Hypocrisy’s crowning glory

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A heady mix of irreverence, theatricality placed in a set simple in its magnificence, that is ramped up all the way and features contrivance pushed to the giddy hilt, Tartuffe is a tightly focused, beautifully choreographed tribute to Molière, which indulges in such an array of over-the-top shenanigans, you become embroiled in the madness and don’t want it to end.

Featuring actors physically large and small, from Vanessa Cooke as the maid Dorine to Neil McCarthy as Orgon, the beguiled father of the house, it’s an impeccable celebration of overstated gesture, eavesdropping and intrigue in the face of utter unabashed hypocrisy. A tale which enjoyed credence in the 17th century, it remains remarkably prescient in contemporary culture: Tartuffe (Craig Morris) is the charlatan smarmily secreted in the church’s moral values for his own benefit. He slips into the confidence, the heart and the intimate family values of Orgon, to almost devastating – but utterly hilarious – effect. But fear not, there’s a grim and sinister twist in the tale that lends it a devilish tone.

There are some strange anachronisms in the language:  the work was originally written in rhyming couplets and has by and large been translated as such in this version. This is a quality which sometimes causes the flow of the poetic metre to stumble and feel uncomfortable. Nevertheless the couplets that do work and the clarity of their articulation will hold you focused and keep you staving off your own laughter, because the hairpin turns of the plot need to be heard to be properly appreciated.

Capitalising on the physical attributes of her cast, director Sylvaine Strike works like a true caricaturist, making the simple gesture of walking up three steps into a sonata, and the act of crossing one’s legs a sonnet.  Indeed, Madame Pernelle, played by Morris is virtually all mouth, and her presence evokes Lewis Carroll’s Queen of Hearts, to excruciatingly funny proportions. Monsieur Loyal, the lawyer, played by William Harding, takes immoderate to another whole level with his size, his sausage and his utterly ingratiating quality which might call up characters such as Dickens’s Uriah Heep, in your mind’s eye.

The music, which represents a pastiche of sound and tunes from the 1920s, is, however, too heavy handed in its approach and it does tend to crush the scenes it infiltrates, jarring and bouncing off the venue’s walls at times. The heaviness of the sound is balanced with acuity with the madly flexible bodies of the cast, however, and this tale of hypocrisy and love, sex and trust is something you wont want to drag yourself away from.

  • Tartuffe is written by Molière, translated from the French by Richard Wilbur and directed by Sylvaine Strike. It features creative input by Sasha Ehlers and Chen Nakar (set), Sasha Ehlers (costume), Oliver Hauser (lighting), Dean Barrett (music composition) and Owen Lonzar (choreography). It is performed by Adrian Alper, Vanessa Cooke, Khutjo Green, William Harding, Vuyelwa Maluleke, Neil McCarthy, Craig Morris, Anele Situlweni and Camilla Waldman at the Fringe, Joburg Theatre, Braamfontein, until June 25. Visit tartuffe.co.za
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Man to man over a brandy

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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

The perfect pleasure of Tobacco

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TAKING YOUR BREATH AWAY: Andrew Buckland is the hapless yet powerful Ivan. Photograph courtesy http://www.netwerk24.com

AS HE WALKS onstage, you know you are in safe hands, and that the evening will not only be completely impeccable, but that it will take your heart and wring it out in a way that you won’t readily forget. Arguably the single play that defined the Grahamstown National Arts Festival in 2014, Tobacco, and the harmful effects thereof is finally at the Market Theatre, and it’s no less of an utterly perfect theatre experience than it was two years ago.

Ivan (Andrew Buckland) is a nervous man who has been asked by his Wife (Toni Morkel) to do a public talk for charity. And premised on this simple do-gooder idea, there evolves a most extraordinary tale of love and hate, claustrophobia and the feathers of a golden eagle, the discomfort of a picnic with 20 children and the tenderness of a couple who know each other well – and everything in between.

A fine and wild monster of a text crafted by William Harding, Tobacco rests on the almost eponymous Anton Chekhov play of 1886 – or, rather than resting on it, it uses the Chekhov as a quirky starting point. With the aid of an incredibly clever set, comprising a very special purpose-made lectern, a wooden box and an old record player, as well as a pair of plastic noses, the work takes astonishing and brave leaps into the terrain of owls and pussy cats, Mozart and bizarre metaphors that smash grammar and logic aside, yielding an experience which takes you on a surreal and bizarre journey through not only tobacco and its harmful effects, but a whole life of complicated domesticity that is haunting in its brilliance.

Buckland and Morkel together articulate a level of clowning sophistication which makes you remember what perfect theatre is all about. With authoritative focus, they make you laugh at something tragic, and cry at something ridiculous: armed only with their bodies and their skill they invest poignancy into clumsiness and incredible poetry into a hen-pecked middle-aged man in his underpants with a necktie around his sweaty head.

But more than all of this Tobacco boasts a structure that evokes a scored piece of choral music. Tobacco is present everywhere, but it appears like a refrain in a text that is about anything but tobacco. The language has a musicality to it and a flow which is unstoppable, building physical theatre into a momentum that will keep you at the edge of your emotion, throughout.

Under the directorial hand of Sylvaine Strike, this is a remarkable play, beautifully cast and put together with such love and laughter that it sings. If you choose to have one theatre experience in your whole life, make it this one.

  • Tobacco, and the harmful effects thereof based on Anton Chekhov’s one act play, On the Harmful Effects of Tobacco is adapted by William Harding and directed by Sylvaine Strike. It features design by Chen Nakar (set) and Sylvaine Strike assisted by Ali Madiga (lighting) and is performed by Andrew Buckland and Toni Morkel, in the Barney Simon Theatre, Market Theatre complex in Newtown until March 6. Call 011 832 1641 or visit http://www.markettheate.co.za
  • See my review of this play from the Grahamstown Festival in 2014 here.

Humanity held to an ape’s mirror, devastatingly

The Beast. Tony Miyambo is Kafka's Ape, Red Peter. Photograph courtesy Facebook

The Beast. Tony Miyambo is Kafka’s Ape, Red Peter. Photograph courtesy Facebook

As he clambers onstage in the glimmer before the production begins, you’re discomforted: you are not sure if he’s man or beast. It’s an ambiguity Tony Miyambo holds with sublime authority over the duration of this astonishing piece of theatre, allowing Franz Kafka’s disturbing 1917 tale of Red Peter which was published in fragmentary form, a story about an ape gentrified by human beings, to blossom in Johannesburg, in 2015.

Channelling a heady concatenation of implied references to Joseph Merrick, also known as the Elephant Man in Victorian culture; Sara Baartman, South Africa’s very own monsterised human being; xenophobic realities and homophobia; and the most recently discovered fossil, homo naledi, the play comprises poignant truisms about identity and the danger of shallowly judging others – or putting those who look different from oneself in a context of display for entertainment. In Miyambo’s hands, it is completely mesmerising.

Rather than dressing as a chimp, Miyambo embraces the notion of chimp-hood from within, and as his animal lip-smacking, snorting and gesturing burst through his tamed veneer, as he stands with a potent sense of physical disability and discomfort upon the podium dressed in a red shirt and tie – the story is crafted around an academic presentation on the evolution of man – your empathy for his complex and tragic plight is enriched and informed.

Miyambo confronts the audience, challenging the theatre’s fourth wall, with cautionary respect and the characteristic curiosity of a primate. You might get your foot or hand shaken, or your hair picked through for tasty fleas during the performance, but it’s a gentle level of engagement and doesn’t disrupt the caveats of animality presented here.

Several years ago, Jemma Kahn and Bryan van Niekerk, under the direction of Sylvaine Strike staged a wordless play at the Wits Theatre called The Animals. It was one of those theatre gems with a short season and not a huge public profile, which nevertheless unequivocally raised the bar in theatrical brilliance. Miyambo’s embrace of Red Peter with all his vulnerabilities and embarrassing faux pas reaches a similar level of theatrical sophistication and fire to Kahn and van Niekerk’s. His blend of empathy, self-deprecation and unswerving focus gives this production the wherewithal to turn your head.

But further to all of this, Miyambo is a performer of nimble and great diversity. His interpretation of Red Peter is utterly flawless in his mimicry of a monkey mimicking a human interface and how his unique quandary is cynical and naive simultaneously. Nothing feels out of place in the interstices of this Red Peter. Miyambo’s performance will leave you shattered by how ideas of humanity cleave with the monkey’s reflection on the base hypocrisies of the human race.

Above all, Kafka’s Ape is a story told with clarity and acumen and, coupled with a very simple set and sensitive lighting decisions, its central premises will haunt you. It is, you must be warned, staged in arguably the theatre complex’s most disrespectful venue for an audience, but the levity and intensity of the 50 minutes of this ten-out-of-ten piece of theatre will supersede any physical discomfort.

  • Kafka’s Ape is adapted from Franz Kafka’s short story A Report to an Academy by Phala O. Phala, who also directs the production. It features costume and set design by Leisel Retief and is performed by Tony Miyambo. It performs on September 27 at the Wits Amphitheatre as part of the So So1o festival hosted by Wits University.

Thomson: This year’s Dance Umbrella packs a hefty punch

Georgina Thomson. Photo courtesy artslink.co.za

Georgina Thomson. Photo courtesy artslink.co.za

It’s a small programme – certainly the smallest we’ve seen in over a decade, but this year’s Dance Umbrella which starts on Sunday night, packs a hefty punch, not only in terms of big names and important productions, but in terms of seeing the Dance Umbrella turn a corner. It’s 26 years since this contemporary dance festival in Johannesburg was coined.

Said Georgina Thomson (pictured), artistic director of the festival for 19 years: “I remember when it started: The whole country was so excited at the idea of a dance platform.” She was living in Durban at the time. In 1991, she moved to Johannesburg, to work at Wits, at the Performing Arts Administration with Mannie Manim and became indirectly involved with Dance Umbrella.

“Philip Stein who ran Vita – a corporate that earned its reputation for arts sponsorship, particularly in the fields of visual art, contemporary dance and craft – set me up, around that time in my own public relations company. Three years later, I was approached by the then manager of the Vita Awards Programme, Nicola Danby to join Dance Umbrella. And that was that.”

Thomson, a former dancer, has tirelessly fought the battle of funding versus critical merit in the difficult and oft obscure discipline of dance, which has presented all kinds of challenges to her from the shock art of Steven Cohen – which often pulled the mickey out of her as he challenged dance protocol with abandon and sometimes actual faeces onstage – to the Stepping Stones aspect of the festival, home to less professional dancers and groups and sometimes rank amateurs.

“The last five years haven’t been the best,” she admits. “In Vita’s time, in Philip Stein we had that wonderful bonus visionary. Every three years he negotiated a new contract with funders. Vita closed because FNB started withdrawing.” Stein died in 2010 after suffering a degenerative disease which had taken him out of the picture for several years. Dance Umbrella remained the only project supported by the FNB from Vita’s bouquet, but was dwindling.

“FNB withdrew funding altogether in 2008 or 2009. The first two or three years we were fine, and then the shift was apparent. I initially thought we wouldn’t have a problem: Dance Umbrella is a big event. We have international programmers. It’s national: we have people entering from all over the country. We commission work and its collaborations internationally. I was quite confident that we would find a new funder, but I was wrong.

“When FNB pulled out, there was no negotiation or communication. We were given a year’s notice by retired SA rugby union player, Francois Pienaar, who was handling the account. He humoured us, but we were not allowed to see or speak to anyone above him. We tried to get a leg in somewhere and just say, give us two years notice, but there was no way.” Thomson explains how the mounting of a festival as big as Dance Umbrella – in the past it has stretched over 10 days, jam-packed with productions – entails at least a three year lead, in terms of planning, funding and so on.

“The National Lottery has been our saviour,” she speaks of next year’s Dance Umbrella. “They really fund you properly. They partner you. Our funding for next year is already in the bank. We know that Dance Umbrella 2015 will happen, in February/March, as usual. Thank God.”

For most of its 26 years, Dance Umbrella was staged in the first quarter of the year. Last year and this, for funding reasons, it has piggy-backed on the Arts Alive festival, hosted by the city of Johannesburg, in early September.

Thomson agrees that this year’s Dance Umbrella is the smallest ever. “But it’s tight.” With seven works over the seven days of the festival’s duration, it is a festival in which you can easily see everything. The works are cherry picked and really promise something wonderful.

It features a lot of collaborations, with performers SA audiences know and love, including Vuyani Dance founder Greg Maqoma, who debuted under Sylvia Glasser’s tuition at Moving Into Dance and dances opposite Roberto Olivan in a piece called Lonely Together, to Cargo: Precious, the highly acknowledged dance focus on the story of Saartjie Baartman, choreographed by PJ Sabbagha and directed by Sylvaine Strike, which debuted at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown last month.

There’s also a Brussels-based company from Zimbabwe, performing a piece called Baobab Shadows, choreographed by Harold George, and a piece from Portia Mashigo who has been working with people from Mpumalanga, entitled More In Than Out of Time. Another of Sylvia Glasser’s protégés, Luyanda Sidiya, the artistic director of Maqoma’s company presents ‘7 Pillars’ and Moya Michael, a Standard Bank Young Artist for Dance collaborates with Belarus dancer Igor Shyshko in a work called ‘Darling’ focusing on the horror of growing up under apartheid in South Africa, or in the wake of the Chernobyl disaster in Russia.

The Dance Umbrella’s headline work is Les Nuits (The Nights). It’s choreographed by Angelin Preljocaj, who runs world-renowned Paris-based dance company and is focused on The Arabian Nights. “I saw them perform in Reunion, and I have to say I have never seen anything like it. And I have been around for a long time. They blew me away. The work is balletic, but it is new. It is pure dance at its best. At its very, very, very top best. Whatever else you might see on any stage, you will never in your life see something like this. Ever,” she promises.

“Next year, we are doing a little bit of reconstructing in that we are stopping the Stepping Stones aspect of Dance Umbrella,” she continues. “It’s a decision which has been a long time coming. When it started 20 years ago, it was called the Fringe. And it was a fringe in which Moving Into Dance and the Tech and various other companies used to bring in younger dancers, but slowly it evolved into becoming more of a community focused thing, which is not a problem in itself: the problem arose in the reality that over the last five years or so, the same work keeps coming  back.”

She explains that after various approaches, she realised “these people are working and dancing in their communities. They are having great fun and they love Stepping Stones for this reason, but they do not want to take their work to the next critical level.

“We’ve replaced it with a new project called Street Dance, which comprises pantsula, hip hop and probably other forms. We’re working with Matthew Manamela, who used to dance with Adele Blank’s Free Flight Dance Company. He’s going to go to five different regions in Gauteng, together with David April and/or Sifiso Kweyama, to audition.”

The whole model of this aspect of the Dance Umbrella will change. “People must enter. Twelve groups will be selected. They will then be workshopped and developed into the presentation that they will be doing at the Dance Umbrella.

“We are also partnering with Sibikwa with a project called Negotiating Space which will be at the new big gallery space in Maboneng, Museum of African Design (MOAD). The project is loosely based on what they did a couple of years ago, with installation works in city spaces. People keen to participate will have to look at the gallery and construct their proposals accordingly.

“And then there’s a young choreographers platform, which will focus on getting students from any training programme to enter. And then the main programme is commissioned and/or international.

“The only work I can definitely tell readers about at this time is one by Constanza Macras, from Berlin who has been residencing here.  She’s going to be premier the work she’s been workshopping here.” Dance fans will remember her astonishing 2008 work, Hell on Earth, which involved street children and a glorious miscellany of approaches. She also mentioned that Jay Pather, director of the Gordon Institute for Performing and Creative Arts in Cape Town, will be presenting a big installation “all over Johannesburg.” No foreigner to site specificity, he is remembered for his 2005 work at Hillbrow’s Constitution Hill, The Beautyful Ones Must Be Born and his 2012 Qaphela Caesar, which forced the Cape Town City Hall and the Johannesburg Stock Exchange into a completely unexpected focus.

Next year’s Dance Umbrella will be staged at the two Soweto Theatres, the Dance Factory and the Market Theatre in Newtown, as well as the MOAD Gallery. The Wits Theatre will be busy renovating at that time.

For further information on this year’s Dance Umbrella, visit www.danceforumsouthafrica.co.za or call 011-492-0709.

Tobacco: worth driving to KwaZulu Natal for

Deliciously Buckland, replete with nose and necktie. Photograph by Michelle Avenant.

Deliciously Buckland, replete with nose and necktie. Photograph by Michelle Avenant.

If you’re looking for a splinteringly fine reason to attend this year’s Hilton Arts Festival in KwaZulu Natal, in September, look no further. Arguably the pick of this year’s National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, On the Harmful Effects of Tobacco penned by William Harding is one of those theatrical productions which is so good, it has the power of holding a festival’s momentum, almost single-handedly.

When a seriously seasoned performer raises his own bar in terms of quality, you have to sit up and take notice. Andrew Buckland has been shaping and reshaping his onstage persona for decades. He’s stood at the helm of physical theatre in South Africa fearlessly and has grown a genre that melds an understanding of clowning with that of contemporary choreography.

It’s a supremely well-developed piece of theatre directed by Sylvaine Strike, which intelligently and movingly, is supported with the rich array of emotional wisdom in the skill of clowning. Based on a tale by the same name by Anton Chekhov, it brings in a range of literary and cultural references, from the ballad of the Owl and the Pussycat by Edward Lear, to very clear and beautiful Beckettian references, to bits and pieces of Kafka, American Indian mythology.

Ivan (played by Buckland) is the central character. He’s been called upon by his do-gooder and socially conscious wife (played in haunting and hilarious cameo appearances by Toni Morkel) to give a community talk on the harmful effects of tobacco, for a fundraising initiative. And from this deliciously hypocritical moment and throughout the play, Buckland ably tosses the notion around, bringing in love, life and everything else into the mix, which is juxtaposed with not only sheer poetry, but utter madness as well. In terms of clowning principles, clear gems of a melding of pathos with hilarity make you sit up and weep, it is so beautiful.

Perhaps in the hands of a lesser performer, this work would not have the astonishing sense of poignancy and wit or be able to hold the focus as touchingly and convincingly as it does. But the writing itself has levity and wit, wisdom and savvy that reach far beyond young Harding’s years, heftily reinforcing the understanding that he is someone to watch.

Distinctive of Strike’s works is a set, so simple that it is wild in its possibilities. Designed by Chen Nakar, this set comprises basically a hollowed out semi-circular plinth, which doubles and trebles in almost literally hundreds of different possibilities. A simple ingenious device, it holds the stage in a handful of magic.

This beautiful production, armed with fine and whimsical caveats is a tonic to the emotions and a celebration of the senses.

  • On the Harmful Effects of Tobacco is written by William Harding and directed by Sylvaine Strike. It features design by Strike (costumes); Chen Nakar (set); and Alex Farmer (lighting) and performances by Andrew Buckland and Toni Morkel and performs at the Hilton Arts Festival, near Pietermaritzburg, which takes place between September 18 and 21.