Two women, and tea with Greek biscuits

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KINDRED spirits: Grace (Lesedi Job) chats to Luli (Fiona Ramsay) of books and life, persecution and victory. Photograph by Suzy Bernstein.

LAST NOVEMBER, AN extraordinary gem of a play saw light of day at the Market Theatre. It was an unusual work, paying tribute to the complex life of South African Greek political activist, teacher, writer and social historian, Luli Callinicos. And unusual in that, because academics are seldom perceived to be sexy enough to honour, during their lifetimes, in this way. It was also a one-hander, stretching Fiona Ramsay’s characterisation skills beautifully. Now, almost a year later, the same creative team, with the addition of Lesedi Job, in the role of Grace, a young woman who was born in exile in the United Kingdom, presents a new manifestation of the work.

Examining the two If We Digs is an incisive exercise in storytelling priorities: the second version is not remarkably better than the first – rather, it features both gains and losses. In introducing the Grace character, the work resonates like a conversation rather than a self-conscious monodrama. And Grace’s life and identity are opened up to both Luli (played by Ramsay) and the audience.

Her presence as a conduit for Luli’s memories is not sufficiently explained, however. Is she interviewing Luli? Why, then, has she brought her own memories to the table? Is Luli interviewing her? Why then, does Luli offer so much of her own anecdotes? Are they old friends? Not really – they’re of different generations, albeit from within a similar political texture, and their conversations reveal unknowns about one another.

This red herring may be cast aside and be forgiven however, because what a dialogue does for the material as opposed to a monologue, is enrich the give and take in the texture of the material. Job’s presence is refined and impassioned and the character she represents is well honed and a good corollary to Ramsay’s Luli, who encapsulates all the idiosyncrasies of South African Greek culture with wisdom and perspective, as well as with deep fondness.

Also placed on a circular stage, as its earlier manifestation was, the work is homely in its sense of domestic space, but not overworked in detail. It is allowed to breathe – and similarly, the South African (and Greek) music which seeps between the interstices of the play are placed with elegance and subtlety, supporting the textual focus well.

But, you in the audience, who might not have seen the first version of this play, lose access to some of Luli’s stories which were re-enacted and brought to memorable life the first time round. Instead, here, the voices of the people who dot Callinicos’s research over a lifetime of archives and documents become lost and turn into footnotes in the folds of the conversation between Luli and Grace.

Further to that, the work ends too neatly. It’s all wrapped with a hug and a proverbial bow tied in rainbow nation hues which leaves you wanting more, though it’s a long, wordy work. Ultimately, the contribution which Callinicos has made to the world in which we live through her research and teaching, her engagement with her own heritage and her beautiful use of language, is precious and both the first and the second manifestations of this work offer her significant presence in audience awareness and memory. But is the latest version of this play better? No. But that’s not a bad thing – This If We Dig is as much a theatrical gem as the last, but for different reasons.

  • If We Dig is written by Fiona Ramsay and Megan Willson and directed by Megan Willson. It features creative input by Nomvula Molepo (lighting) and Nadya Cohen (set and costumes). It is performed by Lesedi Job and Fiona Ramsay in the Barney Simon Theatre, Market Theatre complex, in Newtown, Johannesburg, until August 27. Phone 011 832 1641 or visit markettheatre.co.za
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Bathroom of a million thoughts

Helen

ALL alone in the lavatory. Helen (Gina Shmukler) confronts her future and her past. Photograph by Suzy Bernstein.

PICTURE THE SCENARIO. Suddenly, everything that you may have known in your life has been curtailed down to extreme basics. You’ve a toilet and running water. Electricity. Some magazines, maybe. You can hear what is going on, but cannot reach it. Does anyone know that you are there? You are holed in the guest loo of your house, while burglars ransack your possessions. What is going through your head? This is the premise on which Mike van Graan’s Helen of Troyeville rests. Performed by seasoned actress Gina Shmukler, it is the kind of play that will engage and haunt you, not only because of the magnificent performance, but also because of its political crux.

The work is similar in many respects to the premise in Megan Voysey-Braig’s 2008 novel, Till We Can Keep an Animal. Helen is a white woman who has enjoyed the wide range of privileges that living in South Africa for a white person has presented to her. She’s educated, she’s got all the material possessions she could wish for, including the facility of a guest bathroom, in her home, which has become the repository for everything. She’s widowed. Her daughter has children of her own and lives elsewhere. Hers is a comfortable complacency that comes of age in a context of privilege. All her life she’s had a sense of her own agency. She’s felt that she has a role to play in her own decisions. Suddenly all of this is broken.

There are strange men in her house and she has become victim to a hostage situation and what happens next hangs is in the balance. Helen is savvy of her position as a statistic that won’t leave a blip on news feeds, either way. She’s also cognisant of the awkward role of privileged whites in a society beleaguered by poverty, corruption and oppression that traditionally still befalls people who are not white. She was once a “do-gooder” in society, that enthusiastic buyer of informal knick-knacks from beggars at traffic lights, she argues to herself.

But now she isn’t. Disempowered, disenfranchised, cast out of the picture, subject to the will of others. It is this scenario that forces her to rethink everything – life, her place in it, and what it all means. All she has to bounce ideas off is the bathroom mirror and her memories. And there follows a beautiful concatenation of ideas articulated with a texture and a rhythm that is infectious, almost Shakespearean in its flow, volume and width.

By and large, Helen is not a character given to self-pity, but her mood and her perspectives wax and wane with the flow of time, which does seem to stop, as she strains her ears to get an inkling of what may be happening upstairs in her home. To her possessions. And with a gulp of horror, to her dogs.

Focusing on everything from what she has to what she doesn’t have any longer – she gets you to remourn your own losses – as she ponders the sister she lost, the husband, the adult child who never fitted in, the child of a domestic worker, killed in a crime.

It’s a beautiful play, honed with tiny but provocative musical interludes, exceptional skill and Mike van Graan’s characteristic and intense depth of focus, all enclosed in a tight whorl of values – even to the point where Shmukler’s articulation is not always completely audible – on a level, she is, after all, alone and in her bathroom, allowing her thoughts to bounce off the tiled surfaces.

But it’s also a very frightening play, almost obvious in its framework and in the country’s state of mind with regard to this kind of crime. Handled by professionals highly skilled at their craft, from playwright van Graan to Shmukler to relative newcomer Lesedi Job at the directorial helm of the work, it’s a jewel. But Helen won’t leave your heart or your mind as you leave the theatre.

  • Helen of Troyeville is written by Mike van Green and directed by Lesedi Job. It features creative input by Mandla Mtshali (lighting) and is performed by Gina Shmukler in the Wits Downstairs theatre, on July 29 at 18:00 and July 30 at 18:00, as part of the Wits 969 Festival. Visit webtickets or see Wits 969’s facebook page.
  • For an interpretative commentary on this show, by seasoned columnist Geoff Sifrin, read this.

Blessed (and cursed) by the need to draw

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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