Pandora’s suitcase

The Suitcase 2017

ALL we need is each other: Timi (Siyabonga Thwala) and Namhla (Masasa Lindiwe Mbangeni). Photograph by Iris Dawn Parker, courtesy of the Market Theatre.

WHEN A WORK touches you so deeply that elements in its direction have become part of how you see and speak about the world, you know that something’s been done right. In 2006, James Ngcobo directed the stage version of Es’kia Mphahlele’s tragic and beautiful tale The Suitcase. It’s back, returning from a recent United Kingdom tour, and while there are some radical changes to the form of the work, armed with many of the same performers and almost the same set, its magic is still mostly there.

It’s a tale of love and horror in a time of poverty which sees Timi Ngobese (Siyabonga Thwala) and his young wife Namhla (Masasa Lindiwe Mbangeni) coming to the big city to start a life together. It’s the 1950s and they come from a rural village. She’s Xhosa. He’s Zulu. And in the face of frowns from their respective families, they are rich with their love for one another. This love is so young and so real that it makes you weep: you instinctively know the universe is nestling sinister plots in the wings for them.

In the details of this work, love exudes from the way in which its fibre and texture are crafted. From the lambrequins — ornamental shelf hangings lending an irrevocable domesticity to otherwise bare spaces — that define the set and offer platform to the paper birds, to the manner in which the set enfolds a story within a story, that echoes the way in which the words fold into one another, the piece is eminently satisfying to watch. Also bucking the trend of forcing piped music into a production, the work features Bheki Khoza playing the guitar on stage, which complements the work with sophistication and delicacy.

Along the same kind of lines, the work also features three young women – Nokukhanya Dlamini, Gugulethu Shezi and Ndoh Dlamini – who bring interregna of song into the story. And this is a decision less sophisticated and delicate: Their sung interjections are highly amplified, and while the trio is generally in fine form and mostly harmonises well, the boldness of their presence tends to shove the emotional impact of the story down your throat rather vehemently. It no longer allows the events to simmer in a context of devastating subtlety as they did in the earlier version of the play.

Featuring quirky nuances, lovely stylisations of movement and sound, it’s a tale of bright shiny and naïve optimism and crushing, relentless disappointment as it is a heartbreaking cipher of the cruelty of apartheid values that shunned the black man from any modicum of hope.

Mbangeni absolutely glows in the mix of endearing naïveté and mature, scarred resignation she presents to the work. She performs opposite Thwala who reprised this role over ten years ago, and together they offer an energy of domesticity and love that is sweet and palpable. Desmond Dube and John Lata reflect the community surrounding the young Ngobesis, bringing humour and poignancy, the flavour of poverty and the bitter jokes that come of its challenges into the mix.

Not flawless, but deeply iconic as a piece of South African storytelling, this is a valuable, compelling theatre experience.

  • The Suitcase is written by Es’kia Mphahlele and adapted and directed by James Ngcobo. It features creative input by Wesley France (lighting), Nadya Cohen (set) and Nthabiseng Makone (costumes), and is performed by Ndoh Dlamini, Nokukhanya Dlamini, Desmond Dube, John Lata, Masasa Lindiwe Mbangeni, Gugulethu Shezi and Siyabonga Thwala, with Bheki Khoza on guitar, at the John Kani Theatre, Market Theatre complex until November 26. Visit markettheatre.co.za or call 011 832 1641.
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Judge this man by his suit

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LOVE me tender: Philemon (Siyabonga Twala) with Matilda (Zola Nombona). Photograph courtesy The Market Theatre.

EVERY SO OFTEN, a piece of literature is crafted which is simply perfect – in its character development, in its narrative structure, in how the language fits together. Nadine Gordimer’s short story The Train from Rhodesia (1952) is one of those. As is the chapter in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina about the horse. And Can Themba’s story The Suit, is another, unequivocally.

Every so often, theatre gurus get together to give theatrical life to a written masterpiece, and sometimes they get it right. It is, indeed, a true rarity for the performed version to meet the written version with such patent values of respect and artistry, that you must hold your breath when you watch it, because you know you are in the presence of true greatness. This happens in this version of The Suit, which has just enjoyed a Market Theatre season.

As you walk into the theatre, you are accosted on two fronts: the seating is arranged as though for a tennis match: audiences are ranged facing one another. This has been done before in different Market Theatre venues and it poses curious and somewhat unnecessary challenges on the audience.  And then, there’s a huge door as a part of the set. It dominates the work with a crazy kind of bombast that alludes to the French windows of a large house. It’s an effective entrance point to the tale, but poses an anachronism – the characters are living in Sophiatown in the 1960s. There are no big double doors in the lower middle income context extrapolated here. Further to that, there are some odd decisions which see the work’s text transposed in projection onto the work.

These issues are ones which you forgive as soon as the cast begins to perform. And you forgive them, because each cast member is so finely focused on the ethos of the character he or she represents, that you have no more space in your consciousness to think of anything but the tale they tell.

It’s a violent story of psychological cruelty, featuring a suit which is dramatised to sinister levels. The tale is a tragedy, but one not unconscious to the magnificence of the music of the era or the dress culture. This work – along the lines of Dominique Gumede’s Crepuscule – is a adulation of sheer beauty in a time of unmitigated horror, against the backdrop of the cruelty of apartheid.

Matilda (Zola Nombona) is a young woman with dreams to be someone more than just a wife. But then she meets and marries the beautiful Philemon (Siyabonga Twala) and becomes the envy of all her peers. But while he goes out to work, she becomes bored and lonely. And she digresses. And is caught. And she is punished in a way that lends a banal object – the suit in question – a level of horror akin to what Alfred Hitchcock did with sparrows in his film The Birds (1963).

While there are astoundingly fine performances on the part of Twala and Nombona , something has to be said for the magnificent performance of Molefi Monaise, who, within a few seconds of character development, is able to offer such a rounded reflection of the character he represents that his uncharacteristic silence on the bus that preempts the unfolding of the whole drama, chills you to your very bones.

A work of devastating subtlety, of the style and wisdom we saw in The Suitcase written by Es’kia Mphahlele and also directed by Ngcobo a couple of years ago, which also featured Twala in the lead, The Suit is hauntingly unforgettable. Featuring exquisite choreography by Luyanda Sidiya, it offers unvoiced reflection on the Matilda character’s alter-ego. Danced by Lesedi Motladi, it’s an aspect to this work which lends mystery and tender fragility to a story wrenched with betrayal and violence.

The season of this important work coincided with Africa Day, but it’s a work of such wisdom and value that it begs for a longer season.

  • The Suit is written by Can Themba and adapted for stage by Mothobi Mutloatse and Barney Simon. It is directed by James Ngcobo and features design by Luyanda Sidiya (choreography), Richard John Forbes (set), Thapelo Makgosi (lighting), Ntuthuko Mbuyazi (sound) and Sue Sey-Steele (costumes). It was performed by Molefi Monaise, Lesedi Motladi, Andile Nebulane, Lindani Nkosi, Zola Nombona and Siyabonga Twala, in a season at the Mannie Manim Theatre, Market Theatre complex in Newtown, from May 5-28. Visit markettheatre.co.za or call 011 832 1641.

Hard to stomach, Egoli seems to have too many cooks

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What is it that makes a theatre director muddy his own clarity of thought and compromise something utterly wise and moving, with quick and nasty literal gimmicks? Matsemela Manaka’s Egoli, first published in 1980, is a powerful paean to manhood and the collective challenges it faces, but this production of it has mixed success in the rash of grotesque horrors it thrusts at its audience.

More than that, it’s a play that so flagrantly ignores basic precepts of audience comfort that it can be a really frightening experience that reaches beyond the performances, the narrative or the context. It is clear that the director wanted to evoke the kind of terrifying, claustrophobic entrapment miners face daily, for you, who has paid for a ticket and sits in the audience, and in doing this, he succeeds, but perhaps there should be a disclaimer or two at the door or the box office.

You cannot get out of this space without walking through the stage, once the work begins to unfold. You may wish to – on opening night, a woman in the audience actually vomited in response to the drama onstage. There are terrifying strobes and an environment which at times is completely brutal in its description of loss and mourning, shock and anger.

It’s sad: In 2006, there was a production in this theatre complex of Es’kia Mphahlele’s The Suitcase, directed by James Ngcobo with set design by Nadya Cohen. The idea of the horror of sudden loss was absolutely unforgettably conveyed with the crash of a metal dustbin lid. It was a gesture so simple and so devastating and shocking that it reached far beyond its simplicity.

Egoli begins with an astoundingly fine metaphor that evokes that bin lid crash in its wisdom and subtlety, in representing the mine shaft elevator, but sadly there is scant follow through on such sophisticated thinking and much of the work, with the exception of some untouchably lovely a capella work, is violent and crude.

Also there are other elements in this work which seem to overlook the fact that the audience is the final component to a play. If you only speak English, you may well miss some 70% of the work’s nuances. If you’re not able to turn your head completely around, like an owl, you may not be able to see all of the work in entirety: the performers use every corner of the theatre, including areas behind the seated audience. While this is effective, it’s also counterproductive.

Having said all of that, this tale of the horrendous challenges faced by men is at times so achingly beautiful and tragic, it will take your breath away. A work that presents South African miners in delicate three-dimensionality, Egoli is a series of stories within stories about love and hate and humiliation and terror and premature loss and politics, and in this respect, it succeeds in the same way that iconic texts like Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1961) reflects on the humour and fear and crushing inevitability of men in a mandatory situation at war. It’s headlined by nuanced and superb performances in the authoritative hands of Hamilton Dhlamini opposite Lebogang Motaung – as Hamilton and John respectively.

While the texture of the work is convincing and tight, mine tales are mine tales and struggle tales are struggle tales. Knitting the two together feels contrived and the story’s central kernel is a flawed one because the association of the two men feels impossibly coincidental. But it’s a narrative flaw that’s easy to forgive in the face of bigger theatre sins: Gritty and deep, clever and rich, the work, if you’re able to overlook the vomit-inducing elements, the constriction and threat to audience safety, is replete with such developed subtleties and symbolic gestures that its wild leaps toward brutal literality make it feel as though there’s a director too many at work here.

  • Egoli is written by Matsemela Manaka and directed by Phala Ookeditse Phala, mentored by Makhaola Siyanda Ndebele. It features design by Nomvula Molepo (lighting), Onthatile Matshidiso (set and costumes) and it is performed by Faith Busika, Hamilton Dhlamini, Billy Langa, Katlego Letsholonyana, Mohlatsi Mokgonyana, Lebohang Motaung and Alfred Motlhapi, at the Laager Theatre, Market Theatre complex, Newtown, until January 31. Call 0118321641 or visit markeettheatre.co.za
  • Arguably, the success of the environment overrides the critical success of the play itself. Read this piece.