A few of everybody’s favourite things

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LISTEN to the worms! Georgina (Taryn Bennett) thinks of life, the universe and a box of worms. Photograph courtesy Contagious Theatre.

YOU KNOW THE little critters: you buy them off your buddies at primary school, pop them into a mulberry-leaf-filled shoe box with holes punched into the lid, and watch them chomp away and grow as you marvel at their fabulous metamorphosis. This new play, Silkworm, by the creative team that gave The Snow Goose its stage-wings and brought The Old Man and the Sea to magical life, offers a beautiful platform for a highly skilled performer, but it is Taryn Bennett’s performance rather than the work’s narrative structure and the tricks and gimmicks that holds it together, that will keep you focused and laughing.

A young woman fabulously named Georgina Aurora Clementine (Bennett), all kitted out in Italian clownish tradition, armed with acute social awkwardness and the kind of persona that evokes Klara van Wyk’s Prettina in her work You Suck and Other Inescapable Truths, will tell you a story of magic and possibility. Bennett reprises this role with great fondness and astuteness, allowing the character to play with the notion of make-believe as she teases her audience.

The work, clocking in at just one hour, will take you to the movies and on a date with a stranger in a jacket and a spot of tiramisu. It will take you to a picnic and onto the beach. And ultimately it will bring you back home to the marvellous miracle that silkworms are able to perform by vomiting kilometres of silk at a time. While some of the stories’ premises are totally delightful, the work doesn’t hang together with sufficient conviction to leave you perfectly satisfied.

You will laugh and you almost weep at a moment that concerns a fish who seems to be drowning, but you don’t: the narrative doesn’t push the poignancy of the work far enough. Bringing in members of the audience is easily the flaw in the piece. While it gets all the schadenfreude-based giggles, it doesn’t serve its approach well.

Having said that, Bennett is always a joy to watch. Her clowning skills, offering a conjoined reflection on a vulnerable character and physical presence, are tight, funny and sophisticated. And even if you don’t emerge from this play with its story clanging wisely in your heart, you will emerge with a sense of having seen someone do something gossamer thin yet lovely.

  • Silkworm is directed by Jenine Collocott with dramaturgical input by Nick Warren. It is performed by Taryn Bennett and this review is premised on a brief season at PopArts Theatre, Maboneng. It performs at Princess Alice Hall, during the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown from June 28-July 5.

Big fish, conjured

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MAN of war ahoy! Manolin (Taryn Bennett) and crew (James Cairns and Jaques de Silva) cast out to sea. Photograph courtesy Auto & General Theatre on the Square.

THERE ARE FEW things as gratifying as a spot of Hemingway to pepper up a dull Johannesburg evening with a bit of culture, but this is Hemingway as you could never have anticipated him. One of this country’s most exciting repertory theatre groups, under the pens of Nick Warren and Jenine Collocott have created a gem of a work that will make you laugh and cry, sailing gloriously and with great skill on the coattails of Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea. Even if you don’t like – or know – modernist literature.

Like their production of the Snow Goose, a few seasons ago, the work hinges more on accounts of the incident rather than the incident itself, but in doing so, not one iota of the texture and the fabric of the tale is compromised, and a whole sea replete with the greatest challenge of an old fisherman’s lifetime, and a humble village of loyal friends, is cast in a simple framework with a turning set, put together with a couple of planks, a log and a table, and some incredibly fine masks and very simple puppets.

It’s a curious novel. On the one hand, celebrated as arguably among the most important novels of the modern era, The Old Man and the Sea (1951) is an example of short, tight writing at its peak. You can read it in a few hours, but still the monumental struggle between big fish and small man becomes almost biblical in its largeness. It contains a parable similar to tales such as Moby Dick, which gives you something to take home with you – about old age, mortality and the challenges of being in the world.

And you might wonder what a group of contemporary South African theatre makers can do with a work of such historical gravitas and serious reputation. Rest assured that you’re safe in the hands of Jaques de Silva, Taryn Bennett and James Cairns, who take apart this great classic with immense bravery and chutzpah, but also an incredible amount of intelligence and skill. The gravitas remains, but is woven into a texture of village life that is rich with humour and tall stories, earnestness and dominoes.

The story is fleshed out with characters such as Manolin, the young boy who Santiago, the old man in question has been training in his boat, but also the village fishermen who tell the incredible tale of a man who went out for the biggest fish of his life, and came back with a story. Indeed, this production reinvents the textures and love affairs, the humour and the pathos of this unnamed fishing village.

Flavoured with songs of the ocean, and sutured together with mime that harnesses a very real sense of magic, the work is truly a brilliant experience: it is beautifully honed and tells a clear story with a very big fish (and an even bigger heart).

  • The Old Man and the Sea is adapted for stage by Nick Warren, based on the eponymous novel by Ernest Hemingway. It is directed by Jenine Collocott and features creative input by Jenine Collocott (production design), Sue Grealy (music), Alida van Deventer (puppetry), Alistair Findlay (set) and Steve Clarke (sound). It is performed by Taryn Bennett, James Cairns and Jaques de Silva at the Auto and General Theatre on the Square in Sandton until October 7. Call 011 883 8606 or visit www.theatreonthesquare.co.za

Mariachi and his Song of Love, Life, Death

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BELTING it out: The irrepressible James Cairns is El Blanco. Photograph courtesy The Luvvie.

 

ARMED WITH A big tummy and a tiny ukulele, James Cairns embodies a whole community of Mexicans in this fabulous piece of theatre, which is a rich and rambunctious amalgamation of everything from traditional Mexican narrative to the demonic beast of copywriting, some colourful fantasy and a bit of radio-style drama thrown in between. It’s swift and funny, sophisticated and self-deprecating and successfully calls upon the devil and God in one voice.

Put together by a highly skilled team of writers, designers and performers, El Blanco examines the path of a pale and freckled Mariachi and how he fares in a dark-skinned world of bias, ancient Egyptian obsidian stones and one in which he needs to whore out his song-writing skills in order to pay the rent. It’s a skilful and heady mix of the past and the potential future, with romance and madness, sadness and lies all cobbled together in a complex series of stories within stories.

And while Cairns has the gift of being able to twist his tongue and his persona into a myriad of different characters all at once, at times, you lose the tiny nuances of the tale, because there are so many voices present in it.  You don’t however, lose the thread of the work, which is like stepping into a delicious and irrevocably rich slice out of one of Gabriel García Marques’s novels, with all its idiosyncrasies, hairpin twists in story lines, thick and layered detail and gesture to make you look. And laugh. And forget yourself.

More than that, Cairns’s stage persona brings a whiff of Danny Kaye, a snort of Spike Jones and the City Slickers and a soupçon of BBC radio’s airs and graces from the 1970s. If you loved his performance opposite Taryn Bennett in The Snow Goose, staged recently in this theatre, you will be completely smitten by this wildly creative monodrama, which vies with loose and totally fabulous abandon between being immensely proper, and totally off the wall, with the flick of an eyebrow.

The rudimentary nature of the work’s set plays into the directness of the work and its uncontrived charm. But the balance of bare necessities and immense skill makes this a work you just don’t want to miss.

  • El Blanco: Tales of the Mariachi is written by Gwydion Beynon and directed by Jenine Collocott. It features design by João Orecchia (sound), Jenine Collocott (set) and Jemma Kahn (costumes) and is performed by James Cairns at Auto and General Theatre on the Square until April 8. Call 011 883-8606 or visit theatreonthesquare.co.za