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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Arm wrestling with giants

the meeting (south africa) 2017

BATTLE of values: Malcolm X (Brendon Daniels) arm to arm with Martin Luther King (Aubrey Poo). Photograph by Iris Dawn Parker.

THEATRE IS TRULY a magical medium. In casting fictional glances at real characters, it can unstitch the raw underbody of a myriad of political what-ifs and set your beliefs on edge. Playwright Jeff Stetson has woven a conversation between US Civil Rights heroes, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King with historical perspicacity and empathy for both sides that is so powerful, you may forget to breathe as it unfolds.

In the hands of a lesser writer, this idea may have degenerated into a simple war of political platitudes and lost its electric edge, to say nothing of its rich balance. Instead, it shines. The characters are three dimensional, and speak with the kind of blood red conviction that will sway your own opinions hither and yon. Under the directorial hand of James Ngcobo, it is a defining theatre experience. The play features an audio-visual sequence projected on each side of the theatre that punctuates the play without messing with its values, as it draws in local and contemporary references with a deft hand and a sure knowledge of how history turns on its own maddening momentum and society sees the same things unfold.

Cast in a similar historical conflation of values we saw in Hinterland by Duncan Buwalda  and directed by Caroline Smart in 2015 which pondered an association between Cecil John Rhodes and Sol Plaatjies, and Mountaintop, staged at the Market Theatre in 2013 written by Katori Hall and directed by Warona Seane, The Meeting presents historical what-ifs with an informed perspective. It’s compelling theatre at its very best.

But it is Brendon Daniels in the role of Malcolm X that gives the work the unquestionable authority it warrants. Aubrey Poo as King tends to be pompous and fruity with his Southern drawl which sometimes becomes a bleat, but the words in his mouth exude levity and fierceness. The play counterpoises the desire for peaceful confrontation with that of violence, in the face of a society bruised and scarred with racism, but one which pivots on arm wrestles and a little girl’s rag doll.

Designed on a set which stands at table-height, the work takes place in the anonymous bland comfort space of a 1960s hotel room in Harlem. Almost staged in the round, the work does, however lean more toward the audiences in the front and right of the performance than those on the left.

Religious values flow through the work’s crevices with Muslim prayer and Baptist references that keep the two men respectful of each other’s values, as suspicion is cast around the securitised environment. You’re not exposed to either man’s assassination, but you know, as the characters do, that death lurks everywhere, and that their time to offer their voices to the world will be curtailed.

But more than all of this is how the fabric of the play itself has been crafted to juxtapose violence with non-violence. There are structural nuances that you may not notice on your first viewing of the piece, that feed into a satisfying reflection of the values of these two men. It’s a play through which you will learn to empathise with both potential approaches to society. It’s apt to make you weep, as it presents Black History Month in intelligent unmitigated boldness.

  • The Meeting is written by Jeff Stetson and directed by James Ngcobo. It features design by Wesley France (lighting), Nadya Cohen (set), Jurgen Meekel (audio visual) and Nthabiseng Makone (costumes) and is performed by Litha Bam, Brendon Daniels and Aubrey Poo in the Barney Simon Theatre, Market Theatre Complex, Newtown, until February 26. Visit markettheatre.co.za or call 011 832 1641.

Electric rain and ill winds

suddenlythestorm

WHO, really, are you? Namhla Gumede (Renate Stuurman) comes face to face with Dwayne Combrinck (Paul Slabolepszy). Photograph by Suzy Bernstein.

DWAYNE COMBRINCK IS a man with demons. You can see this as he walks into his workshop, a bloodied baseball bat in hand. You can see this in the anger he articulates and the acerbic vitriol he spews when provoked. But not all of his demons are fuelled by the sheer force of anger or terror. He’s a much more complicated character than that. He may be a white South African, in his early 60s; but penned and performed as he is by Paul Slabolepszy, he embraces a profound vulnerability that counterpoises his toughness and explodes stereotypes in three-dimensions.

To the world, he’s a tough guy. A “debt collector” – who uses whatever tactics, however dirty they may be, from his “Far East” Rand premises, to get money out of difficult customers. He also welds security gates.

Dwayne’s married to Shanell (Charmaine Weir-Smith), a blonde poppie with her own sense of what is morally right in the world, with a fashion and linguistic verve that will take you back to stereotypes of Brakpan in the 1970s. Hard as nails around the broken dreams she holds in her heart, and beautifully fleshed out by Weir-Smith, she too is a product of very specific apartheid induced bruises and scars.

The vignette of their life together that we are exposed to in this play is thwarted by loss and gain in surprising ways that catches you slipping into stereotypical assumptions. When you hear that someone has died at Dwayne’s business, you jump to startlingly violent conclusions. When the Combrincks discover a potential lottery win with unimaginably huge moral ties on their premises, you jump to others. But the tale woven by Slapolepszy is curiously less predictable in its nuances and realities than you may anticipate.

When Namhla Gumede, an elegant, self-possessed young black woman with an English accent (Renate Stuurman) shows up on their doorstep, mystery pervades. With a warm heart triggered into life by her loneliness, Shanell confides in her, gives her hardly a moment to get a word in edgewise, but in doing so, offers her – and you in the audience – the tools to figure out why she’s there. And this aspect of the story, embedded in a series of hairpin bends as it is, is fairly predictable.

Having said that, conjoined with a fantastically convincing set, the absolutely appropriate coordination of sound and light brings the violent Highveld storm in the title to Shakespearean splendour in this tale of exile and identity. Conceived and crafted to have been launched to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the 1976 Soweto Uprising – which it did: it debuted at the Market Theatre in June – its season now, amid the hail of racist accusations and violent antagonism that is still rocking our world, remains deeply prescient.

It’s a work, similar to plays such as Steven Boykie Sidley and Kate Sidley’s play Shape, and Mongiwekhaya’s I See You, which offers an introspective and thoughtful but not soft voice to embrace a reflection on the fact that not everything is as it seems and that nuance and even deep love can exist even in the most apparently blatant of racially-infused situations. Like the whole repertoire of Slabolepszy’s work written in the voice of its era, Suddenly the Storm is an important and beautifully written work that encapsulates issues that will set many a post-theatre dinner table afire with dialogue.

  • Suddenly the Storm is written by Paul Slabolepszy and directed by Bobby Heaney. Featuring design by Greg King (set), Wesley France (lighting) and Ntuthuko Mbuyazi (sound), it is performed by Paul Slabolepszy, Renate Stuurman and Charmaine Weir-Smith at the Auto & General Theatre on the Square in Sandton until November 19. Call 011 883-8606 or visit theatreonthesquare.co.za  

Lest we forget

ubu

OH, Ma, have you forsaken me? Pa Ubu (Dawid Minnaar) faces some awful truths, cast by Ma Ubu (Busi Zokufa) onscreen. Photograph by Val Adamson.

WHEN 20 YEARS have elapsed after your first experience in the presence of true greatness, you might have forgotten the unequivocal brilliance that a work such as Ubu and the Truth Commission has brought to South African theatre. And indeed, more than 20 years on, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that brought exposure of the horrendous atrocities that were part of the secret political landscape and a semblance of closure to apartheid, might also have slipped into the nebulousness of memory. The value of the current staging of this work can not be understated.

Ubu Roi was an anarchic character penned in the late 19th century by French playwright Alfred Jarry. When it saw light of day onstage in Paris in 1896, it was nothing short of revolutionary. The character’s opening word was famously “Merde!” (shit) to the horror of Parisian audiences. The inflammatory nature of the work is celebrated as having lit the fuse for the anti-establishment movement Dada.

What William Kentridge, in collaboration with the Handspring Puppet Company and Jane Taylor, evolved in Ubu and the Truth Commission is a rich mêlée of every bit of sinister absurdity that Jarry’s Ubu represents, conjoined horrifyingly with apartheid’s values. And there opens a splendid miasma of everything from horror to hilarity and back in a production that will haunt you forever.

Busi Zokufa and Dawid Minnaar reprise their original roles of Ma and Pa Ubu respectively. He’s out there perpetrating brutality on black people. She thinks he’s cheating on her with other women. But the truth is revealed through the lies that he’s literally fed to the couple’s pet crocodile, Niles. In an impossibly fine mix of political association, fact, diatribe and fantasy, the truth and lies and terrors in the night which saw people being electrocuted and tortured, burnt to ashes and dismembered, in the name of the ‘Swart Gevaar’ are brought to the fore.

In the 1990s, when this work was emerging, Kentridge was working with hand-made film, and the rough edges we see in this work resonate impeccably with the narrative as it unfolds. Zokufa and Minnaar, supported by puppeteers Gabriel Marchand, Mongi Mthombeni and Mandiseli Maseti, are in impeccable form: the sense of possibility evoked by a shower that becomes the translator’s booth for the TRC, a suitcase that is the body of a three-headed dog, the vulture on stage, a cat that turns into a camera tripod and microphones that wriggle away from lies, not to forget the interplay of shadow, technology and performers is astonishing yet profound, witty and terrifying all at once.

Your head is consumed by the parallel language of apartheid and its transgressors, by the smooth and astonishing relationship between human being and wooden puppet, by the interfacing of translations central to the texture of the TRC and by the way in which this work, by all accounts, a terrible tale about a man whose soul is rotten by power, remains deeply entertaining and a resounding achievement. This is truly one of contemporary South African theatre’s most important classics, and the privilege of seeing it again in Johannesburg cannot be underplayed.

  • Ubu and the Truth Commission is conceived and directed by William Kentridge and Janni Younge, and written by Jane Taylor. It features design by Adrian Kohler (puppets), Wesley France (lighting), Warrick Sony and Brendan Jury (Music) and Robyn Orlin (choreography). It is performed by Gabriel Marchand, Mandiseli Maseti, Mongi Mthombeni, Dawid Minnaar and Busisiwe Busi Zokufa, at the John Kani Theatre, Market Theatre complex in Newtown, Johannesburg, until September 11. Call 011 832 1641 or visit co.za