Welcome to the scene of the crime


HOLD still, while I smash its brains in: Brian Mtembu, Humphrey Maleka and Sello Pesa in Bag Beatings. Photograph by John Hogg.

YOU NEED QUITE a tough stomach and heart to sit in the audience of Sello Pesa’s Bag Beatings, a work, which on one level is the most articulate and astute comment, so far, on the imminent demise of Dance Umbrella. It’s an angry work premised on extreme violence, and teeters around the notion of what is ‘play’ and what is for real, in a way that might give you flashbacks if you have been affected by violence on any level.

Premised on boxing idioms, the work takes on a level of violence which was similarly articulated by Peter van Heerden in 2006 in his work Six Minutes, an essay on the prevalence of rape in our society that features a rape staged so directly that audiences believe it is real. Bag Beatings does just what it promises: the men beat the boxing gloves until they yield their stuffing, and then attack the punch bag with a ferocity that is frightening and that feels as though it will bring the house down.

Hlengiwe Lushaba Madlala lends the work the type of scary edginess that she has applied to her performance work consistently over the years, since her Standard Bank Young Artist win in 2006 – it’s confrontational and articulate, it’s off the wall in its out-spokenness, and there’s a beauty to its frankness. Either way, it’s designed to make you incredibly discomfited.

The punch bag, chained to the theatre’s ceiling rig, is vulnerable to all kinds of indignities. Boiling water is poured on it. There’s a threatening taser zapping the air with aggression, and an iron that speaks through its steam hole. Is the work cathartic? In a sense, but with the house lights glaringly on, you in the audience feel completely exposed. There’s water and electricity on stage and it feels like you are in the scene of a crime.

The work has the kind of punch that will make you feel your soul bruising as you wince with each smack the punch bag sustains, from fists, sticks, sjamboks and the men’s belts. But as a contemporary dance piece it lacks a denouement. And maybe this is intentional. This is about the wanton end to a dance festival, and it’s completely unrepentant in its desire to smash the fourth wall, and spill all its energy and sadness onto you, in the audience.

  • Bag Beatings is choreographed by Sello Pesa and is performed by Hlengiwe Lushaba Madlala, Humphrey Maleka, Brian Mtembu and Sello Pesa. It was developed in residency for Season 1 at the Centre for the Less Good Idea and performs in the Wits Downstairs Theatre, part of Johannesburg’s Dance Umbrella in its 30th season, on March 15 and 16. Visit danceforumsouthafrica.co.za or call 086 111 0005.

The boy who loved cats


CHERRY red lips on a bed of snow. Craig Morris is Malcolm Leask. Photograph by Aman Bloom.

PERFECTION. IT’S SOMETHING every parent wants of their child, no matter how dysfunctional they may be in the rest of their lives. Taken to another level, that quest to make your child the best at ballet, at tennis, at maths can become pathological, twisted and poisonous, and it is on this bizarre relationship that Agony is premised. Written with an impeccable sense of texture that enables you to experience the smell of cat food and that of new tennis balls in your mind’s nose, the work is an unforgettable cipher to the sadness of a life stuffed to bilious satiety with other people’s dreams.

It is here, in this dingy flat filled with cats, that we meet Malcolm Leask. He’s alone. Nine months’ rent in arrears hangs over his head, and the crackle of Puccini on his record player fills the vacuum. That, and the cat food. That, and the memories, which bang and twist against one another in a way that will make you panic and weep as you sit there watching this tale of make believe and other people’s filthy secrets and threats unfold.

It’s a story told by several highly skilled professionals – with light and with puppets, with direction and with writing, which might make you think of Irish actor Patrick Magee and how his physical presence embraced the task of Krapp’s Last Tape which was written by Samuel Beckett with his voice in mind. It’s a story naked of gimmicks which evokes that of Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy in transient ways. But this is no paean to discovering one’s sexuality. It’s no celebration of distant youth. It’s a direct, often ruthless portrayal of what happens when all that pressure to excel is turned inside out, exposing instead the flaws of the one who imposed that pressure. It’s about what happens when one runs by chance into secret fantasies of others that smash one’s life into so many smithereens they can’t be put together again. It’s a story about the intimacy of a theatre’s wardrobe and one that sees the dolphins on the shower curtain weep at the bad things they’re made privy to, and it’s one about reclaiming a sense of self in a world broken by other people’s ugly greed, as it is one that glories in the perfection of closing that last clasp above the zip, of a beautiful ball gown.

And at its core is Craig Morris. Dancer, performer, magician with light and space and bodily presence, Morris gives Malcolm Leask the unequivocal dignity he warrants. To the world, this character might be considered tragic. Within Morris’s reach, he’s a hero making his final curtain call in the face of all the sham and drudgery and punishment that has been dished to him. This play will haunt you with its idiosyncrasies as it will pepper your thinking with what ifs.

  • There’s a brief season of this riveting and completely magnificent work – in loving memory of Greg Melvill-Smith – at Centurion Theatre, in the beginning of November, if you have missed the current season.
  • Agony is conceived by Greg Melvill-Smith and Douglas Thistlewhite, written by Iain Paton and directed by Megan Willson. It is performed by Craig Morris and features design by Jenni-lee Crewe (puppets) and Barry Strydom (lighting). It was performed in the Downstairs Theatre as part of the So So1o Festival at Wits University, on September 29 and 30 and October 8. It performs at the Centurion Theatre on November 3 and 4. Visit centurionteater.co.za or call 012-664-7859.

Verwoerd’s Assassin: a bloody tale of brilliant nuance


Murder is a sexy topic, in any entertainment sphere. Murder carrying a factual trail of political blood and racial acrimony, moreso, but there’s always the threat, the possibility that the gory denouement or headline might drench the whole work in blood, thus compromising credibility and coating it with sensationalism. In the hands of Renos Spanoudes the story of the murder of Hendrik Verwoerd by Dimitri Tsafendas goes beyond story-telling. It’s a completely astonishing work in which Spanoudes magically becomes Tsafendas, and in doing so lends this much maligned historical figure the dignity and complexity he warrants.

On September 6, 1966, Tsafendas, then employed by Parliament in Cape Town, as a messenger, stabbed the then Prime Minister Verwoerd to death, whilst Parliament was in session. The gesture was the result of years of unbelonging and exile; a lifetime of being relentlessly pushed from pillar to post, with a lot of brutality and bullying thrust at him from all quarters, in between. And Verwoerd, as the author of the racist system which prevented him from a life of normalcy, was the target.

The illegitimate child of a South African Greek man and his Shangaan domestic maid, Tsafendas teetered irrevocably between racial classification. Not light-skinned enough to be considered white nor dark skinned enough to be considered black, he never knew for sure whether he was white or Coloured, and spent his early life in the impossible double bind presented by apartheid. He could not marry because he was considered white when he fell in love with a Coloured woman. He travelled out of the country, and was not permitted to return because of his being this curious anomaly.

This play, embracing everything from a contemplation of dust, to the drowning of Wolraad Woltemade to the voice of a tape worm, debuted in a slightly different form, over ten years ago. It rips into the intestines and heart of the issue, without pulling punches. It’s an essay on the horrors of apartheid brutality, conveyed with deft hands, in the directorial, writing and performance aspects of the story and represents an energised and self-critical but deeply intelligent collaboration.

Spanoudes is a completely wonderful performer, who takes Tsafendas, body and soul and allows him to soar with the kind of authenticity that keeps you completely magnetically transfixed. Neither a chronological account nor a contrived one, this is storytelling at its wisest: it opens to present a bloody and bruised Tsafendas in his jail cell, and expands and contracts around his past and present. In entirety it presents a tale of hardship and humiliation, but ultimately it is the kind of work that leaves your empowered and simmering with a sense of victory.

Yes, Tsafendas lived out his life in horror and sadness, having survived the pricks and kicks of a vindictive Afrikaans policing, and horrifying privations like being installed beneath the gallows, where he was constant aural witness to hangings, for instance, but the work is constructed less as an essay of injustice and more as a nuanced and well-paced paean to the historical figure himself, a man not unintelligent, but plagued by demons.

Featuring a relationship with dark transitions on stage, which cloaks the text in sinister allusions to other presences, be they hidden members of the police, out there to drench the prisoner in water or piss in his tea, or be they the voices in the elderly Greek’s head, ostensibly drawing from the tape worm from which he suffered chronically, this play offers a very satisfying give and take in how this performer winds his presence through the text and the character, creating a work so developed and wise that even the notoriously horrible space of the Amphitheatre falls into irrelevance.

Spanoudes, in a tour-de-force performance, at times reminiscent of Ron Perlman’s unforgettable monk Salvatore, in Jean-Jacques Annaud’s The Name of the Rose (1986) allows your heart and soul to leap and fall and leap again, with the challenges Tsafendas faced in his long and tortuous life. It’s not an easy play to watch; it’s a very important foray into an otherwise poorly explored history.

  • Verwoerd’s Assassin is written by Anton Krueger and based on the direction of Jose Domingos and Lynne Maree. It was performed by Renos Spanoudes, at the Amphitheatre, as part of this year’s Wits-hosted So Solo Festival.