurtures an easiness between the two. And the melding of set and lighting, text and nuance as Frank gets drunker and drunker, pulls you, in the audience, into the vortex of the honesty and fragility that comes of inebriation. It’s happy inebriation in the most part, something that sees Frank’s “Puppies” – his Hushpuppy shoes – left behind, but it opens a level of unbiased brave freedom that finds both men pondering their own broken dreams, but also love, loss and humanity in a way they probably wouldn’t be brave enough to do by sober light of day.

Beautifully performed, Dop in Afrikaans with a bit of Australian English, is a polished gem, woven through intricately and intimately with the life and music of Kerkorrel and his Voëlvry movement which impacted so significantly on Afrikaans youth of the 1990s, but this is so much more than an historical account. It boasts an internal architecture which contains focal nubs that are touched upon and not laboured, woven with love and never forced. The work is also deliciously peppered with Kerkorrel’s ballads – and a bit of Tom Jones – but the segueing of music and text, socio-political reference, sexual identity and the spinning of the bar is wise and fabulous. And just right. You will laugh with a pure heart at the physical gymnastics and cry with a full one at the tale’s astonishing denouement.

  • Dop is written by Retief Scholtz and directed by Sylvaine Strike. Featuring design by Sylvaine Strike and Kosie Smit (set and lighting), Didi Kriel (music) and Madelaine Lötter (costumes), it is performed by André Odendaal and Wilhelm van der Walt in the Studio Theatre, Montecasino, Fourways, until October 23. Visit kosie.biz or www.pietertoerien.co.za

Never forget to smell the roses

oskar

LITTLE boy, frightened: The inimitable Sandra Prinsloo is Oskar. Photograph courtesy Montecasino Theatere.

LOVE, LOSS AND growing old are inescapably part of the human condition. Put these three elements in a children’s cancer ward, and you might expect to yield a narrative which is hackneyed and clichéd. Indeed, you already know how the story ends. But in the loving hands of consummate professionals – from the writer, Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, to the translator Naómi Morgan, to the director Lara Bye and the performer, Sandra Prinsloo – Oskar en die Pienk Tannie is a play so beautifully crafted with such an astute sense of self, that it will rock your emotional equilibrium.

Oskar is a ten-year-old boy. He has leukaemia. Moored in a children’s hospital with a community of friends, including “Popcorn”, “Braaivleis”, “Einstein” and “Blue Betty”, kids with equally scary medical problems, he’s intelligent and sentient enough to understand that his prognosis is not good. But there’s God, who he writes to, and the eponymous “Pienk Tannie”, called Ouma Rosa, a hospital assistant, who tells him tales of women’s wrestling and carves out legends for him to hold onto and laugh at. She’s a little coarse round the edges, but overwhelmingly pragmatic. She takes no shit, has  “passed her sell-by date” and exudes the type of complex humanity you might remember in Julie Walters’s portrayal of Mrs Wilkinson in the 2000 film called Billy Elliot.

Filtered with a deep understanding of language, of human convention and the dramatic emotional extremes and unrelenting egocentricity of a prepubescent child, not to forget the horror of loss, this is an extraordinary work in which the magnificent Prinsloo paints a whole world out there, armed with just a table and some well-managed lighting.

But more than that, this is a one-person play and Prinsloo takes on the fierce vulnerability of the child as well as the gruff love of Ouma Rosa, and the myriad of other characters, with complete candidness. You are never allowed to forget the tragic circumstances of Oskar, but as the work unfolds, you get to hold onto dreamed up legends, which can make 12 days into 120 years, and projects a whole rich trajectory of dreams onto something that in the real world is curtailed and broken by sadness.

And yes, it’s in Afrikaans, but arguably the force of the narrative and the simple complexity of the writing supersedes language barriers and within the first few lines of the play you become so consumed by its magic and texture, that the medium turns universally understandable.

A beautiful six-tissue production, which will leave you with hope in your heart and an imperative to look for wonder the world every single day, Oskar en die Pienk Tannie is a delicate piece constructed with know-how and wisdom, but above all, with uncringing directness.

  • Oskar en die Pienk Tannie is written in French by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt and translated into Afrikaans by Naómi Morgan. It is directed by Lara Bye and performed by Sandra Prinsloo, at the Studio Theatre, Montecasino theatre complex in Fourways, until September 25. Visit montecasinotheatre.co.za

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