Paean to The Ones With No Names

train

HELPLESS among the dead: Roelf Visagie (Dawid Minnaar). Photo courtesy: The Market Theatre.

GRAVEYARDS ARE FASCINATING and complex ciphers of values. They’re about grounding one’s memories and honouring those who are no longer with us. They’re about a level of sacredness which touches everyone at the core. This is the premise of Athol Fugard’s devastatingly potent work, The Train Driver and the tone is established with simplicity and rawness from the set and the soundscape, from the outset.

So you think of train and you think of graveyards and you probably understand the nub of the play’s plot from the first few minutes: there’s a death. In fact, there are two. But the sophistication and the nuance of this work takes you much further and much richer into what it means to die, what it means to kill, and what it means to bury people whose names are not told to you. It’s a tale of anger and forgiving that reaches to the very vortex of what makes us human.

You might think Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina as you might think Tony Miyambo’s The Cenotaph of Dan Wa Moriri, and in neither association would you be misguided. This is a simple tale told with a deep heart and a developed sense of empathy. It is as much about the woman on the tracks as it is about the man, helplessly guiding his train.

As you sit and watch this yarn unfolding, you might cast your mind to the recent production of Reza de Wet’s Diepe Grond, a play which with subtlety and terror painted the broad and scary bush of South Africa – a place implied with sound elements and echoes, and one filled with ghosts.

And with no less than John Kani opposite Dawid Minnaar, the work will crumble you to your very essence. Kani plays Simon whose real name is Andile – a gloss on so-called white names in the messy bag that is South Africa. Simon’s a man who lives in a shack on the edges of the graveyard. It’s a place close to nowhere and reflects on issues of poverty which are impossible to understand if your basic necessities are covered. His livelihood is based on allowing those who have no names to rest in peace, safe from foraging dogs or violent opportunists.

Roelf Visagie is the train driver (Minnaar), who comes with white South African values and a heart broken by trauma. The denouement is wrenching and it leaves them both broken in different ways. This is the kind of play that is unforgiving in its indictment on the discrepancies of South African values, but in terms of all its collaborative elements, it sings with a clarity that is searing.

  • The Train Driver is written by Athol Fugard and directed by Charmaine Weir Smith. It features design by Thando Lobese (set and costumes) and Mannie Manim (lighting) and is performed by John Kani and Dawid Minnaar until June 3 at the Mannie Manim Theatre, Market Theatre complex in Newtown. Call 011-832-1641

Soil tilled to a new level

ankobia

PRAISE the lord and pay your dues! The press (Billy Langa, Momo Matsunyane, Lillian Tshabalala, Alfred Motlhapi and Katlego Letsholonyana) interview the messianic Mgnae (Omphile Molusi). Photograph by Thandile Zwelibanzi.

EVERY SO OFTEN in any artistic community, there’s an upsurge of aesthetic do’s and don’ts. It has as much to do with intellectual fashions of the day as it does with the personalities and egos in the industry. But it gives vent and platform to new voices, headlined by virtue of what they are doing with their words and ideas on stage. Monageng ‘Vice’ Motshabi and Omphile Molusi have created a theatrical statement in Ankobia which mashes together the values of Bertolt Brecht with those of George Orwell, in a thunderingly direct South African context. Breathtakingly.

These values are spliced and tossed together in a science-fictionised, sophisticated yet simple context of savagery and corruption which we all know, in this country – indeed, in this world. But this is no easy or direct spoof of contemporary local politics. Wrapping levels of corruption and reflections of religious hypocrisy together, it is a fantasy tale which takes place in 2041. It cuts close to the bone yet is couched in an understanding of biblical narrative and the complexities of acting. A fruit salad, you may think. You’d be wrong: the piece is tautly written and beautifully performed, condensed down to a tale that is easy to follow, even if you only speak English.

In short, Ankobia, featuring sterling performances from the whole cast, in terms of the muscularity and the malleability of their characters, is not only an important bit of theatre heritage for this society, it’s a play for the people in a way that looks to the future of culture. It’s an angry work, which takes pejorative notions, such as racist values, to the hilt and redefines them with an ironic spin. Land issues are transmogrified into a reflection on the magic potency of soil, and the son of God is but an actor on contract (Molusi).

The sinister morality of this work is embraced with visual humour and strong techno-vibes which see an amalgamation of traditional references and a spattering of LED lights. The one flaw in the work is the plasticity of the set which seems to stultify its energy and is not dealt with directly. Having said that, the choreography and dispersal of song gestures and asides lends the work a Brechtian texture, as does the presence of a faux messianic narrator, in all his bravado and flawed values.

It’s a team energy that seethes and bursts with both dexterity and wisdom, and is driven to an even higher level with the use of a musician – Volley Nchabeleng – onstage, lending the piece traditional authenticity and subtlety that is completely appropriate. Similarly, Jurgen Meekel’s audiovisual interjections are positioned with acuteness and fit properly into the material.

But this is no soft or easy story. Ankobia is about twisted values and coerced behaviour. It’s about the purging of brainwashing tools and witches and savages who are the real custodians of a land gone beserk. It’s easily one of the highlights of this city’s theatre picking in a long while.

  • Ankobia is written by Monageng ‘Vice’ Motshabi and Omphile Molusi and directed by Monageng ‘Vice’ Motshabi. It features creative input by Amos Kgaugelo Phala (costumes), Teresa Phuti Mojela (choreography), Thapelo Mokgosi (lighting), Thando Lobese (set) and Jurgen Meekel (audiovisual) and is performed by Billy Langa, Katlego ‘Kaygee’ Letsholonyana, Momo Matsunyane and Omphile Molusi with Volley Nchabeleng playing a wide range of indigenous musical instruments and creating sound effects. It is at the Mannie Manim Theatre, Market Theatre complex in Newtown, Johannesburg, until August 13. Call 011 832 1641 or visit markettheatre.co.za

Man enough

Tau. July 2016.

EXPECTORATION and manhood: Tau’s journey of self-discovery. Photograph by Suzy Bernstein.

“DUMELANG”, HE SAYS, standing just inside the doorway, to the right. So does he, on the left of the doorway. But they both says it in such a gentle undertone that you only really register that they’re greeting you once you’ve passed them. This delicate opening gesture to the play not only sets the tone to a beautiful whirlwind of cultural complexity embodied in the clash of traditional practice with a desire for contemporary balance, but it also touches your core and stimulates a reaction in you. Do you greet the men with equal respect? Do you ignore them? Do you nod and grin sheepishly, afraid they might burst into long sentences in Sesotho which you do not understand? Do you loudly declare “Good evening!”, back at them?

It’s immaterial, really, but this simple understanding of how we as a mixed society grapple with the tools of language, ritual and habit, frames this extraordinarily beautiful and sophisticated piece of storytelling with a succinct but devastatingly powerful hand. Tau (played by Abednigo Moruti Dlamini) is the name of a young man who skirts stereotypical definition with a silent potency. But he’s a young man in a deeply traditional rural community in the Free State and the ritual of circumcision and isolation is one he must confront with his peers in order to attain adulthood.

There unfolds a rich and deeply textured work about male bonding and homosexuality, taboos and curses, gender equality and red shoes, to say nothing of the utterly breathtaking night landscape of animals, crafted with sounds made by the cast. It’s a work which will sweep you from your comfort zones, whether you speak Sesotho or not, and force you to scrabble in the secrecy that holds the manhood of a society together. And there’s an element of intrusion into the culture, but also one of extreme mystery and wonder and contemporary pragmatism which is completely seductive.

Several years ago, there was a lot of local theatre that drew from within traditional African culture. It was passionate work, earnest in its sense of urgency to have a place on the professional stage, but often the paraphernalia of rural ritual was thwarted on stage as it was overwhelmingly amateur. When you watch a work such as Tausimilar to Sibikwa’s production of iLembe  – you rapidly realise that there has been a generational shift in South African theatre and this supremely talented team of performers and creatives is able to meld together the age-old values with modern discourse and utterly beautiful construction. The time has come for these stories to have potent life and value under the gaze and conversation of new dreamers, thinkers and theatremakers, and they are doing it with wisdom and beauty that lends Africa’s old tales a universality which is fresh as it is compelling.

Tau is an exquisite work that is clear to follow but satisfyingly nuanced in its reflection on the values it scrutinises. But its blend of a cappella with precise and intense fight choreography ramps it up even further. It will shift your centre. Forever.

  • Tau is written by Thabiso T. Rammala and directed by Thabiso T. Rammala and MoMo Matsunyane. It features creative input by Monageng ‘Vice’ Motshabi (dramaturge), Hlomohang Mothetho (lighting) assisted by Ntokozo Ndlovu, Thando Lobese (set and costumes) assisted by Lebogang Mokgosi and Philani Nelson Masedi, and Nhlanhla Mahlangu (choreography). It is performed by Allen Cebekhulu, Abednigo Moruti Dlamini, Nono Dombo, James Mankgaba, Khothatso Mogwera, Paul Noko and Mosa Sephiri, at the Barney Simon Theatre, Market Theatre Complex, until August 21. 011 832 1641 or markettheatre.co.za.

An Animal Farm to rock your moral equilibrium, beautifully

Four legs good, two legs better! The pigs, Napoleon (Mpume Mthombeni)  and Snowball (MoMo Matsunyane) get into their stride, as Squealer (Mandisa Nduma) looks on.

Four legs good, two legs better! The pigs, Napoleon (Mpume Mthombeni) and Snowball (MoMo Matsunyane) get into their stride, as Squealer (Mandisa Nduma) looks on.

From the outset, before this rollicking monster of a production gets into its stride, the presence of the blood-stained wooden gate, the empty rubber boots and the cawing, mooing, snorting and barking in the sound track, lend Neil Coppen’s Animal Farm its inimitable tone. It’s very dark. It’s loud and terrifyingly hilarious and it enables a segueing of the values articulated by the original book’s author George Orwell in 1945 with the doublespeak of our own era and local politics. In short, it’s a major tour-de-force success for director Neil Coppen and his immensely fine cast.

But this is a play not for the faint of heart. Dressed in what seems to be the broken fatigues of guerrillas, the characters embrace both political identity and farm-animal-hood, teetering between the two in terms of their articulated values and increasing hypocrisy. With Muriel the goat (MoMo Matsunyane) and Clover the sheep (Zesuliwe Hadebe) effectively acting as the narrators in the aftermath of the uprising, the play is cast in an effective framework, completely legible if you’ve read the book many times and seen myriads of interpretations of it, or if you’re a newcomer to the work.

Lodging a very clear indictment towards the hypocrisy and brutality fuelling our very own government, the work is hauntingly constructed: while it is loud and violent, Coppen’s use of shadow puppetry and his general exploitation of the shadows that explode on stage, is simply authoritative, as it conjures up images that will leave you gasping for air – and then for more. There’s a use of colour and a melding of contrast, implied violence and the storyline that enables this classic to affect your adrenalin levels.

This is one scary show, handled with a wise and developed mix of poignancy and horror that will keep you on the edge of your seat. In one or two instances the loud messiness gets the better of the actresses and the casualty is the clarity of the language, but on the whole, this is a show which sings together with a raucousness that speaks of how much the performers embrace their multiple roles, as it generously reflects a strong and sophisticated understanding of the original work.

The greatest flaw in this production is the brevity of its season at this theatre.

  • Animal Farm based on the eponymous book by George Orwell, is adapted for stage and directed by Neil Coppen, with design by Daniel Buckland (choreography), Tino le Roux (lighting), Thando Lobese and Neil Coppen (costumes), Boipelo Moeti (shadow puppetry), Tristan Horton (sound design) and Marcus Wormstorm, Chris Letcher and Johnny Greenwood (music). It is performed by Khutjo Bakunzi-Green, Zesuliwe Hadebe, Tshego Khutsoane, MoMo Matsunyane, Mpume Mthombeni and Mandisa Nduna, and performs in the John Kani Theatre, Market Theatre complex, Newtown, until September 6. Call 0118321641 or visit co.za

Impeccable Crepuscule

Dignity, sophistication and love: Janet (Kate Liquorish) and Can Themba (Leroy Gopal). Photograph courtesy Market Theatre.

Dignity, sophistication and love: Janet (Kate Liquorish) and Can Themba (Leroy Gopal). Photograph courtesy Market Theatre.

It’s relatively easy to glamourise the 1950s. The fashions are beautiful and dignified. The architecture is poetic. The times were ripe with sex and possibilities: the world was on its knees after two major wars, and the cultural pendulum was swinging back: anything was possible. Truth be told, the period, in South Africa, in particular, was very far from glamorous. Apartheid was rife, and while the fashions were indeed beautiful and the Art Deco buildings of the time were indeed poetic, social and human values were rotten and injustice was like a cancerous rash spreading dully all over society. Enter Khayelihle Dom Gumede. This young man has taken a magnificent piece of prose by Can Themba and brought it to life on stage in a manner which not only celebrates the cultural nuances of the 1950s, but opens up the social underbelly of the period with a searingly sharp tool, aided by an exceptionally fine cast.

In short, Crepuscule is a doomed love story, based loosely on fact, between Janet (Kate Liquorish) and Can (Leroy Gopal). Not only was their love hampered by moral taboos of the time, she being white and he, black, but it flew in the face of their other relationships, to say nothing of the miscegenation laws of apartheid that got lascivious cops checking bed frames for evidence.

But in the hands of Gumede, this impeccable piece of theatre is so much more than this simple yet complicated love story. It’s an essay on shebeen culture, and a reflective and full representation of characters in all their dimensions.

There are no real villains in this tale: you might expect the cuckolded husband, Malcolm (Conrad Kemp) to be reflected upon as the classic colonialist, the tight-fisted white man who lacks social savvy and nuance, and is easy bait for mockery in the vernacular, but under Gumede’s direction and with Kemp’s own developed reflection of the role, a great level of empathy is evoked and honed.

Similarly, Themba’s mother, played with astonishing charisma and authenticity by Thami Ngoma reflects not only a woman resigned with disappointment at her son’s love choices, but one who loves her son and must respect him, and one who has the emotional sophistication to tease and contextualise her own feelings.

Further to each rounded character development, which also features the extraordinary Lerato Mvelase who can be a drunk man as well as she can be a shebeen queen, Liquorish and Gopal raise the stature of the characters they perform to historical and emotional icons. You will be seduced by the delicious crispness of the give and take between them, and the succinct and subtle yet ever so sexy representation of their relationship.

But more than that, you will be haunted and intoxicated by the interjection of song – Sophiatown standards – and dance, and physical theatre and movement that gives this work its life blood. With palpably gorgeous language and featuring some truly brilliant set decisions by the inimitable Nadya Cohen, the work is compact and edgy as it is completely engaging. In short, it is flawless: a work where every nuance is thought through and taken care of, a product which offers a portrait of Sophiatown that jives and beats and weeps and lives. See it.

  • Crepuscule by Can Themba, is adapted for stage by Khayelihle Dom Gumede, mentored by Kgafela oa Magogodi. It features design by Nhlanhla Mahlangu (musical direction and choreography), Nadya Cohen (set), Nomvula Molepo (lighting) and Thando Lobese (costumes) and is performed by Leroy Gopal, Conrad Kemp, Kate Liquorish, Nhlanhla Mahlangu, Lerato Mvelase and Thami Ngoma, at the Laager, Market Theatre complex in Newtown, Johannesburg, until August 2. Call 0118321641 or visit markettheatre.co.za