The magnificence of Albert

Albert

MY orange, my orgasm: Albert Silindokuhle Ibokwe Khoza indulges with abandon in oranges for Africa. Photograph by John Hogg.

AS THE SONOROUS chords of Mozart’s Requiem sweep you completely off your feet, expect to have all your senses, including that of expectation, utterly seduced, mashed and repurposed. Albert Silindokuhle Ibokwe Khoza plus Robyn Orlin and Marianne Fassler have created a brand new piece called And so you see … our honourable blue sky and ever enduring sun … can only be consumed slice by slice … and it debuts in Johannesburg this week. There’s one opportunity for you to experience it for yourself. Because experience it, you must: who knows when this combination of talents might appear on Johannesburg’s stages again.

A known collaborator with Orlin in the international arena for several years now, Khoza who debuts here on Johannesburg’s Dance Umbrella stages, is an inyanga. He’s also a very extraordinary performer who makes mincemeat of audience expectations, playing with precious values and the ineffable monster of political correctness with gay abandon. He is not afraid to comment on his own identity, as he orgasmically plunges into oranges in a way that will grab you off guard. The only protagonist in this larger-than-life piece, Khoza fills the stage with his voice and his laughter, with an edge of fear and a cloak that evokes a peacock’s tail feathers in full abundance; he sits like royalty and takes on Christ-like connotations, he dances with Putin and warbles like a cockatoo. He has unquestionable nobility and exudes an atavism from behind a cellophane mask, yet he is as vulnerable as you or I.

Over the years, Robyn Orlin has selected performers with mad little edges with whom she has collaborated. Think Ann Masina and Toni Morkel, Gerard Bester and Nelisiwe Xaba, to name a few. Khoza joins these ranks and brings a level of performative fire to the work that will keep you sitting on the edge of your seat because right up until the last nuance, you don’t know what to expect. Unlike any of Orlin’s pieces so far, And so you see … takes a completely different tilt into the audience. Does it break Orlin’s own rules? That’s difficult to say. But what is clear, is it shifts the parameters of expectation even wider, and as you sit there, you weep with joy at the spectacle, at its anarchy and at the fact that anything goes.

And so you see … is about a performer’s body which is glorious and magnificent in its celebration of itself, man breasts and all, as it’s about the true heart of Africans – we dance with our weapons, thus putting them to much better use than killing. The work enfolds political narrative and the demon of homophobia. There’s a moment of forced audience participation and a kiss blown to the Cullinan diamond in Queen Elizabeth’s crown. Citing everything from Sara Baartman to how Africans thank, it’s a rollicking and sophisticated piece of work that makes you remember why Dance Umbrella always had a heart of fire.

  • And so you see … our honourable blue sky and ever enduring sun … can only be consumed slice by slice … is choreographed by Robyn Orlin with Albert Silindokuhle Ibokwe Khoza and Léopard Frock. It features design by Marianne Fassler and Leopard Frock (costumes), Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Nono Nkoane and Albert Silindokuhle Ibokwe Khoze (music), Laïs Foulc (lighting) and Thabo Pule (camera work). It is performed by Albert Silindokuhle Ibokwe Khoza. The work, part of Johannesburg’s Dance Umbrella in its 30th season performs again on Wednesday March 14 at the Dance Factory in Newtown, Johannesburg. Visit danceforumsouthafrica.co.za or call 086 111 0005.
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How to spice Christmas with shlock, shock and socks

cyrilandshirley

GETTING on like a house on fire: Son and mother, Cyril Dene (Robert Colman) and Shirley (Toni Morkel). Photograph by Dean Hutton.

THE YEAR’S BEEN grim, callous and ugly to most of us. We’ve lost people we’ve loved. And jobs we’ve relied on. War’s been apparent all over the place. As has disappointment in those who lead us. What better way to herald its closure than to indulge in easily the best nativity play you can imagine. Taking the earnestness from the tale and sprinkling it liberally with cabaret, intimate drunken mother/gay son dialogue and other fine spices, this nativity was a sock puppet drama, with schlock and shock ramped up all the way.

Arguably a character who is set to become iconic in South Africa is Sheila Shler. Last month, wig askew, lipstick smeared, but her posh Saxonwold accent still intact, she reported to facebook audiences from the SQs (servants’ quarters) of her grand estate, announcing that her (former) maid, Tryfeena had captured her house and moved her to the servants’ quarters while she slept. It was a tale constructed by veteran performer Robert Colman, contingent on the ‘Saxonwold shebeen’ saga spouted by Brian Molefe formerly of Eskom in his urge to prove himself clean of a Gupta stain, but that’s another whole story.

Sheila has since begun to enjoy a series, which is developing as we speak. And a family. Of sorts. While she did do a guest appearance in the nativity saga, involving baking and boogying, it was Sheila’s very very good friend, Shirley (Toni Morkel) and her son Cyril Dene (Robert Colman) who hosted the delicious revue. Confused yet? Well, you shouldn’t be.

This collaboration by unquestionably the country’s greatest veteran performers, in their sparkly slingbacks, double-decker wigs and bathing suits, to say nothing of long plastic eyelashes, as they lip synced perfectly to opera and delved with grubby issues of old age, sex and death most deliciously, was simply fantastic. It was a slice of Doo Bee Boobies and a soupçon of what might happen next in Sheila Shler’s life. And it was replete with many hilarious cherries on top, including a performance by the inimitable Irene Stephanou as Jesus’ granny with a strong Greek accent, who resents being omitted from the bible; the unforgettable Christine by Mark Hawkins who has terrifyingly dead eyes and other surprises; and a reflection on Welkom as being a little piece of hell for the aged, by Fiona Ramsay and Tony Bentel (who played Death).

With repartee as filthy and direct as is necessary and puppetry by Margaret Auerbach and Eduardo Cachucho that had the audience bordering on hysteria, there were nubs of poignancy and reality that pierced the show and lent it heart. You didn’t just go away with a grin hurting from too frequent use. Cyril and Shirley’s Sock Puppet Nativity and Xmas Variety Show has the potential of being a trailblazer in a whole range of directions, from Stephanou’s Jesus granny tearing into biblical narrative a la Kazantzakis  and his Last Temptation of Christ, to Sheila Shler’s ongoing tale of woe as a beacon showing the other side of what is happening in this country. This was a one-night-only event, but if there’s a chance it will regenerate itself come the end of 2017, there’s certainly something to look forward to in the year ahead!

  • Cyril and Shirley’s Sock Puppet Nativity and Xmas variety show was written, directed and performed by Robert Colman and Toni Morkel. It featured puppetry Margaret Auerbach and Spellbound Puppets, as well as performances by Tony Bentel, Mark Hawkins, Roberto Pombo, Fiona Ramsay, Irene Stephanou. It performed for a one-night-only season at Pop Arts theatre, Maboneng precinct, downtown Johannesburg on December 15. Visit popartcentre.co.za

Take me through the streets of Bertrams

iziThombe

ANYTHING you can dream of: Jean (Toni Morkel) and residents of the Gerald Fitzpatrick Nursing Home in Bertrams. Photograph by Geoff Sifrin.

“I BOUGHT A shirt like this for my son-in-law for seven ront,” she says in a stoutly white South African accent, as she presents a second-hand shirt on a wire hanger, in the shop of Gerald Fitzpatrick House and Nursing Home. The shirt contains a sign that mysteriously says “Listen to me”, and as you put the earphones of the iPod secreted in its pocket to your ears, a story emerges: a story of beaches and sand. Of time gone past and days of wine and happiness. It’s like looking at old black and white holiday snaps. You can almost taste the salt-laden wind with the memories, some in English, others in Afrikaans, French or Portuguese. She is Jean (Toni Morkel), the introductory character in Izithombe 2094, a site-specific play by Alex Halligey which embraces the heart of Johannesburg’s suburb of Bertrams, from the inside.

It’s a theatre experience not for the faint of heart or uncomfortably shod. Wear a hat, carry an umbrella and join in at your own risk and with an open head and heart. Pay what you can. Halligey presents the idea of theatre along the streets of Bertrams with a candidness that will take you by surprise, whether you know the terrain or not. As the work unfolds, dotted as it is with a myriad of characters, anecdotes and pivotal moments – which comprise both staged and impromptu situations, you find yourself pondering and wondering how much of this is actually part of the experience, and how much is about the place itself.

Premised on the idea of the power of the director to take and shift and mould her audience in a particular direction, revealing certain things to them through the vehicle of seasoned performers, there’s a level of trickery in this work which will keep you on your toes. The beautiful graffiti, the magnificent people with stories to tell – tales of poverty and hope, tales of Ethiopian bread and refugees from the Congo, tales of special relationships and the sharing of a last cigarette, tales of people drowning in storm drains, and above all tales of neighbourhood. Not every story in Izithombe is told in words and has logical sequences. Not every bit of ‘treasure’ you might find in the work’s 90 minute duration is something you can see and hold in your hand – some of it you take away with you in your heart.

Opening up the vista of this generally poor and down-at-heel suburb of Johannesburg, close to the city centre, Halligey blurs the boundaries of theatre, audience and context with a frisson of the unexpected and sense of total delight. Here’s a man – Ronnie Maluleke – reciting poems to God on the street corner. There’s a woman – Kibibibisch – a political orator standing outside the refugees’ shelter, called Bienvenu. There’s the most elegant woman in Bertrams, Sylvie (Lindiwe Matshikiza). Here’s a group of school children, dancing and singing to one another in a rotational game which reaches across the street outside their school. Suddenly the world turns in upon itself and you feel that you are a part of this community and this play in a way that is indefinable.

And yes, throughout the 90 minute walk through the suburb, past the informal shops with their wares laid out on the pavements, and the hole-in-the-wall tuck shops and braai shops, the farm made of a bowling green, past the former house of Daisy de Melke, the last woman to have been hanged to death in South Africa, you don’t really lose sight of the fact that you are in a creative work. But unlike works of this nature, such as Brett Bailey’s Blood Diamonds of 2009, which saw a tightly controlled environment, and led audience members by the trembling hand of a black child through the cemetery at night, Izithombe 2094 is more nuanced, more surprising, and in that regard, more in touch with the texture and nub of Bertrams.

We don’t, in South Africa, have a strong tradition of site-specificity in our theatre. It slips into the terrain of the radical, the experimental. You may think of the term and cast your mind in the direction of impromptu performers such as Steven Cohen, who in the past became renowned for “upstaging” or “downstaging” (depending on your own values) events like the Durban July or a bridal show in Killarney with his distinctive costume and presence.

With a nod to all of these traditions, including the choreography of Robyn Orlin, in a particularly memorable “beach” scene in the farm, cast against the background of an astonishingly vivid soundscape, Izithombe shows its mettle and its presence, setting the stage – and the streets – for new possibilities.

  • Izithombe 2094 is researched, conceived and directed by Alex Halligey, assisted by Baeletsi Tsatsi. It features performances by Lindiwe Matshikiza and Toni Morkel and support from Tiffani Cornwall, Fiona Gordon, Michael Inglis, Kibibibisch and Ronnie Maluleke. It performs from Twilsharp Studios, 40/42 Gordon Road on September 3-7. Visit http://bertramsstoriespro.wixsite.com/2094

Weighing, wanting and kneading

Oupa Sibeko

REACHING for the light: Oupa Sibeko in Black Dog, performing in Namibia. Photograph by Ben Skinner.

A YOUNG SOUTH African man will reveal his soul at the National Gallery of Namibia, on August 5. He will be armed with a heavy industrial chain, a broken telephone, an old-fashioned scale, and woman’s stocking, amongst other things. He will also be armed with the fire of self-belief. Meet 23-year-old Oupa Sibeko who spoke to My View just before flying to Namibia.

“The only library I need for my work comes from my roots,” he says. Sibeko was orphaned as a baby. “I come from a lack of family. I have always yearned to have a family. But then I had to learn to appreciate the fact that the absence of family can actually make me strong. Rather than to derail me, it can help to make me a better person in life,” he speaks strongly of the need to not be a victim.

Sibeko was raised by his grandmother, on a farm west of Johannesburg. She was a hardworking and strong woman and she died when Sibeko was just eight. “Since then I was raised by my uncle, who is there when he’s drunk. But when he’s sober, we cannot find a point of communication.”

It was the fire in the sensibilities of that eight-year-old, that held tight to not only his dreams but also the money he inherited from his grandmother, and that brought him to university, years later. That eight-year-old was also a repository for images. He speaks of his gran doing laundry, kneading bread and of the day she died. He speaks of an ability to draw from these memories to create work.

Instinctively he found comfort in performing. The enactment of a nightmare he’d experienced, in a first year class by Joni Barnard made him realise he was on the right track. “I found myself just moving. Was I dancing? Was I walking? I don’t know. But I found myself just doing it. I didn’t have to explain it to myself or to anyone else. It felt right,” he adds that Wits gave him the safe space he needed to play.

After graduating in 2015, Sibeko won a residency in Iceland. Not only had he never flown in an aeroplane, he’d also never slept in a double bed before, but rather than project parochial naiveté, he quickly learnt to roll with the punches. Even when curious Icelandic teenagers flocked to touch him, because of the novelty of black skin for them, he reeled with trauma, but braved it.

“I wanted to be something better in life. Education was so important to me. I came with nothing. I only had my gran’s savings. I didn’t even know its worth. As soon as I had an opportunity to apply to Wits, I did. I used all of that money to register for the degree. For me this money was like her ashes. Was I going to put them in a river and let them go? Was I going to go to a hill and just throw it in the air? Or was I going to make something of my life. Wits was where I put it.”

At university, Sibeko rapidly learnt to make sacrifices of his creature comforts and he often slept all night on campus, like a stowaway. His commute between university and home was almost two hours, involving – often not reliable – public transport. “What was important was this degree. I needed this cultural knowledge. That was all.” He describes the multitude of accents he encountered at Wits and the bamboozling array of values university life tossed his way.

Unequivocally, he describes his lecturers, Gerard Bester and Toni Morkel as the people who touched his sensibilities the deepest, who pushed him further than he thought he could go. “These are the big guns,” he glories in Bester and Morkel’s association with choreographer Robyn Orlin and their work with the Hillbrow theatre. “I also look at Steven Cohen for his bravery in taking chances that are designed to spark controversy. And at how performance artist Albert Khoza, presents himself. It is fantastic.”

The work he performs in Namibia is called Black Dog. “I try to understand my masculinity in this work. It is not about an initiation where a young man is sent to a mountain to be circumcised. It is about self-initiation: I had to clean myself up, sort myself out and decide what kind of a man I would be.

“When I was a child, there were three characters in my life besides me: my gran, my uncle and a black dog. This dog wasn’t a pet: like the rest of us, it had to forage and hunt for itself. And this work is a reflection on myself as a black dog of sorts.

“How should I perceive men? Not all men are drunk and neglectful like my uncle. And women? I only knew my gran until I was eight. I do not know how to respond to her memory as an adult.

“In the work, I play with tangible things.  I weigh myself on a scale … but it is doing more than just weighing my body mass, it is weighing my life, it is weighing where I come from, it is weighing how far I can go. For me, with all these pokes and needles in life, the bottles which are broken which I had to go through, I had to put myself through this journey on my own.

“Part of me is not scared to perform this work in a context which may be sensitive. I choose to be naked. The vulnerability is important.  I know it is a conservative audience, but it is important that they are challenged to address what I am doing.” The exhibition in which Sibeko is taking part is called Conversations. “I’m not having a conversation with anyone. I am the subject and the object. I’m having a conversation with myself, but provoking conversation, among others. This is how it goes forward,” he adds.

Oh, the things you can do with humble tools!

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The world in a swath of brown paper: Liezl de Kock in Heart’s Hotel. Photo by Gemma Middleton, courtesy CuePix.

DO YOU REMEMBER casting shadows of animals made of your own little fingers and hands, on the wall, when you were a small child? The thrill of that level of interpretative magic which makes something unexpected happen in the context of ordinariness is something we as human beings should never allow ourselves to forget. And thanks to utterly remarkable theatre practitioners such as Toni Morkel, Liezl de Kock and James Cuningham, we won’t.

It is always such a splendid privilege and treat to get to see Morkel perform. She lends a blend of sinister humour which is unique and completely magnetic. Ditto for Liezl de Kock, who Johannesburg audiences last saw opposite Andrew Buckland in the wonderful Crazy in Love. When you hear that these two inimitable physical theatre giants are collaborating in a work, your only real questions should be where? And when? Hearts Hotel featured as one of the pickings of this year’s Wits 969 Festival, and hopefully it will enjoy legs, further down the line.

And while all the names on paper shine and sparkle in your mind’s eye, they certainly don’t disappoint in their performances in this quirky apocalyptic tale of motherly love, new beginnings, terrors in the night and a very poisonous scorpion. It’s a work that brings together the rich and simple idea of play in such provocative ways it will singe your heart and leave you aching for more.

When you weep at a death that is evoked with the smoothing out of wrinkled paper, or gasp at the way in which distance and nearness are conveyed by shadows alone, you become susceptible to an easy melding of different realities, and you get sucked into a work of such creative magnitude that it will shift your values. Hearts Hotel comprises a whole range of low-tech theatre crafts, from shadow puppetry to mime. It reflects ideas such as destruction by fire, great distances travelled on foot, big waves in the ocean and the playfulness of a baby with succinct gesture and great wisdom, that will make you laugh with glee and surprise.

Such a range of richness is carried by an economy of tools but a generosity of creative energies that you will feel like a child being exposed to great classics for the very first time.

The language in the work smacks of something East-European in its flavour and sense of tradition, but nothing is pinned down. The devilish horned hats also fit into something which you might not know, but will recognise as a time worn custom, replete with its own rituals and choreography.

Perhaps the only casualty in this work is the looseness of the grand narrative, which holds it all together and is not consistently easy to follow. But in the bigger picture of the work, it’s not a catastrophe – even if you’re not savvy of the apocalyptic nature of the piece, or the madness of the situation in the empty abandoned hotel, even if you do not understand where the curious stranger fits in, or where there be scorpions in this hostile landscape, you will still be swept away by the humble and soaring texture of its unequivocal generosity of magic.

  • Hearts Hotel is directed by James Cuningham assisted by Binnie Christie. It is performed by Liezl de Kock, Toni Morkel and Christelle van Graan as part of the Wits 969 festival for 2016, in the Wits Downstairs Theatre, which ended on July 24.

The perfect pleasure of Tobacco

Tobacco

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.

Oh, father!

Huddled together, the three basement bound sisters in Father Father Father (from top) Roberto Pombo is Sonya, Joni Barnard is Lucy, and Rachael Neary is Marcy. Photograph by Ellen Cherry.

Huddled together, the three basement-bound sisters in Father Father Father (from top) Roberto Pombo is Sonya, Joni Barnard is Lucy, and Rachael Neary is Marcy. Photograph by Ellen Cherry.

Take three sisters. Clad them in severe black lace tops, white skirts and insufferable black tresses. Cast around them a vague tale of a missing father, an ever-absent black horse and tuna crumbs. And put vulgar hysteria and arbitrary cruelty into their mouths and souls, and you will have what amounts to Father, Father, Father, a collaborative work which might make you question the value of driving to downtown Johannesburg.

Horror and cruelty are interesting elements to depict onstage. They’re a bit like showing sex: the more that’s implied, the sexier it is. The more that’s shown, the more ridiculous it can become. Father, Father, Father treats all those potentially fascinating notions of mental illness, sinister intent, horror and pain with as much subtlety as a blunt instrument deployed by a hefty child. The work lacks tonality or nuance, and its consistent off-key-ness makes it lose impact.

These three sinister girls would work honed into a vignette in a larger story. They make you think of Dickens’ Miss Haversham, or Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca or the mad woman in Jane Eyre, played out and touched upon by their respective authors with a great sense of wariness, leaving you, as the reader, or the audience to deal with your own horrors in conjuring up these scary women.

Film director Stanley Kubrick achieved this with split second extreme horror in his 1980 film The Shining: there are twin girls in that tale who have screen presence for maybe four seconds, but whose impact lasts a viewer a lifetime.

All this wisdom is missing from Father, Father, Father: instead we see everything about Sonya (Roberto Pombo), Marcy (Rachael Neary) and Lucy (Joni Barnard) and very little of it hangs with conviction, savvy or sophistication. There’s too much screaming and running about. Too much bald cruelty and no back story.

If you’re past the age of believing in the value of blunt scariness, you might feel you’re too old to see theatre of this nature. With a sniff of Chekhov, a poke at narratives of abuse and a whisper at Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty, Father, Father, Father is the kind of play that makes you wish this theatre auditioned work with greater stringency before they presented it to the public.

It lacks convincing narrative, a meaningful denouement, and above all, a sense of balance. The story is a roly-poly display of too much guttural emotion with no evidence of strategy or beauty. And the use of the piercing scream is the clincher: rather than tilting at genuine scariness, its potential to disturb factor sways toward the deeply annoying and you may find yourself edging to the exit before the play finishes.

Father, Father, Father is conceived, written and performed by Joni Barnard, Rachael Neary and Roberto Pombo and directed by Toni Morkel. It enjoyed a four day season at POP Arts in the Maboneng Precinct, downtown Johannesburg during November.