To brave the elements, unapologetically

Elements
SILHOUETTES and shadows, our world and another. A still from Jayesperi Moopen’s Elements. Photograph by John Hogg.

THERE’S SOMETHING EMINENTLY satisfying in dividing a work into four disparate parts and premising beauty around it. Vivaldi did it with the four seasons, creating great poetry out of a pure love of the idiosyncrasies of nature. Jayesperi Moopen does something similar in her collaboration of dancers associated with her company Tribhangi Dance Theatre and Debbie Turner’s Cape Dance Company to celebrate the four elements that make up this world: Earth, Water, Air and Fire. And Elements is an uncompromising, precise work which deliciously melds classical Indian dance values with contemporary dance gestures. It’s like a fresh breath of unpretentious air and will leave you deeply enriched.

Featuring a mesmerising play of shadows and silhouettes, glorious colour and impeccable costumes, the dancers, from the quirky movements of their necks and wrists to the fluidity of their spines, together and individually, create complete magic and wonder onstage.

Curiously, unlike some other Dance Umbrella pieces this year so far, the work has sound which doesn’t threaten to shatter your head. It’s not demure or gentle; it’s strong and resonant and works with the dancers’ dynamic beautifully, but it doesn’t explode into noise at all.

In the middle of the piece, there’s a digression and a videoed interview with the collaborating dancers and Moopen. While this is instructive to watch, there’s an element of “Huh?” to the interjection. You’re not explained why the dancing stops and the video begins, nor why it ends when it does and the dancing continues again.

Skirting and playing with an intricate aesthetic that is different to anything many of them have danced before, there’s a give and take of dialogue and dance language that is easy on the eye. And speaking of easy on the eye, a young male dancer, Shanolin Govender injects something absolutely extraordinary into the energy reflected on stage.

He has a presence which challenges the conventionality of his peers in the ensemble and he moves with a fluidity that clearly infuses him all the way down to his personality. When Govender is performing, oftentimes, the other dancers melt into anonymity and he holds the floor with grace and elegance.

Something also must be said for the unequivocal value of allowing a dance genre to retain its form and to celebrate its own cultural roots. While far from cloistered in a sense of preciousness, the signature work of Tribhangi is rhythmically satisfying, aesthetically magnificent and yet unapologetically associated with the dance language of classical Indian movement. And it will knock your socks off.

  • Elements is choreographed by Jayesperi Moopen. It features design by Shankar Mahadevan, Craig Armstrong, Shpongle, Anoushka Shankar, Daby Toure (music) and Kesavan Pillay (music editing); Wilhelm Disbergen (lighting) and Dex Goodman (videography). It is performed by Shanolin Govender, Emily Isted, Mia Labuschagne, Carmen Lotz, Kearabetswe Mogotsi, Priyadarshni Naidoo, Priyen Naidoo, Shiyanie Naidoo, Pavishen Paideya, Farrel Smart, Danielle Wagner and Marlin Zoutman. The work, part of Johannesburg’s Dance Umbrella in its 30th season performs again on Wednesday March 14 at the Wits Theatre, Braamfontein, Johannesburg. Visit danceforumsouthafrica.co.za or call 086 111 0005.

Elu’s yizkor

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BLESSED is the light: Cohen lights the candelabra in Put your heart under your feet … and walk. Photograph by Pierre Planchenault.

THE CLEAVAGE BETWEEN art and sacred ritual is very ancient. And it’s not often that contemporary art reaches richly and bravely beyond the limitations of what our society thinks art is, or should be.  It’s, after all, dangerous and unmapped terrain. But Steven Cohen, who has never shied from creating his own boundaries and dancing to his own taboos, does just this in Put your heart under your feet … and walk, a work headlining this year’s Dance Umbrella.

It’s a work so invested with its own sense of integrity that it will shatter you. It is not about perfect pointes or co-ordinated dance steps, but in its unperfectness, it shimmers with real values that reach the core of you, because you are alive. Cohen’s focus in this work, which is a developed version of the recent eponymous exhibition he hosted at the Stevenson Gallery in Braamfontein, is loss. The loss that comes of deep love.

It’s all implicit in the props and footage shown in this intensive work, which lifts you into a realm of being governed by things like a frock made of wind-up record players; a boulevard of broken dreams, as the Marianne Faithfull song declares; shoes pinned onto mini upright coffins, and a gesture of endocannibalism, understood in several cultures to be the ultimate level of empathetic mourning. It’s a work which brings the Jewish ritual of lighting candles into the construct of an elaborate candelabrum, as it touches on the horror of being buried. And it’s a work in which he shows footage of undance he performed in a Johannesburg abattoir some time after the death of his partner of 20 years, Elu.

Featuring Cohen’s characteristic head make up, and a stage full of shoes – doctored dance shoes that represent a taxonomy of his and Elu’s dance and undance careers that skirted rules and birthed unimagined aesthetics – the work evokes on the structure of Cohen’s Golgotha. Staged in Paris in 2009, Golgotha dealt with the loss Cohen suffered in the passing away of his brother.

In Put your heart under your feet … and walk, the ultimate energy you feel is one of profound aloneness. Cohen’s face is displayed enormously on the theatre-wide projection in the work. It’s there and then it’s out of focus, lost. And then, Cohen himself appears on stage, dwarfed terrifyingly by the projection, and horribly alone, struggling to retain his focus and dignity in the face of insurmountably heavy and difficult physical challenges.

It’s about the crippling rawness of knowing that your loved one is gone. It’s like a bloody stump that cannot heal. This is not a dance work. It’s a work of impeccable love. And in sharing this intimacy with an art audience, Cohen courageously brings something akin to ancient religious values into the theatre. You might not need to see the rest of Dance Umbrella — indeed, you might not need to see anything onstage again, if you have had the privilege of being in the presence of this work.

  • Put your heart under your feet … and walk is choreographed and performed by Steven Cohen. It features creative input by Cohen (costumes), Joseph Go Mahan, Leonard Cohen and Marianne Faithful (music) and Yvan Labasse (lighting and technical). It performs, as part of the 30th iteration of Dance Umbrella, on Friday March 9 at the Wits Theatre, Braamfontein at 9pm. Visit danceforumsouthafrica.co.za or call 086 111 0005.

Quintessential Giselle in Masilo’s hands

Giselle
MET his match: Albrecht (Kyle Rossouw) feels the wrath of the flywhisk of Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis (Llewellyn Mnguni). Photograph by John Hogg

IF YOU’VE EVER questioned the true value of the arts in this world, you need to see Dada Masilo’s Giselle. Summarily, and without hesitation it will strip you of any doubt. You might emerge crying from the experience and emotionally shattered, but you will be sure that what you just experienced was unadulterated magic and relentlessly transformative.

The ballet of Giselle is one of dance’s anomalies. It was composed by Adolphe Adams, today a relatively unknown composer, in 1841, and it rose to balletic prominence as one of the genre’s unequivocal commercial classics. It boasts the collaborative input of the headline creatives of the day, in Théophile Gautier, Heinrich Heine and Victor Hugo. In truth, and in structure, it’s not that different from various other romantic tales of the time: peasant girl meets boy. They fall in love. He’s the wrong boy, according to her mom. He finds another. She goes mad with grief and dies of a broken heart. And then she becomes a virgin demon in hell, where she gets to persecute the boy who jilted her. With various variations on the theme, it’s a well-trod story.

What Dada Masilo does with it is something completely extraordinary. For one thing, she vigorously strips it of blandness, with the emotional content of the work stitched boldly into its choreography, it is akin to what Yael Farber has done with Ibsen’s Miss Julie in her Mies Julie (2012), or what Mark Dornford-May did with Bizet’s Carmen in his U-Carmen eKhayelitsha (2005). Indeed, there are a couple of moments in the work’s first half in which you expect the dancers to roll out a Carmen sequence or even to roll a cigarette or two: there’s a kind of African folksy level of nuance that filters through the material, seamlessly.

But as it unfolds, this work takes on its own tough and exquisite character, not stinting on emotional input. Masilo takes the lead, and unlike some of the works that she’s performed and choreographed over the last couple of years, it sees her enfolded in its intricacies with integrity and thoughtfulness: her skill as a dancer and as a character are showcased impeccably. Indeed: this is the Dada Masilo that audiences fell in love with nearly 10 years ago. She’s alive with an electricity that makes you want to put brakes on your ability to watch: the dancing is lithe and virile; it’s rapid and fierce and it will leave you completely breathless.

And while Masilo still has that ability to grab your eye and not let it go, even if she is dancing a routine with the company, it’s an exceptionally fine company, featuring dancers such as Liyabuya Gongo and Kyle Rossouw, to name but a few, who will make you sit up and look with great care: you might not have paid a lot of attention to these dancers in the past, thinking them generally a competent part of ensemble work. Dada Masilo’s Giselle is a coming of age work, not only for Masilo, but for the whole company.

The work features simple and devastatingly effective costume design and a clear sense of colour coordination, placing the Wilis – the evil demons from the underworld – in a deep red which is not gender specific as it is infused with traditional African associations. It also is underpinned by a piece of music by Philip Miller that lends even the lightest most ostensibly romantic moments deeply sinister undertones that cannot be ignored. Featuring a wide range of sound and a multitude of styles of vibration and concatenation, it’s a score which coheres with an utter perfection with the work on stage, allowing the dancers themselves to vocalise particular moments which exacerbate the sense of local colour, as they reflect the nuances in the story beautifully.

The only flaw in the work is the choice of William Kentridge’s drawings as a projected backdrop. They’re magnificent drawings, but once the performers appear on stage, you cannot actually see the drawings: and when you do manage, with great difficulty, to steal your eyes away from the dancers to look upon these charcoal landscapes, the image has changed: there’s a lack of coherence here – why these images are used and why they change in a sequence is not clear. Thankfully, in the second act, which takes place in hell, there are no arbitrary landscapes that might threaten your focus on the dancers.

This work is unequivocally the crowning glory of Masilo’s career so far. It will, in the next few months, continue taking her around the world, including to La Biennale de la Dance de Lyon in France, and Sadler’s Wells in London, next year: if you are intending to go to Grahamstown this year for the National Arts Festival, this piece alone is sufficient impetus to justify the cost, the difficulties of being in the Eastern Cape in winter, and the vagaries of the road trip. If you aren’t but are in Johannesburg in late July: this is one of the unequivocal headlines of the 969 Festival.

  • Dada Masilo’s Giselle is choreographed by Dada Masilo and features creative input by William Kentridge (drawings), Philip Miller (music composition), David April (directorial assistance), David Hutt, Songezo Mcilizeli and Nonofo Olekeng (costumes) and Suzette le Sueur (lighting). It is performed by Nadine Buys, Zandile Constable, Liyabuya Gongo, Thami Majela, Dada Masilo, Ipeleng Merafe, Llewellyn Mnguni, Khaya Ndlovu, Thabani Ntuli, Kyle Rossouw, Thami Tshabalala and Tshepo Zasekhaya. It performed for a short season at the UJ Theatre in Auckland Park, Johannesburg, and travels to Grahamstown where it will perform at the Rhodes Theatre on June 29, 30 and July 1 (Visit nationalartsfestival.co.za) Thereafter, it performs at The 969 Festival, hosted by Wits University, in the Main Wits Theatre on July 29 (Visit https://www.inyourpocket.com/johannesburg/969-festival_2173e )

Unchain my dog!

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DOG on a short chain: Phokobje the jackal (Paul Noko) comes to grips with the limitations imposed on Mpja (Sibusiso Mkhize). Photograph courtesy Wits Theatre.

A MASH-UP OF ancient storytelling techniques with crude humour and cartoonish action, Chilahaebolae is a curious new work featuring a mix of students and professionals that plummets into the annuls of colonialism through allegory and offers a sinister edge into the price that one pays for creature comforts. It’s a tale of a tail cast in the life of jackal and a dog, powered into life with a dynamic choreographing of sound and energy on the part of its chorus, played by the whole cast.

Nourished with layers of personification, the animals in this work are neither beast nor human, but something between the two, and while the humour ranges from utter physical slapstick to some frisky sleight of hand wit, generally, the work is too lacking in nuance to fly. It is also so replete with slo-mo violence, that you feel your jaw begin to yawn of its own volition at yet another sjambok smacking the recalcitrant jackal in the balls: the work is about 20 minutes too long and there are a lot of repeated refrains which compromise rather than strengthen the story at hand.

We meet Phokobje, a wild jackal (Paul Noko), with his twisted loyalties selfishly in place. His mate Mpja (Sibusiso Mkhize) is a dog who bears a different kind of brunt and learns early on about the price one pays for an easy meal and a good place to sleep. Featuring a very feisty cat interpreted by Zimkhitha Mothlabeng, Chilahaebolae is a fantasy world that showcases the one-dimensional role of the butcher, the fashion designer and the circus master in a narrative seething with colonialist values that is as bloodthirsty as it demonstrates a naked thirst for money.

Unequivocally the highlight of this work is the manner in which the cast is woven around the story. Making animal sounds, and serving as features in the set – from fixed poles onto which a chain can be attached, to a tap dispensing water, an electric wall and diverse creatures of the night, the cast of ten becomes interchangeably a beast with its own internal complexities and you find yourself forced to pull your attention from them and back to the main scenario at hand.

The downside of this play is its utter lack of subtlety. Skirting around issues of sinister intent, death, murder and horror, the work is a very shouty one and rather than grabbing audience attention by the scruff of its neck, it tends to degenerate into a volume contest, which does become a bit of an assault, given the limited space of the theatre. You find yourself grabbed by the ears, and not in a good way. This is a pity: the basic premises of this work bring it to the periphery of narratives of the ilk of George Orwell’s Animal Farm or Aesop’s fables, but the articulation leaves it just there.

  • Chilahaebolae is written and directed by Kgafela oa Magogodi assisted by Obett Motaung. It features design by Quinton Manning (choreography), Thando Msibi (costumes) and Ntokozo Ndlovu (set) and is performed by Siphosam Kamwendo, Joel Leonard, Abongile Matyutyu, Sibusiso Mkhize, Zipho Mokoena, Zimkhitha Mothlabeng, Nakesa Ndou, Paul Noko, Nolitha Radebe and Shane Veeran. It represents a collaboration between Wits Theatre, Wits School of the Arts and the Market Theatre and it performs at the Barney Simon Theatre, Market Theatre complex in Newtown until May 28. Visit markettheatre.co.za or call 011 832 1641.

The Good, the Bad and the Outrageous – Dance Umbrella 2017 in a nutshell

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GIVE and take: Fana Tshabalala, Emil Bordas and Ana Mondini in the work beautifully curated by Constanza Macras, In the Heart of the Country. Photography courtesy DorkyPark.

Dance Umbrella 2017 is done and dusted, and like virtually every other Dance Umbrella for the past 29 years, it featured the good, the bad and the ugly, and insights into the ‘lucky packet’ syndrome, central to any arts festival, where you’re never sure of the pickings of any evening’s material, as to whether it will indeed be good, bad or simply appalling.

Who could easily forget the sheer magic in Rudi van der Merwe’s Trophée, or the frissons of fierce and vulnerable energy cast by Ana Mondini in In the Heart of the Country, a work co-choreographed by Fana Tshabalala with Constanza Macras. Conversely, happily none of the audience members in Lady, Lady, the much anticipated work by Gaby Saranouffi, Desiré Davids and Edna Jaime didn’t find themselves pitched headlong down the theatre’s steep steps in the dark, as the work began before everyone was seated.

While some works still contained the same kind of mind-numbing repetitive bellow of sound that makes an MRI seem friendly, others have transitioned to understanding the value of music – and better still, the presence of a real person actually playing music, within the work. Unfortunately, in one such piece, the instrumentalist was placed at such a silly and basically disrespectful position that all the audience could see was his or her elegant arm, from time to time, and this served as a major detractor throughout the work.

In Down to Earth, Kieron Jina and Marc Philipp Gabriel delightfully cavorted nakedly with an assortment of arbitrary objects and by and large, except for a few achingly fine gestures in the work’s trajectory, the effect was lovely, but alas, so conceptually flimsy, it never moved from being two naked boys in a room of things. In another work, the archive of contemporary South African dance was splayed with a great deal of humour and poetry, honesty and frankness against the backdrop of memory by Alan Parker, in his Detritus for One. It was unconventional and difficult, but moving and real.

There were the strange faux pas in works in which dancers were so enthusiastic that they began moving before their soundtrack was switched on, others in which the dancers continued dancing in the silence between tracks, and yet others in which screens were erected, but the projected images didn’t coincide. Beautiful dance by Cape Town City Ballet and freelancers under the choreographic impetus of Kirvan Fortuin was so oddly marred because the colour of the floor in relation to the dancers’ socks was not taken into consideration. Featuring uncomfortable lighting, Fortuin’s When They Leave had all his dancers in brown socks. Effectively, this meant that the aesthetics of the work saw them truncated: the socks and the stage floor blended so well, the dancers’ feet were stolen from the audience’s sight.

Site specificity was handled with aplomb and Nhlanhla Mahlangu’s Workers’ Chant, conjoined with Trophée, lent an eerie sense of authenticity to physical gestures in the world that were transfixing and unusual, allowing Dance Umbrella its traditional energetic charges of discomfort and unease.

Some choreographers articulated things about life, the universe and everything, sometimes in much more convoluted and lengthy ways than were completely accessible and strictly necessary, and others brought such poetry and magic to the stage, that it made you realise that this is indeed what it’s all about. Life, the universe, and everything, I mean.

The bulk of the festival took place in the three venues of Wits University’s theatre complex, and on paper and in much of the pragmatics of this approach, this was the best Dance Umbrella in years. It didn’t mean leaping in your car and hurtling through the unpredictable streets of Johannesburg between the performance of works. There was only one triple bill, and an immensely satisfying one at that, in which works which resonated with one another were curated together.

Where the venue failed effectively, was in terms of its hospitality. And while many people have vociferously behind the scenes explained the pragmatic reasons for this to me, it’s another issue of being able to explain it to Joe Public, the sometime visitor of Dance Umbrella, that he or she might have to settle for a bag of Jelly Tots for dinner, between shows. Not only was there no food accessible, but Wits University itself is in dire need of having to rethink its theatre as a real, professional venue. It’s not safe to go exploring campus at night – and while the theatre spaces are great, the foyer gives nothing to its visitors: not a bank machine, not a sandwich, not even a clear facade and logical entrance point.

This is a crying shame: the longevity of the Dance Umbrella is such that it deserves a regular venue to contain it, and one that, without excuses and explanations can sate any demands its patrons might have, simply because they’re patrons and shouldn’t be obliged to jump through proverbial hoops or sit on the floor or pretend that NikNaks are a balanced meal.

Having said all of that, and having partly recovered from the helter-skelter pressure of an arts festival, it’s time to congratulate Dance Umbrella under the artistic direction of Georgina Thomson, on another sterling success. Night after night, you might have returned home feeling alive with the magic and madness of this world. You might have returned home feeling appalled at how this type of dance gets international funding.  But by and large, you returned the next night for more. And more. Here’s to Dance Umbrella’s 30th in 2018.

Grand eland, springbok child: a work of space, humanity

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BEAUTY under African umbrellas: An insight into Space photographed by John Hogg.

WHEN SOMETHING SO unutterably beautiful crosses your path, at first you feel awestruck into silence, and once you have caught your breath and gathered your energies, it takes time before you are capable of reflecting on the intensity and pull of that beauty. This is what you experience with Sifiso Kweyama’s Space, a celebration of humanity and the essence of godhead which also reflects tragically on the horrors and broken sacredness faced by the original inhabitants of this part of the world.

Something akin to Sylvia Vollenhoven’s Keeper of the Kumm (2016) an extrapolation of her coloured roots, or composer Peter Louis van Dijk’s Horizons (1995), performed most extraordinarily in South Africa earlier this month by the King’s Singers, Space embraces a tale of colour and identity, one which is also peppered by violence and displacement. But overall, it is a work so sensitively conceived and articulated, you feel the urge to open your eyes and soul wider than what your anatomy will allow, just to hold onto every gesture and visual rhyme you’re exposed to.

Featuring dancers associated with Jazzart, the work does the Cape Town-based dance company proud in the interjections of movement and poetry and how they sync with one another. But there is more – the integrity of design in this work, from sound to simply fabulous costumes, add to how it flows hither and yon against the aural backdrop of poetry in English and Afrikaans, about the loss of land and the horror of discrimination.

Having said that, it is Lewellyn Afrika that will grasp your eyes from the very outset of the work. Not only is he a beautiful persona onstage, who evokes the noble eland in his unconscious sense of potency and quiet magnificence, but he’s an extraordinary dancer, who reaches across the stage with gesture and bottled fire. As you watch the narrative sequence of events in the work unfold, you see Afrika as a cipher of gender potency as he confronts the maleness of the character danced by Shaun Oelf, and the more stereotypical reflections of the three women dancers, Refiloe Mogoje, Thabisa Dinga and Tracey September.

This work is a paean to coloured identity and how it reaches through the interstices of history and war to the San people. The thrust and flow of the choreography with costumes comprising muted hues and dance pants that splay and echo visual and performed values, it’s a piece you don’t want to end, even though the tale is far from happy or comfortable.

While the sound design in the work lacks subtlety and the words are gravelly and thick in a way that sometimes impedes their diction or clarity, the work as a whole is otherwise constructed with a powerful choreographic hand and beautiful cohesion between dancers. This is the kind of work that makes a festival such as Dance Umbrella sing. And the kind of audience experience that makes it very sad that the work occupies the platform for but two days. But it’s also the kind of work that makes everything seem a little lighter, wiser, more forgiving and a lot closer to perfection.

  • Space is choreographed by Sifiso Kweyama with directorial advice from Mdu Kweyama and features design by Max Richter and Radical Face (music), Khadija Tracey Heeger and Lewellyn Afrika (poems), Nkosinathi Sangweni (costumes) and David Hlatshwayo (lighting). It is performed by Lewellyn Afrika, Thabisa Dinga, Refiloe Mogoje, Shaun Oelf and Tracey September in the Wits Theatre, on February 24 and 25 as part of Dance Umbrella 2017. Visit danceforumsouthafrica.co.za or call 011 492 0709.

The importance of Johnny

Bosbefok: Craig Morris is Johnny Boskak. Photograph by Kate Janse, courtesy cue.ru.ac.za
Bosbefok: Craig Morris is Johnny Boskak. Photograph by Kate Janse, courtesy cue.ru.ac.za

Very occasionally there comes a play which confronts an era from the inside out, with both a sense of empathy and one of hard-edged objectivity, with as complete and yet vulnerable an understanding of how riddled with complexity a given issue can be. Even more occasionally, do you find that the text of the work is completely impeccable: authentic to what it reflects, entertaining and satisfying to hear, and able to splay and contain emotion with a sense of mastery. And hardly ever, do you find a performance that melds the beauty of a text with physical theatre, interpretative possession of the material and an unrelenting ability to hold you, in the audience so mesmerised from the word go, that you can barely breathe. This is what you can anticipate in the current season of Johnny Boskak is Feeling Funny, performed by Craig Morris, which closes this year’s So So1o festival with astonishing aplomb.

The work grew out of a cameo character in playwright Greig Coetzee’s White Men With Weapons, and arguably holds an even more dynamic sway over the complex material it handles. Touching everything from the horror that white young men were compelled to face in the South African army, which was mandatory for them under the apartheid regime, to Jesus – with a Capetonian accent – and a distinctly Coloured devil rapping in tandem, to love, and death and rhyme and mime and hatred and racism, Johnny Boskak evokes the kind of seemingly-effortless perfection you find in works such as Steven Berkoff’s Decadence. Bringing the unique culture which surrounded the South African apartheid army and seriously damaged so many white South Africans, the piece plays with unfashionable taboos in its exploration of white society, replete as it is with 1980s white slang.

The language fills the story it tells with an exuberance which never allows it to be too slick, but holds its grittiness with a sense of moral itchiness. You want to hold onto each magnificent turn of phrase and astonishing metaphor, but alas, they slip through your sensibilities and memory as others vie for your attention, and yet others after that. The language is so rich with local colour, viciousness and malignancy in its description of a world tainted by conflicting and complicated values, you want to eat it: it’s rich with its own wisdoms but it never becomes silly or self-indulgent and flows with a rapidity and a fineness that leaves you breathless: you can’t hold onto it, but are left the richer for having experienced it.

And it all could very easily have been written for Craig Morris who embraces it all with such provocative focus that he is hauntingly magnetic. Armed with just an army kitbag and a piece of the kind of traffic barrier that separates a highway from the landscape it severs, some brilliant lighting work and the 1980s sound of Syd Kitchen, Morris evokes a whole wide landscape, from Estcourt to Van Reenen’s pass en route to Durban, coloured with drugs, sex and violence, conflicting values and terror, reality and scary dream fantasies, all seamlessly conjoined in a breathless stretch of 70 precious minutes.

It’s a complicated tale which feels like Bob Dylan’s Masters of War meeting one of Bitterkomix’s more graphic stories.  As the narrative unfolds, you feel as though you’ve been tossed into a cauldron of delicious evil and terrifying South African history, which blends the hateful illogic of Kafkaesque horror with the conundrums of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.

In short, it’s a ten-out-of-ten production which is not only completely flawless, but serves as an important theatrical anthem to that troubling and messy era in South Africa’s history.

  • Johnny Boskak is Feeling Funny is directed by Roslyn Wood-Morris and Craig Morris. It is written by Greig Coetzee and features costume and set design by Craig Morris and lighting design by Barry Strydom. Featuring original music by the late Syd Kitchen, it is performed by Craig Morris, as part of the So So1o 2015 festival, hosted by Wits University. It performs in the Wits Downstairs Theatre on Saturday October 10 at 14.30 and 19.30 and Sunday October 11 at 14.30 and 18.00. Tickets through co.za. Visit www.wits.ac.za/witstheatre

Rough diamonds and ‘Kullid’ identity

Sweet drunk: Kelly Eksteen embraces the stereotypes of Colouredness at full throttle. Photograph courtesy Leonie Ogle.
Sweet drunk: Kelly Eksteen embraces the stereotypes of Colouredness at full throttle. Photograph courtesy Leonie Ogle.

What does it mean to be Coloured in contemporary South Africa, backgrounded as it is by a context replete with all manner of insulting histories and stereotypes, which teeter between hilarity and deep tragedy, simultaneously? Young theatre practitioners Leonie Ogle and Kelly Eksteen have cast this curious and rich identity under their collective loupe, realising Kullid.

It’s a new work, segueing three historical and theatrical texts that tease the Coloured phenomenon apart, which are laced with a concoction of everything from beer to methylated spirits, and which offer the construction of Sofia (played by Kelly Eksteen), a character who carries the three tales with an engaging sense of exuberance, threading hilarity with tragedy in a way which often finds you laughing at the deep sadness – not because you’re inherently callous, but rather because of how the characteristic Coloured ethos is handled: as with Yiddish narrative where there’s a motif called a tragic story – a bittere gelegte – which is self-deprecating and wise, self-mocking and sad and hilarious, all at the same time.

Eksteen is a supple performer, who moves fabulously in sync with the lurid colours of Coloured slang. Her performance is slightly hurt, however, by her lack of nuance in her interpretation. All of her characters are handled full blast, and the casualty is sometimes the clarity of the language, and the narrative and context it describes.

The work’s unequivocal gem is an interpretation of a young Coloured child, central to the piece: Eksteen embodies the crispy innocence of this child with such developed and empathetic veracity, it is like watching magic unfold and time reverse before your eyes. The other two characters are handled with too much of a similar technique for them to be distinguished; ultimately, you are left with a generalised smearing over of Coloured idiosyncrasy rather than as devastating and crafted an approach as we see with the child.

Eksteen is the kind of performer you want to see stretch her interpretative acumen in surprising directions. She embraces the flaws and faults of her own people with a brilliant and authentic sense of alacrity and directness, and Kullid is a deliciously entertaining production which feels alas too brief. But in line with much of the pickings of the So So1o festival, so far this year, there’s been a tendency to focus on identity. It’s an obvious but not unengaging solution to the festival’s defining parameters, but hopefully next year, and as this festival grows to maturity, more metaphor and nuance will filter into its programme.

  • Kullid is written and directed by Leonie Ogle, based on texts by Oscar Peterson and Heinrich Reisenhofer (Suip), Lueen Conning (A Coloured People) and Rehane Abrahams (What the Water Gave Me). It is designed by Leonie Ogle and Kelly Eksteen and performed by Kelly Eksteen, as part of the 2015 So So1o Festival at the University of the Witwatersrand theatre complex.

Boykie and Girlie: Engaging classic couple stakes

Contemplating life, the universe and everything, Boykie (Robert Hobbs) sits on the most comforting seat of all. PHOTOGRAPH BY EVANS MATHIBE.
Contemplating life, the universe and everything, Boykie (Robert Hobbs) sits on the most comforting seat of all. PHOTOGRAPH BY EVANS MATHIBE.

With direct points of homage to the likes of Samuel Beckett, Athol Fugard and Ariel Dorfman, Boykie and Girlie is a fresh new piece of theatre which sparkles with its own beauty, but lacks punch in its denouement.

Meet the eponymous characters: he’s a writer waiting for work, for inspiration, for something to give his life a level of cohesion. Dressed in a ‘Time of the Writer’ t-shirt which has been rather self-consciously made holey, he’s hungry, starving for something to give meaning to it all. She’s a self-made lawyer, holding the relationship together financially, pragmatically. Their almost anonymous names, denoting their gender more than much else, lend them a universality which is quite breath-taking, making you think, on various levels of other classic couples, like Athol Fugard’s Boesman and Lena. Overlooking the specifics of their issues, they are in a sense every couple.

Robert Hobbs opposite Khutjo Green simply sing in relation to one another, and as they breathe performed life into this beautiful script, replete as it is with cutting and barbarous insult and acrimony that comes of familiarity, the combination of performers, words and context are simply delicious to watch unfold. They’re backed by a fabulous set which casts a nod in the direction of Ariel Dorfman’s Delirium, staged in South Africa a few years ago, replete as it is with an ostensibly functional toilet onstage.

There’s a realistic grubbiness to the work which in exploring this well-established relationship between two adults, doesn’t relent in unpicking petty malice that becomes borderline threatening in its approach. Do they love each other? Certainly. Will he leave her? Will she leave him? Probably not. But the viciousness of their repartee at times reaches almost tidal proportions in its ebb and flow. The choreography of the work is splendid.

But the project in entirety is hurt by the narrative’s lack of a meaningful denouement. When you watch Green opposite Hobbs, you get this happy but almost frightening sense that this could go on forever: it’s both a positive and a negative realisation, simultaneously. The work is strong and impassioned enough to hold its own for a considerable time – way beyond its designated hour – but, conversely, there are no great revealing elements to puncture the plot enough.

There’s a moment of theatrical experimentation involving donkeys and casting a self-critical eye at the performance art arena and its habits, which is glorious but under-exploited, and ultimately the work leaves you hanging: as the clapping and bowing begins, it leaves you feeling vaguely cheated of a theatrical or narrative nub to hold on to.

Boykie and Girlie has the potential of slipping into the realm of the classic South African couple, representing the quintessential values and contradictions of being a mixed-race couple in this hurly burly world, but the writing just doesn’t go far enough.

  • Boykie and Girlie written and directed by Allan Horwitz, features Khutjo Green and Robert Hobbs, and performs at the Wits Downstairs Theatre until August 1, and in the Nunnery on August 2. It is part of this year’s Drama For Life SA Season.

 

Gogol’s insanity onstage and utterly delicious

Taken In: the cast of Government Inspector. Photograph by Ruphin Coudyzer.
Taken In: the cast of Government Inspector. Photograph by Ruphin Coudyzer.

Occasionally one comes across a production in which the behind-the-scenes fun factor of the work spills out with such abandon and into the audience that it becomes immediately contagious. This is far and away the case with the current production of Nikolai Gogol’s Government Inspector, which in terms of the outrageous costumes and supremely developed characters bears comparison with Sylvaine Strike’s recent award-winning rendition of Moliere’s The Miser.

In a sense, sitting in the audience of this Russian farce which has been worked over with a gentle South African veil of iconography, including bribery and foppery is like being in the actualisation of a novel by Franz Kafka, Günter Grass or Lewis Carroll (or a hybrid of the three). There’s a moment where it feels like you’re looking at a circus etching by Max Beckmann that has come to life.

Director Jessica Friedan yields an understanding of the use of the artifice in theatre in Gogol’s work, which is simply delicious: There’s a line between funny and terrifying that most of the characters, including and especially the land owners, Bobchinsky and Dobchinsky, played by Dimakatso Motholo and Gillian Wittstock respectively, embody, thus carrying the work with a sense of Gogol veracity that will make you laugh. A lot.

Government Inspector is the work of utterly fabulous collaboration and lots of enthusiastic nods must be cast in the direction of not only set designer Zewande Bhengu, but also the costumier, Andrew Hofmeyr. Their contribution both palpably assist in making the work the inimitable success it is: the level of creative freedom that is being swung in this work can only be described as outrageous, and it fills the interstices of this work with wisdom and savvy.

But further to this level of loving the Russian dramatist who wrote so dirtily and wittily of parochialism 150 years ago, is the manner in which the narrative unfolds. Even the rolling in and out of different elements of the set, plays beautifully into the mix of a synthetic world view and the understanding that this is a play and not an attempt at real life.

It’s a farce of the best kind, leaving the audience in the know, but the cast out on a limb: the mayor (Peter Terry) receives a notification that a Government Inspector will be arriving incognito to examine the town. Hysteria breaks out and ultimately the wrong person is not only fingered, but wined and dined, bequeathed and betrothed and celebrated for all the wrong reasons.

Terry is a fabulous mayor – not only does he show us his superb acting chops (which we haven’t seen on stage for quite some years) – but he does so with a generosity of collaborative skill which makes you understand the benefit that his work brings to the younger performers.

Matthew Lotter as Ivan Khlestakov is the other professional counterpart, and he whips up his character into a frenzy in all the right ways. Just short of corpsing all over the stage, he offers a reflection on this role of a scoundrel who lands by chance with his bum in the butter, which such largesse and energy, you will fall in love with the idea of him.

Reading between the programme’s lines, the rest of the cast are students. There are some astonishingly fine performances here, and some weaker ones there, but by and large, this production is handled with such intelligence and professional focus that the lesser experienced or talented youngsters are swept off their feet and into the thick of the madness and brilliance of the tale. Clocking in at almost three hours, this is a highly watchable and frankly unmissable piece.

The Mayor and the Police: Peter Terry and Lucky Mqoboli. Photograph by Ruphin Coudyzer.
The Mayor and the Police: Peter Terry and Lucky Mqoboli. Photograph by Ruphin Coudyzer.
  • Government Inspector by Nikolai Gogol is adapted by David Harrower and directed by Jessica Friedan. It is performed by Zoe Beavon; Melody House; Matthew Lotter; Sabelo Makhubo; Campbell Jessica Meas; Nomathamsanqa Mhlakaza; Kirsten Mohamed; Obett Motaung; Dimakatso Motholo; Lucky Mqaboli; Jövan Muthray; Michelle Schewitz; Peter Terry; Searatoa van Driel; Saskia van Ryneveld; Gillian Wittstock; Jonathan Young; and Nonkululeko Zandamela and features production design by Andrew Hofmeyr (costumes); and Zewande Bhengu (set). It performs at the Downstairs Theatre, Wits Theatre Complex in Braamfontein, until April 30. (011)717-1376.