Hypocrisy’s crowning glory

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A heady mix of irreverence, theatricality placed in a set simple in its magnificence, that is ramped up all the way and features contrivance pushed to the giddy hilt, Tartuffe is a tightly focused, beautifully choreographed tribute to Molière, which indulges in such an array of over-the-top shenanigans, you become embroiled in the madness and don’t want it to end.

Featuring actors physically large and small, from Vanessa Cooke as the maid Dorine to Neil McCarthy as Orgon, the beguiled father of the house, it’s an impeccable celebration of overstated gesture, eavesdropping and intrigue in the face of utter unabashed hypocrisy. A tale which enjoyed credence in the 17th century, it remains remarkably prescient in contemporary culture: Tartuffe (Craig Morris) is the charlatan smarmily secreted in the church’s moral values for his own benefit. He slips into the confidence, the heart and the intimate family values of Orgon, to almost devastating – but utterly hilarious – effect. But fear not, there’s a grim and sinister twist in the tale that lends it a devilish tone.

There are some strange anachronisms in the language:  the work was originally written in rhyming couplets and has by and large been translated as such in this version. This is a quality which sometimes causes the flow of the poetic metre to stumble and feel uncomfortable. Nevertheless the couplets that do work and the clarity of their articulation will hold you focused and keep you staving off your own laughter, because the hairpin turns of the plot need to be heard to be properly appreciated.

Capitalising on the physical attributes of her cast, director Sylvaine Strike works like a true caricaturist, making the simple gesture of walking up three steps into a sonata, and the act of crossing one’s legs a sonnet.  Indeed, Madame Pernelle, played by Morris is virtually all mouth, and her presence evokes Lewis Carroll’s Queen of Hearts, to excruciatingly funny proportions. Monsieur Loyal, the lawyer, played by William Harding, takes immoderate to another whole level with his size, his sausage and his utterly ingratiating quality which might call up characters such as Dickens’s Uriah Heep, in your mind’s eye.

The music, which represents a pastiche of sound and tunes from the 1920s, is, however, too heavy handed in its approach and it does tend to crush the scenes it infiltrates, jarring and bouncing off the venue’s walls at times. The heaviness of the sound is balanced with acuity with the madly flexible bodies of the cast, however, and this tale of hypocrisy and love, sex and trust is something you wont want to drag yourself away from.

  • Tartuffe is written by Molière, translated from the French by Richard Wilbur and directed by Sylvaine Strike. It features creative input by Sasha Ehlers and Chen Nakar (set), Sasha Ehlers (costume), Oliver Hauser (lighting), Dean Barrett (music composition) and Owen Lonzar (choreography). It is performed by Adrian Alper, Vanessa Cooke, Khutjo Green, William Harding, Vuyelwa Maluleke, Neil McCarthy, Craig Morris, Anele Situlweni and Camilla Waldman at the Fringe, Joburg Theatre, Braamfontein, until June 25. Visit tartuffe.co.za
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How to celebrate an ordinary hairstylist

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SEARCHING for a number: Tony Miyambo, the son to his father.

IF YOU HAVE ever lost someone you loved very deeply, you will know the surreal madness that makes you see your loved one amongst strangers in the street, in traffic, in the shape of a head, a distinctive movement of an arbitrary stranger. You will remember how the ridiculous minutiae of your life slowed to a momentous lethargy and you will recognise how your memories of the silliest of details when you heard the horrible news, remains irrevocable. The Cenotaph of Dan wa Moriri brings the horror of loss to stage with a intense wisdom, a light hand and a sophisticated sense of levity. It is nothing short of sheer masterpiece.

Blending the unequivocal skills of arguably the finest in South African theatre at the moment – Gerard Bester, Tony Miyambo and William Harding, this work first saw light of day in Johannesburg at the So So1o festival in 2014. Its presence on a professional stage, for a proper season, gives it elbow room to grow and shine with relentless energy.

It’s an intimate tale told with such beauty and candidness that it overleaps the boundaries of specificity and becomes about not only the loss of Miyambo’s precious father, but something universal. Using repeat refrains that engage with place and context, the rhythm of the words, the give and take of the language are satisfying to experience: it’s structured similarly to Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, which skirts and flirts around the enormity of horror with words and associations and a kind of emotional choreography, imitating how the mind embraces huge news.

But more than this, it’s a tale of great belly laughter and immense sadness and it is safe in the supremely competent hands of Miyambo and replete with the inimitable texture of life in Tembisa. Never slipping into the soppily maudlin or the foolishly unfunny, the work is magicked into life with hundreds of tiny blocks of wood. Evocative of Fruit by Paul Noko, this curious innovation in set design, credited to Phala Ookeditse Phala in the earlier manifestation of the work, presents a fantastic give and take between scales as it veers between childhood memories and grown up ones.

They’re blocks of wood which enables Miyambo to plot the sequence of events, the map of his childhood neighbourhood, the peppering of tombstones in a cemetery. There’s a visual rhythm to this humble material, that can render a wooden offcut, a cenotaph, and a table leg a part of a goat. The Cenotaph of Dan wa Moriri celebrates the life of a humble hairstylist, as it confronts the issues of loss: loss of bearing because of illness; loss of life; loss of a grave number; loss of context. It’s a production which demands that you take along several tissues, and while you might still be trying to catch your breath at its denouement, you will leave with your heart on fire with a mix of emotions. In short: it is completely beautiful. The play of the year, so far.

  • The Cenotaph of Dan wa Moriri is written by Gerard Bester, Tony Miyambo and William Harding and directed by Gerard Bester. Featuring design by Julian August (lighting), it is performed by Tony Miyambo at the Mannie Manim Theatre, Market Theatre complex, Newtown, until October 30. Call 011 832 1641 or visit www.markettheatre.co.za

Startled by Coriolanus

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#MartiusMustFall! A young cast tells the dense tragedy of Coriolanus. Photograph courtesy reviewonline.co.za

IT’S RATHER AN odd kind of name to be trending around senior high school students at the moment. Coriolanus is arguably one of Shakespeare’s densest and more difficult works. With no witches or ghosts, monsters or weather patterns to give it verve, it’s a tragedy of political violence and class struggle which resonates with the political morals of our own times, and it’s also this year’s and next year’s English matric setwork for South African schools affiliated to the Independent Examinations Board. This production casts the National Children’s Theatre in a previously unexplored framework: that of the teenaged audience.

And all these elements are to the theatre and the production team’s credit. The pared-down set, and cleverly adaptable costume changes lend starkness and boldness to this rendition. The young enthusiastic cast and their dry-mouthed passion in articulating the tale is infectious and your focus is caught and held very quickly. The play, featuring some astonishing fight choreography, is geared to adapt easily to a range of different venues and to travel easily, but, it seems, having seen the work at the intimate theatre of the NCT in Parktown, the cast has not been adequately prepped in modulating their volume in different spaces.

While it may be all fun and dandy to bang sticks on the floor of a high school stage and shout with great volubility into the faces of youngsters who are studying the work, doing something similar to adult audiences in a tiny space hurts not only the play’s clarity, but the audience’s ability to engage the material. The cajoling of a mob could have been as effective – if not more sinister – had it been conducted in a whisper, in this venue, for instance.

It’s a curious thing: a porous reflection on the theatre’s fourth wall is understood to loosen up the material and render it more casual but offer a more developed understanding of the characters being performed, because responding to audience members effectively changes the nub and current of the performance. Each night. Noble goals, indeed. But it makes some rather astonishing assumptions on the robustness of said audience members. There’s a give and take that happens in this context which puts you, in the audience, who has paid for your ticket, at a disadvantage. This feels wrong: Don’t shout into my face. Move me with your conviction and your skill and your supreme understanding of what you are doing.

The play is sensibly cut to a workable duration of 90 minutes or so. But Coriolanus is not marketed as one of Shakespeare’s more ‘sexy’ works, for a range of reasons. The material, dealing with everything from the ethics of honouring your parents to remaining true to what you believe in, is replete with nuance that takes it back to ancient Rome where it is set. It is dense with cultural references and this young cast doesn’t play a strong role in clarifying the work’s narrative spine. Pieces like Just Antigone and (After) The Flies, for instance, meshed complex historical works with a contemporary understanding, as well as audience engagement, without compromising the material or the focus. But in spite of some hashtag-evocative chants throughout the work, Coriolanus doesn’t offer you any of that loose, wise astuteness, and you leave the work not really entertained or even informed but still startled.

Having said all of that, the difficulty of the initiative must be taken into account. This is a tremendously talented group of creative professionals. Their articulation of Shakespeare’s words is uncompromised and beautiful and their interaction onstage is sophisticated and bold. It’s just their friendliness to an audience that needs more sharpening.

  • Coriolanus by William Shakespeare is co-directed by Rohan Quince and Nicola Pilkington. It features design by Sarah Roberts (costume and set), Jane Gosnell (lighting), Stan Knight (set construction) and Ryan Dittman (combat choreographer). It is performed by Cassius Davids, Emma Delius, William Harding, Maxx Moticoe, Emilie Owen, Thapelo Sebogodi, Carlos Williams and Sanelisiwe Yekani, and is performing a travelling season under the auspices of the National Children’s Theatre, which will be touring to high schools nationally. Call 011 484 1584 or visit nationalchildrenstheatre.org.za

The perfect pleasure of Tobacco

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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.

Speaking of loss and hair in The Cenotaph of Dan Wa Moriri

Tony Miyambo. Photograph courtesy So Solo Festival, Wits University.

Tony Miyambo. Photograph courtesy So Solo Festival, Wits University.

Loss is central to who we are as human beings. It is the ever-threatening fragile hinge that makes us hold tight to our loved ones: and the spice that makes the time we spend with them so achingly precious.  Enter Tony Miyambo, a dignified, under-stated performer who has a sense of deliberateness in his articulation that offers his work compelling prescience.

The idea of loss is magnificently extrapolated in The Cenotaph of Dan Wa Moriri, a piece brought to life with collaborative engagement. Repetition forms a kind of Beckettian chorus in the work’s language, touching as it does on how memories, people, ideas, numbers can lose themselves and blur into an overriding obscurity. Central to the narrative is a son mourning his father taken by a stroke.

Without becoming crude or medically explicit, the work confronts the idea of a brain attack, where the gate to a person’s knowledge and values, sensibility and persona can become physiologically locked and that person can become irreparably lost in their own head and body. Geographies of the city, the house, are described with broad brush strokes, but ones which resonate with visual touchstones.

The tale’s life blood and humour, like that underlining the narrative in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2013 novel Americanah, is hair. Indeed: this play should run in conjunction with the hair exhibition currently on show at the Wits Art Museum: ‘s’ curls, dreads, being killed by burning chemicals, having your hair as your crowning glory: everything about hair is intrinsic to this piece.

It’s an intimate yet universal work, made all the more compelling with a curious yet theatrically fresh use of wooden blocks on a table, arranged and re-arranged to form a city, a metropolis, a cemetery, a miniature reflection on urban busyness. This microcosm of the main protagonist’s world is both robust enough to be tossed hither and yon and fragile enough to break apart at will. It’s a beautiful device, knocked into focus by its clean simplicity.

Sadly, two elements in this work bruise it quite badly and make your engagement with a really wonderful text and performance very difficult: the lighting and the venue.

At a certain point in the piece, a light, constructed to illuminate the miniature set on the table blasts directly into the eyes of the audience. It depends on where you are seated, but that’s a difficult decision to take before the work begins. Shining a light into the eyes of the audience makes them close their eyes. And having them close their eyes might put them in danger of falling asleep. This work is too visceral and tight and big and well conceived to suffer this consequence.

And the venue, Wits theatre aficionados will know as this complex’s worst. It used to be an open air theatre in the 1980s. Later, it was brought into the internal structure of the theatre with a roof and a couple of cushions on the concrete bleachers. It’s neither comfortable nor kind to the production: if you’re not a lithe twenty-year-old, it’s hard on the body and this too can affect your engagement with a work that has the wherewithal to soar beyond petty physicalities.

Physiological challenges aside, The Cenotaph of Dan Moriri celebrates real skill in its writing, collaborative engagement and performance. And if you have known loss in any of its multifarious permutations, it will touch you deeply.

The Cenotaph of Dan Wa Moriri is created by Tony Miyambo and Gerard Bester in collaboration with William Harding. It is performed by Tony Miyambo, directed by Gerard Bester and features dramaturgy by William Harding and design by Julian August (lighting); Phala Ookeditse Phala (set). Part of the Wits So Solo Festival, it performs at the Amphitheatre on October 9, 10, 11, 12, 16, 17, 18 and 19.

Tobacco: worth driving to KwaZulu Natal for

Deliciously Buckland, replete with nose and necktie. Photograph by Michelle Avenant.

Deliciously Buckland, replete with nose and necktie. Photograph by Michelle Avenant.

If you’re looking for a splinteringly fine reason to attend this year’s Hilton Arts Festival in KwaZulu Natal, in September, look no further. Arguably the pick of this year’s National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, On the Harmful Effects of Tobacco penned by William Harding is one of those theatrical productions which is so good, it has the power of holding a festival’s momentum, almost single-handedly.

When a seriously seasoned performer raises his own bar in terms of quality, you have to sit up and take notice. Andrew Buckland has been shaping and reshaping his onstage persona for decades. He’s stood at the helm of physical theatre in South Africa fearlessly and has grown a genre that melds an understanding of clowning with that of contemporary choreography.

It’s a supremely well-developed piece of theatre directed by Sylvaine Strike, which intelligently and movingly, is supported with the rich array of emotional wisdom in the skill of clowning. Based on a tale by the same name by Anton Chekhov, it brings in a range of literary and cultural references, from the ballad of the Owl and the Pussycat by Edward Lear, to very clear and beautiful Beckettian references, to bits and pieces of Kafka, American Indian mythology.

Ivan (played by Buckland) is the central character. He’s been called upon by his do-gooder and socially conscious wife (played in haunting and hilarious cameo appearances by Toni Morkel) to give a community talk on the harmful effects of tobacco, for a fundraising initiative. And from this deliciously hypocritical moment and throughout the play, Buckland ably tosses the notion around, bringing in love, life and everything else into the mix, which is juxtaposed with not only sheer poetry, but utter madness as well. In terms of clowning principles, clear gems of a melding of pathos with hilarity make you sit up and weep, it is so beautiful.

Perhaps in the hands of a lesser performer, this work would not have the astonishing sense of poignancy and wit or be able to hold the focus as touchingly and convincingly as it does. But the writing itself has levity and wit, wisdom and savvy that reach far beyond young Harding’s years, heftily reinforcing the understanding that he is someone to watch.

Distinctive of Strike’s works is a set, so simple that it is wild in its possibilities. Designed by Chen Nakar, this set comprises basically a hollowed out semi-circular plinth, which doubles and trebles in almost literally hundreds of different possibilities. A simple ingenious device, it holds the stage in a handful of magic.

This beautiful production, armed with fine and whimsical caveats is a tonic to the emotions and a celebration of the senses.

  • On the Harmful Effects of Tobacco is written by William Harding and directed by Sylvaine Strike. It features design by Strike (costumes); Chen Nakar (set); and Alex Farmer (lighting) and performances by Andrew Buckland and Toni Morkel and performs at the Hilton Arts Festival, near Pietermaritzburg, which takes place between September 18 and 21.