Fine tuned laughter of memory and forgetting

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BACK to back, they face each other: Sigmund Freud (Graham Hopkins) and CS Lewis (Antony Coleman). Photo courtesy Auto & General Theatre on the Square.

IT TAKES A special balance of intellect and skill, depth of focus and an understanding of subtlety, texture, the shame and dignity of suffering, to say nothing of historical context to take the reins of a play as nuanced and rich as this work, Freud’s Last Session and enable it to seethe with merit and relevance. Alan Swerdlow directing Graham Hopkins opposite Antony Coleman together yield an unutterably fine rendition of a fantasy meeting between an old and dying Sigmund Freud, the Austrian father of psychoanalysis, and a young CS Lewis, then an Oxford professor of literary scholarship, still reeling from the Great War. And their subject at hand? God.

It’s a fictional but imminently feasible dialogue of the ilk of a play such as Hinterland that looked at a meeting between Cecil John Rhodes and Sol Plaatjies, staged at this theatre two years ago, that takes the overlapping time frame of two intellectual giants and asks some pertinent ‘what ifs’. But unlike Hinterland, this work reflects an enormous and detailed affinity with the period as well as the personas. It’s London on the cusp of World War Two. There’s a properness in the behaviour of both men and the way in which the space is decorated as well as in its wireless broadcasts and the palpability of the fear in the ether at the time.

With everything from the beautiful Art Deco radiogram to the Bakelite phone, the reference to Freud’s red chow Jofi and the conviviality of tea in the room containing the notorious psychiatrist’s divan, the work reeks of thoughtful authenticity and direct realism. The only anachronism is three screens bearing projected – and blurred – images of shelved books. It’s not clear why this very two-dimensional understanding of a patently multi-dimensional aspect to the room of a great reader and intellectual was decided on: the set’s use of the Kali statue, for instance, lend the work a particular energy.

Having said that, Hopkins and Coleman embody Freud and Lewis with resonant familiarity. Here are two giants of thought-making coming together to debate and tease apart one of the greatest mysteries of the human species. And they do it with the kind of understated charm that you imagine they would have, had they had the chance.

The quiet dignity of fierce debate conducted by men of great intelligence means that there’s no crass exchange of insults and yet the perspicacity of each man’s position is held with a grave tightness and a relentless conviction. But it’s not only godly things that come under both men’s scrutiny. Illness and terror pervade the conversation. It’s probably in the late 1930s and Freud’s oral cancer is well-advanced. Lewis is shell-shocked from his time in the Great War. But wit is woven into the material, reaching from Freud’s classic jokes to ‘fartist’ humour.

It’s a beautiful piece – an unforgettable one and easily among the strongest pieces of straight theatre in English that this city has seen in a while. It lends a complex and wise mix of the warmth of familiarity to readers and fans of both men’s writing as it paints a graphic portrait of the courage it takes to come to terms with one’s own mortality. Don’t miss this one: it’s a real achievement.

  • Freud’s Last Session is written by Marc St. Germain and directed by Alan Swerdlow. It is designed by Denis Hutchinson and performed by Antony Coleman and Graham Hopkins at Auto & General Theatre on the Square in Sandton until September 16. Visit theatreonthesquare.co.za or call 011 883 8606.
  • Currently also on the boards in Johannesburg is a production of one of CS Lewis’s most well-loved children’s classics, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe.
  • Read a socio-political commentary which grapples with the focus of this play, by seasoned columnist Geoff Sifrin, here.
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School ties, serge skirts and unmitigated magic in the cupboard

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NOTHING to do on a rainy day: Pevensie siblings Peter (Sandi Dlangalala), Lucy (Nomonde Matiwane), Susan (Nieke Lombard) and Edmund (Daniel Keith Geddes). Photograph courtesy National Children’s Theatre.

WHEN REAL MAGIC prevails in a situation, the mystery can be so great that all ideas of play-acting illusion and scepticism are cast aside spontaneously, mesmerising young and old unashamedly in the sense of ‘what if’ that it conjures. This is exactly what happens in the stage version of C S Lewis’s beautiful classic novel, which has been changing children’s lives since the 1950s. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is the quintessential fantasy that takes a bored and rather lonely eight year old through a cupboard in a strange house and into another world, filled with romance and mythology, conquest and the clash of good and evil.

It’s an immensely complicated tale, which some critics have reflected upon as a parable or an allegory. Involving the emotional detritus of the Second World War, the rubrics of heraldry and the story of the resurrection of a great and powerful leader, it’s the kind of work that you might think a children’s theatre director would shy from: replete with so much nuance and detail, it’s a terrifying prospect to stage in a comprehensive manner, and a tight time frame, particularly for little ones.

Director Francois Theron is clearly up for this task in this completely new and stripped down approach to the work. Armed with a couple of bedsheets, a few branches painted white, some baskets with lids and a whole bunch of ingenuity, not to forget a lion which is completely noble in its presence, this fabulously directed cast of four create the whole narrative through children’s eyes. While the specifics of this tale might not be completely accessible to the very young in the audience, replete as it is with the unapologetically complicated language of the original, the magic most certainly will, and as a very fine and boisterous Lucy Pevensie (Nomonde Matiwane) takes us by the hand (alongside her older siblings) into the core of utter magic, which introduces classical mythological beasties such as the Faun, Mr Tumnus (Daniel Keith Geddes), suddenly you are transformed into the nine-year-old that you once were when you were bewitched by this novel decades ago.

It’s not only sterling performances, and utterly wise casting which sees the oldest boy, Peter (Sandi Dlangalala) as the responsible 14-year-old and Susan, the big sister (Nieke Lombard) as one imbued with her own sense of importance in the pecking order, not to forget the less-focused Edmund (Geddes) who becomes susceptible to the allure of the White Witch (Lombard) and her beguiling Turkish Delights; there’s also magic in the set itself. Using echoed circles of magic, ones in twigs and others cast by light, the space is set alight with an impervious sense of possibility that plays with abstraction and make believe as it flirts with true magic. The kind that rests in the hearts of any undeveloped artist, waiting to unfold.

It’s a dream-come-true production which doesn’t lose itself in the details of the original book. Rather, it boldly takes possession of the nub of the tale, keeps the cast in their classic 1950s English school uniforms, and with the device of a shadow casting the texture of lead-lighting in casement windows of English period architecture, the tone is set for the magic to begin. This work is about the craft of the discipline, the necessary suspension of belief as well as all the bits and pieces of magnificence that keep it glowing.

  • The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is based on the eponymous 1950 novel by C S Lewis, dramatised by Le Clanche du Rand and directed by Francois Theron. It features creative input by Sarah Roberts (set and costumes) and Mathew Lewis (lighting), and it is performed by Sandi Dlangalala, Daniel Keith Geddes, Nieke Lombard and Nomonde Matiwane, at the National Children’s Theatre in Parktown, Johannesburg, until September 3 and then, from September 25 until October 15. Visit nationalchildrenstheatre.org.za or call 011 484 1584.

Squeak like a mouse, roar like a lion

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WHAT WOULD YOU do if you discovered a great big cuddly lion with a penchant for roaring loudly at times of great emotion, in your local municipal library? This fabulous little yarn created by Michelle Knudsen and brought to musical life onstage under the directorial hand of Francois Theron debuts at the National Children’s Theatre as its current touring production, will set many a junior primary school child alight with the magic that one can find all quietly tucked into the books of the library.

Designed for a three-to-six year old audience, the work is bold, with clear-to-understand songs and a narrative to make you laugh with its sheer solemn sense of possibility. Showcasing siblings Tlotlego, Tlhopilwe and Tlholego Mabitsi as Kevin, Michelle and Jenny respectively, the three young library users who make friends with this great big somewhat bewildered beastie (Gamelihle Bovana), the work is supported by an utterly ingenious set by Stan Knight, which lends itself to simply casting library mystique over the context of the NCT’s stage in Parktown as well as any regular classroom in any primary school.

And supported by strict rule-keeper librarians Mr McBee (Kabelo Lethoba) and Miss Merriweather (Kayli ‘Elit Smith), who are strident, competent and shrill in their rule abiding way, as grown ups should be, if you’re three years old, the work enjoys the catalyst of the storytelling lady, played by Veronique Mensah, and the inimitable lion himself. It’s a fabulous foil for snippets of tales from the Aesop’s fable involving a lion and a mouse, to C S Lewis’s The Lion The Witch and the Wardrobe, not to mention many an angry, or hungry or naughty lion that crops up in children’s literature.

While teetering very slightly towards the text heavy before interval, the work is sprinkled lovingly with song and dance, but it is Bovana’s characterisation of this great and gentle, curious and respectful, but by and large wordless king of the jungle with such humanity and empathy that points irrevocably to the moral values caught in the upper reaches of this play.

What you come away with is not only an appreciation that some rules can be bent under specific circumstances, and that knowing why rules exist is a tremendous stimulus for being able to honour them, but even more than that, you in the audience are left reflecting on the point of view of the outsider – he may be a lion, but he may also be a child with different physical needs, or a child who doesn’t speak the language, or a newcomer. He needs to be embraced.

And more than all of this is the celebration of the humble institution of the library. It’s certainly something that needs this society’s attention. Rather urgently.

  • Library Lion based on the eponymous 2006 book by Michelle Knudsen, is adapted for stage by Eli Bijaoui and directed by Francois Theron, with design by Stan Knight (set), Jane Gosnell (lighting), Sarah Roberts (costumes), Drew Rienstra (music direction) and Nicol Sheraton (choreography). It is performed by Gamelihle Bovana, Kabelo Lethoba, Veronique Mensah and Kayli ‘Elit Smith and a child cast comprising Tlotlego, Tlhopilwe and Tlholego Mabitsi, as the touring production of the National Children’s Theatre, until February 28. It is touring to primary schools in Gauteng and performs at the NCT in Parktown on Saturdays. Call 011 484 1584 or visit http://www.nationalchildrenstheatre.org.za