Lies that bind us

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MY grandfather, myself: Maude Sandham tells her family’s tales. Photograph courtesy Wits.

WHAT DO YOU do when you discover an implacable secret that effectively will cause tectonic shifts in your relation to the world in which you’ve lived up until now? Do you try to secrete it back where you found it? Do you address it and follow up all its innuendos even if it brings you to a point where you’re addressing the dead and don’t know which way is forward? This is part of the rich and beautiful challenge Maude Sandham set herself in honouring the life and secrets of her grandfather, Alan.

And there follows a very richly constructed text written with a strong hand and a sophisticated sense of timing and of clarity. The language is lucid and poignant and runs directly from the heart with a sense of unwavering frankness. The tale is a true one, unfettered with sensationalism or unnecessary detail or fluff, but a wrenching one premised on apartheid’s draconian values and rules. And it is immediate: we meet Maude’s grandfather, a husband and father, a bricklayer employed by the railways, and a man who is stoic in the face of the indignity of being poor and white – but he is utterly bereft of a true sense of belonging because of a secret that would shatter everything he stood for.

Generations succeed generations and children are born, plastering away a past that is understood for its damaging consequences. It’s a tale that resonates with that of the Afrikaans film Vaselinetjie, and one that serves as a potent hit back to generalisations about what skin colour means. Centred on the Johannesburg suburb of Crosby, known for being a repository for poor people who were white, the work is coupled with a set that comprises projected images of old family snaps that have not been digitally cleaned up, and in consequence, it is deeply haunting, hanging on to authenticity with photographic grain. And the optimistic young face of the boy in one of the photographs becomes a cipher for complex levels of betrayal.

The revelation of the secret is the nub of the play and it is evolved in layers of devastating subtlety that give voice to the depth of value in a sense of belonging; a subtlety that remembers the bond of sibling love even through the horrors of separation.

The complicated challenges of telling your own story and being the pivotal character in the unfolding tale is clearly one not lost on Sandham who embraces the text with a fulsome sense of directness, but an engaging humility, sweeping you into the values of self-doubt, classical music and memory.

Criss-crossed by references to the other side of the tracks, the work skirts deftly from cliché, and features a humble armchair and a standing lamp, on a carpet; there’s a small table on which a framed photograph stands, its back to the audience. It’s a play in the internal context of a domestic environment, and yet, in being so, it’s a play that opens its heart to the helter-skelter emotional values central to what being raised in a world where the brutality of racial segregation felt obvious.

Unflinching yet vitally important in saying what it does, it is a play of this nature, crafted with a keen sense of aesthetics and a potent understanding of the magic of storytelling that makes you remember what theatre is all about. This kind of work is the kernel and heart of a festival such as So So1o. It deserves legs all over the country – and publication.

  • Tracks is written by Maude Sandham and Nicola Pilkington. It is performed by Maude Sandham and directed by Nicola Pilkington and is the So So1o commissioned play for 2017. It performs in the Downstairs Theatre, Wits University, until October 8. Visit webtickets.co.za or www.wits.ac.za/witstheatre
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The things we’ll do for rain

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CASTING light: Hannah Van Tonder is Ntombizonke. Photograph by Tahlia Govender.

AT FIRST, IT’S difficult to believe or understand that that small incident which corrupts a great sheet of fabric covering the stage, is a human being, and yet as the play unfolds and takes you hither and yon through ritual and ancient tradition, contemporary quasi-urban values and a whole litany of prayer, you get to understand how the gesture and belief, the need for water and the love of the land interface, under the steerage of this one performer.

The work is brought to astonishing life by a concatenation of props which recalls, in a sense, Paul Noko’s earlier work Fruit, in which the props held the nexus of the material. Here, though, there’s more, but there is also less. Ntombizonke is the young woman born of a bride who is not a virgin. It transpires that her virginity becomes the suggested sacrifice that must be made to appease the gods in the name of much-needed rain.

Thus follows a tale of fantasy and religious-evocative gesture, but one bruised by too much enthusiasm — the kind of enthusiasm that packs the work so full of references, that it leaves scant space for the simple act of breathing. As a result, everything is brought into the mix, including envelopes of what seem to be seeds cast among the seating, sugar and water for the audience to dip its collective hands into and a pervading sense of ceremony, much of which becomes a red herring as it is not caught up with clarity in the work’s logic. Indeed, even the title of the work becomes sensational in its sense of taboo.

While Hannah Van Tonder in the title role, represents all the voices of this community, which reach back through generations, sometimes her diction is a casualty to too much speed. She is, however, beautifully choreographed, and the work takes on its own dance momentum, which is almost more compelling than the words themselves.

The value of this play which engages a fantasy ceremonial past cannot, however be understated. As it stands, it feels like a young draft in the development something that warrants growth and maturity.

  • The Cursed Vagina is written by Hannah Van Tonder and Paul Noko and directed by Paul Noko. It features design by Thulisa Phungula (music) and Teresa Phuti Mojela (choreography) and is performed by Hannah Van Tonder, in the Amphitheatre, as part of the So So1o Festival hosted by Wits University. The work performed on October 5 and performs at the Nunnery on October 7. Visit www.wits.ac.za/witstheatre or www.webtickets.co.za

Lessons of love and music

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WITS Trio at work: Malcolm Nay (on piano), Zanta Hofmeyr (on violin) and Maciej Lacny (on ‘cello). Photograph courtesy Maciej Zenon Lacny.

UNEQUIVOCALLY, IT IS the work of Schubert that violinist Zanta Hofmeyr gravitates toward, if she has to think of music that will last her a lifetime. Hofmeyr, a member of the Wits Trio, which comprises also pianist Malcolm Nay, who is also a professor of music at Wits, and ‘cellist Maciej Lacny, took some time last week to speak to My View. The trio performs its annual concert next Sunday at Wits University.

“Schubert is so precise. Even renowned piano teacher Pauline Nossel insists on teaching music from that era – for technique. That’s where you hone an artist. To really clean the playing. There is no room for unnecessary mannerisms. I’m also a big Brahms fan. And Beethoven. These composers are about extreme awareness of colour, of proportion, of phrasing, of precision and of intonation.”

The eldest of eight children, to a couple who were church organists and pianists in their spare time, Hofmeyr was born in 1962 and raised on Johannesburg’s West Rand. She speaks of the imperatives in place in her life as a child. “We all started with piano at the age of six or seven. And then after two years, we could decide whether we wanted to learn a second instrument.

“There was a violin at home; I chose it when I was 10. I never hated it, but I found it difficult to play. I still do. By nature, I’m a sucker for challenge; the instrument’s difficulty was what hooked me.”

Hofmeyr doesn’t stint in acknowledging the value of well-funded music centres in the schools when she was a child. “Being white in South Africa under apartheid, we had so much privilege. Our teachers were all people from the then SABC national orchestra.”

These included Czech teacher Eva Hescova and later, Vincent Frittelli, then the SABC’s concert master. “Eva really pulled the trigger for my whole career. She really inspired me.

“Vincent started me on open strings, scales and studies. He focused on technique. And he was taught by no less than Ivan Galamian – possibly the greatest strings teacher the world has ever known. Galamian also taught such performers as Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman and Daniel Heifetz; it was under Vincent’s tuition for five years that I developed as a performer.”

A scholarship at the age of 15 to the Interlocken Festival in Michigan over nine weeks, and time with the World Youth Orchestra opened her skills to rapidly learning new works from composers of the ilk of Béla Bartók, Gustav Mahler, Igor Stravinsky and César Franck. During that year, she also played with the National Youth Orchestra.

“For the first time in my life,” she remembers, “I heard and played in a performance of Camille Saint-Saëns’s organ symphony. I was playing in the World Youth Orchestra in the first violin section and I just sat there and sobbed as I played. I was overwhelmed. I’d never heard anything like it before. It was so beautiful.

“It was also the first time in my life that I experienced doing music from 7 in the morning until 10 at night. Nothing else. When my father came to fetch me at the airport, my mind was made up. I said: ‘Papa, I am going to be a musician.’ That was all.”

Hofmeyr’s career developed rapidly after she finished school. On the advice of Frittelli, she applied for a scholarship at the Cleveland Institute. During that year, which was also her matric year, she entered and won several competitions, which enabled her to study in America; she speaks briefly of the value of the competition in the concert world.

“Nothing would make you practise as hard as a competition, so it lifts your level of performance. If you win, it opens up a lot of doors. If you don’t, you must accept it: but it’s good experience and you’re playing better than you otherwise would have.”

But it’s not a magic pill. “Even for competition winners, building a career depends on your own initiative. So in South Africa, we have this situation where we don’t have agents for classical musicians and even now, after a career of 40 years, each year, I have to apply to every person who has a concert series.”

But performing keeps you humble, she says. “It forces you to keep your feet flat on the ground.”

Speaking of humility, Hofmeyr flits understatedly over the five years she studied at the Juilliard School of Music in New York, from the age of 18. “It was my dream come true,” she adds gently.

Violin is one thing, piano’s another, and over the years, Hofmeyr kept up with her piano studies, learning with one Tannie Ria de Klerk in the West Rand before she switched to Peggy Haddon.

“I’m a more natural pianist than I am a violinist. I pick up piano quickly, but I have to practise violin a lot. If I don’t, I lose it like that,” she clicks her fingers. “The hard work is lonely. But it is worth it.”

Hofmeyr’s involvement in the Wits Trio goes back more than 20 years. In 1996, she began collaborating with Wits music professor, Malcolm Nay. The duo grew to a trio, soon after, when they welcomed ‘cellist Marion Lewin into their repertoire, and later ‘cellist Heleen du Plessis.

“Malcolm has been pivotal in this experience and the history of this trio,” she says commenting on Nay’s his strong musical personality and influence, as, she says often happens in a trio of this nature, where the pianist is central.

“About six years ago, Robert Brooks from MIAGI introduced us to Maciej Lacny, a Polish ‘cellist. He’s married to Khanyisile Mthethwa, the flautist. At first we didn’t know each other; our performance styles were different, but he’s a phenomenal ‘cellist. It’s been a very adventurous five years, during which time, we have become stylistically closer. I can best refer to the trio as dynamic: we each have strong personalities, which makes listening to our performances a very exciting experience.”

The trio’s repertoire includes all the Brahms trios, Dvořák’s ‘Dumky’ trio, which Johannesburg Music Society audiences were privileged to hear earlier this year, some Beethoven trios … “The repertoire gets richer as we perform,” she says. “We’ve come closer to each other, stylistically, over the years. Chamber music is very stimulating for each individual in a trio. It’s a fantastic form of music as there are no hiding places and everyone has to be at their best.

“In the concert on Sunday, we play trios by Beethoven, Hendrik Hofmeyr and Schubert – that trio was written in the year before his death. They are huge works, very beautiful and mature.”

Hofmeyr is frank in acknowledging the overwhelming whiteness and increasing age of South African classical music audiences right now, but she doesn’t agree that it’s pervasive or eternal.

“I am a patron of the Thabang Kammino project hosted by St Matthew’s School in Soweto, but not a lot of publicity reaches them. St Matthew’s is a Catholic school, run by the Sisters of Mercy; the music project was started by one of the nuns, Sister Berchmans in 2000. She’s now a woman in her 80s, but she still feels that every child should be exposed to a musical education. She is like a snowball, rolling and gathering students. And she’s completely savvy that this music project is not about developing performers. It’s about planting seeds in young people’s sensibilities. And growing audiences.”

Bathroom of a million thoughts

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ALL alone in the lavatory. Helen (Gina Shmukler) confronts her future and her past. Photograph by Suzy Bernstein.

PICTURE THE SCENARIO. Suddenly, everything that you may have known in your life has been curtailed down to extreme basics. You’ve a toilet and running water. Electricity. Some magazines, maybe. You can hear what is going on, but cannot reach it. Does anyone know that you are there? You are holed in the guest loo of your house, while burglars ransack your possessions. What is going through your head? This is the premise on which Mike van Graan’s Helen of Troyeville rests. Performed by seasoned actress Gina Shmukler, it is the kind of play that will engage and haunt you, not only because of the magnificent performance, but also because of its political crux.

The work is similar in many respects to the premise in Megan Voysey-Braig’s 2008 novel, Till We Can Keep an Animal. Helen is a white woman who has enjoyed the wide range of privileges that living in South Africa for a white person has presented to her. She’s educated, she’s got all the material possessions she could wish for, including the facility of a guest bathroom, in her home, which has become the repository for everything. She’s widowed. Her daughter has children of her own and lives elsewhere. Hers is a comfortable complacency that comes of age in a context of privilege. All her life she’s had a sense of her own agency. She’s felt that she has a role to play in her own decisions. Suddenly all of this is broken.

There are strange men in her house and she has become victim to a hostage situation and what happens next hangs is in the balance. Helen is savvy of her position as a statistic that won’t leave a blip on news feeds, either way. She’s also cognisant of the awkward role of privileged whites in a society beleaguered by poverty, corruption and oppression that traditionally still befalls people who are not white. She was once a “do-gooder” in society, that enthusiastic buyer of informal knick-knacks from beggars at traffic lights, she argues to herself.

But now she isn’t. Disempowered, disenfranchised, cast out of the picture, subject to the will of others. It is this scenario that forces her to rethink everything – life, her place in it, and what it all means. All she has to bounce ideas off is the bathroom mirror and her memories. And there follows a beautiful concatenation of ideas articulated with a texture and a rhythm that is infectious, almost Shakespearean in its flow, volume and width.

By and large, Helen is not a character given to self-pity, but her mood and her perspectives wax and wane with the flow of time, which does seem to stop, as she strains her ears to get an inkling of what may be happening upstairs in her home. To her possessions. And with a gulp of horror, to her dogs.

Focusing on everything from what she has to what she doesn’t have any longer – she gets you to remourn your own losses – as she ponders the sister she lost, the husband, the adult child who never fitted in, the child of a domestic worker, killed in a crime.

It’s a beautiful play, honed with tiny but provocative musical interludes, exceptional skill and Mike van Graan’s characteristic and intense depth of focus, all enclosed in a tight whorl of values – even to the point where Shmukler’s articulation is not always completely audible – on a level, she is, after all, alone and in her bathroom, allowing her thoughts to bounce off the tiled surfaces.

But it’s also a very frightening play, almost obvious in its framework and in the country’s state of mind with regard to this kind of crime. Handled by professionals highly skilled at their craft, from playwright van Graan to Shmukler to relative newcomer Lesedi Job at the directorial helm of the work, it’s a jewel. But Helen won’t leave your heart or your mind as you leave the theatre.

  • Helen of Troyeville is written by Mike van Green and directed by Lesedi Job. It features creative input by Mandla Mtshali (lighting) and is performed by Gina Shmukler in the Wits Downstairs theatre, on July 29 at 18:00 and July 30 at 18:00, as part of the Wits 969 Festival. Visit webtickets or see Wits 969’s facebook page.
  • For an interpretative commentary on this show, by seasoned columnist Geoff Sifrin, read this.

Incendiary, devastating subtlety

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DON’T do it. Mark Tatham (left), Daniel Geddes and a fragile orb.

AS YOU WALK into the theatre for this dance work, there’s a dangerous simmering of possibilities that unsettles you. It has to do with the set, which comprises a mountain of live matches and a lot of inflammable material. You might consider this to be obvious in a work entitled Burn, but it’s so blatant that it is not obvious, balancing possibility with prescience. Your fear, of course, is that the whole theatre will go up in violent flames, with one false move. But what does happen is even more powerful.

Enter Mark Tatham opposite Daniel Geddes and the work takes on a narrative sequence that on one level is about making fire in a storm. On another, it is about the relationship between man and earth, and on yet another, it is about the give and take in any relationship, which is physical and kind as it is furious and destructive.

Tatham and Geddes push the limits of their bodies in contradistinction with the pull of gravity. It’s a work that is about breathing life into the inanimate, and it touches on Frankenstein metaphors as it forces the performers into torsion and tension you will find difficult to get your head around. It’s tightly formed, choreographed with supreme intelligence and structured around hairpin bends in the sequence of events that will hold your focus utterly. But above all else, it is noble in its symmetry and the splaying of possibility. Burn comprises gestures of blowing, metaphors of burning, nuances of destruction and loops of creativity that will make you think of Adam being created by God in a gust of air, as it makes you understand the horror of breathlessness and the magic of life.

In short, it’s a tremendous privilege to see these two dancers, different in their physicality, but utterly focused in the sense of self, creating a landscape of metaphorical and narrative possibilities that not only reaches to the outer threads of environmentalist issues, but also reaches into the very interstices of what it takes to be human. You will only realise how breathless the work makes you when you leave the theatre. A dance work which redefines vulnerable flawlessness. Beautifully.

  • Burn is choreographed and directed by Bailey Snyman and performed by Daniel Geddes and Mark Tatham at the Downstairs Theatre on July 22 and 23, as part of the Wits 969 Festival. Visit webtickets.co.za or visit Wits 969 on facebook.

Five little girls and Mamiwata

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THERE’S SOMETHING INESTIMABLY exciting about a new production that is conceived of, written and brought to life by a group of practitioners that is fast becoming recognised as a repertory group in the classical tradition. Why? Simply because you have seen their work in the past, and know that you’re in safe hands when it comes to exceptionally fine theatre that tweaks the edges just that little bit to keep your focus riveted.

Think of British director Alan Bleasdale and the performers of the ilk of Julie Walters, Robert Lindsay, Lindsay Duncan and David Ross from the mid-1990s, who put together an unrivalled level of collaboration with classics and new work that even made it to South African tv screens, in the form of miniseries Melissa and Jake’s Progress. While you’re thinking of this splendid work, think of this very ensemble, headed in this production by Jovan Muthray and Mlindeli Zondi, who are quietly redefining theatre making in this country, one production at a time: their relentless energy promises the Bleasedale equivalent in South Africa.

But let’s not digress. The Crucifixion of Amagqwirha is a tale woven around the values espoused in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (1953). But it is moored in contemporary South Africa, and amidst a rich concatenation of superstition and self-belief, members of a community who are young and ambitious and others who are old and hold onto tradition, and little girls who are vanishing with no explanation. And there’s also speak of the ghostly presence of Mamiwata, a creature, believed to be half woman, half snake, who patrols deep and quiet waters.

Blending shadow puppetry that engages the sinister in a manner so much more direct and fearsome than actors on a stage can project, the work is beautifully balanced and hard hitting in terms of social foibles and mob mentality.

But it is the performance of Nyakallo Motloung, Sanelisiwe Jobodwana, Campbell Meas and Star Anka that unequivocally capture the fierce yet tender bravado of little girls, while they embrace the elderly and punctuate the broader, scary tale with home truths and real South Africanisms. The work will take you from laughing out loud to shivering in your shoes, at the eerie prospect of the things out there that we cannot fathom.

The energy of the entire ensemble in creating this piece is palpable; there’s a give and take in dialogue and thinking which brings to mind the feisty dynamism in their work, Just Antigone, performed last year. When the four little girls are debating issues, it’s there. When the elders of the community are calling for a witch hunt, it’s there too.

The only downside of this extraordinarily beautifully crafted work is that it enjoyed but one performance at this festival. It deserves legs in many more contexts.

  • The Crucifixion of Amagqwirha is written and designed by the ensemble. It is directed by Jovan Muthray and Mlindeli Zondi and features creative input by Jovan Muthray and Mlindeli Zondi (lighting) and Binnie Christie (puppets and set). It was performed by Star Anka, Sanelisiwe Jobodwana, Campbell Meas and Nyakallo Motloung at the Downstairs Theatre on July 21, as part of the Wits 969 Festival. Visit webtickets.co.za or visit Wits 969 on facebook.

A dance for the tree gods

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MYSELF my forest: Nicholas Aphane in footage from With Nothing But Silence. Photograph courtesy Forgotten Angle Theatre Collaborative.

IN 2005, PJ Sabbagha put his choreographic name behind a most exceptional project. Still Here was earth shattering in its delicate sense of raw beauty and was important for that reason. But as an advocacy piece engaging with HIV/Aids, it was important for other reasons too. Over the years, Sabbagha and his company the Forgotten Angle Theatre Collaborative have unrelentingly challenged boundaries in terms of issues and aesthetics, possibilities and the substance of dance. This work, With Nothing But Silence They Turned Their Bodies To Face the Noise is no different: structured with the complexity of videoed work, shadow and articulation through costume and context, weeping and filmed trees, it confronts the sticky and grotesque mess that our planet is in. It is an extraordinary piece of performance, for our time.

Melding together dance with hand drawn dance costumes, Greek extrapolations with a soundscape that touches water and wind, landscapes and trees, it takes place in a set that is transfixing in its detail, astonishing in the sum of its parts, and the sense of authority commanded by Mazarakis. It is here that a hat of flowers takes on virtual sinister attributes, that bodies move like mercury, curving against one another, casting the light in a way that gives voice to shadows that dominate and liaise with the visual clout of the piece.

Like Still Here, it’s a complex, almost abstract work with forays in a range of directions, and during its 60 minute duration, you get the urge to shout “Stop! I didn’t see exactly what that was! Do it again!” Many things happen at once in this work which takes you from the magnificent bluegum trees of Mpumalanga to the here and now on stage. You see dancers emerging from piles of leaves and sheets of crumpled paper, engaging the world with its brokenness. The sound track is bumpy with pimples in the technology and the give and take of movement coheres uncomfortably with that of the sound, forcing the dancers over terrain which is as tough and unsettled as the world they’re depicting. The dance work is twisty and inchoate and offers a unique language of movement, which distinguishes it and grabs you by the eye, again and again.

And all too soon, suddenly it is over, leaving you with a sense of loss: the work’s structure is repetitive and patterned, rather than chronological. You’re sucked into its dynamics and find yourself mesmerised by bodies contorting themselves into torn and emotive positions, by dancers who shout, shouters who dancer, and a collaborative mix which leaves your heart uneasy and your mind racing. More’s the pity that the work only had a single performance in this year’s Wits 969 Festival.

  • With Nothing But Silence They Turned Their Bodies To Face the Noise is directed by Athena Mazarakis and choreographed by Athena Mazarakis and PJ Sabbagha in collaboration with the cast. It features creative input from Nicholas Aphane (Music/Sound score/Composition and performance); Sasha Ehlers (production and costume design); Thabo Pule (lighting) and Jessica Denyschen (videography) and was performed by Nicholas Aphane, Nomfundo Hlongwa, Francesca Matthys, Athena Mazarakis, Shawn Mothupi, PJ Sabbagha, Oupa Sibeko and Lorin Sookool on July 15, in the Main Wits Theatre as part of the Wits 969 Festival, Wits University. Visit webtickets.co.za or visit Wits 969 on facebook.