Back to the future with a pot of kak at the end of the rainbow

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WHAT happened to our dreams? Daniel Mpilo Richards will blow you away.

YOU MIGHT THINK the political repartee through which we have collectively been wading for the last little while has been so overused by local comics that nothing’s very funny anymore. You’d be wrong. Mike van Graan’s Pay Back the Curry will dispossess you of any of those ideas, within its first few moments. Tautly cast, beautifully written in tune with the shenaginans in our country and seamlessly performed by the immensely talented Daniel Mpilo Richards, this is South African satire at its most ruthlessly scathing best.

But humour is complex, as director Rob van Vuuren indicates with this highly polished piece of work. Many Van Vuuren fans may know him for his work on Corné and Twakkie and the Most Amazing Show – or as a stand up comic. But there’s another side to this talented theatre personality, which saw plays of the ilk of Brother Number and The Three Little Pigs, really sinister works that meld well-established ideas with their utter corollaries: his successful appearance in serious theatre as well as comic roles makes him the perfect man to direct this piece.

Part stand up comedy, part revue, this one-man-play takes everything from Shakespeare to Sinatra, Somewhere Over the Rainbow to Born Free and casts it relentlessly against the besmirched mirror of our times. The writing is nimble and supremely sophisticated. You might laugh out loud several times, but the repartee will also have you squirming uncomfortably in your seat – and there, indeed, is the rub: occasionally in this intensely focused work you will find your grin frozen on your face in horror, as the focus digresses from the foolishness of Zuma and into the terror of being an African in a context where lesbians are raped, poverty pervades and corruption rules.

Pay Back the Curry doesn’t tell a story in the conventional way, but Richards so smoothly embraces myriad persona changes while he seduces the audience to looking at things they would normally shy from, that the sorry tale of contemporary South Africa gets splayed and flayed for all to see. From Penny Sparrow to Oscar Pistorius, the Guptas to Malema, nothing dodgy, contradictory, shameful or blatantly foolish escapes Van Graan’s intimate and bold speculum.

This play is an important one for this moment – it’s the kind of work that will date because its references are so very specific. Richards’s performance however, won’t: this is an actor who embraces major challenges with acumen and integrity. You can’t draw your eyes from him as he embodies every kind of political voice you can imagine, with all the colour, intelligence and flair necessary. See this play, now, while it’s ripe.

  • Pay Back the Curry is written by Mike van Graan and directed by Rob van Vuuren. It features design by Gantane Kusch (lighting) and is performed by Daniel Mpilo Richards at the Auto & General Theatre on the Square in Sandton until December 15. Call 011 883 8606 or visit theatreonthesquare.co.za

How a handful of penguins can change your day

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PENGUINS Ahoy: Mr Popper (Samuel Hyde) with two of his wild young birds. Photograph courtesy facebook.

WHAT WOULD YOU do if you discovered your house to be filled with curious exotic birds from Antartica, who want nothing more than snuggling in your freezer or eating more raw fish than you can afford? Mr Popper (Samuel Hyde), a bit of an irresponsible adult, if ever there was, gets to bring havoc into the domestic bliss of his Stillwater home as he gets to experience real heartsore in taking adult decisions. Mr Popper’s Penguins, a favourite of American children, which debuts in South Africa, blends a range of personal challenges with strong light and colour, an overload of cuteness and some really homely values.

On many levels, it’s an ideal end of year family show, bringing together all the issues of responsibility and wildness, dreams and possibility, exploration and history and the exploitation of Hollywood into one story. But scripted in the 1930s, as it is, it tends to exude a lot of social blandness which might make contemporary children feel a little impatient or confused. Do young parents address one another as “Momma” and “Poppa” respectively, still? Perhaps not. Replete with all the fabulous attention to detail of set designer Stan Knight, and costume designer Sarah Roberts, which keeps you enthralled and looking at all the different elements, the work on the whole lacks the kind of tight choreographic cohesion we have seen in this theatre in the past and this hurts its overall fabric and texture.

From a sound perspective, Sanli Jooste in her role of the mommy of the tale often fights vocally with the piped music: and the casualty? Her lyrics. You can’t hear what she’s singing. When the idea that she’s going to be performing on a piano is mentioned, you may smile with gladness, feeling relief that a real instrument will adorn the stage, but sadly the cleavage of her mimed piano performance and the music itself resonates illogically.

It is, however, the children in the role of the eponymous birds themselves that lend the work the charm and specialness that really makes this production worth seeing. While you may have expected more “penguinnish” choreography in the stereotypical understanding of how a human child becomes a penguin, these little ones have been well tutored and carefully directed in the different idiosyncrasies that wild birds forced into a domestic context would generally manifest. Sizwe Sibotshiwe’s heart melting moment when he acknowledges his sheer unadulterated loneliness is the unequivocal gem moment of the piece, but it is the squad of five penguins that capture the froth and nuance of the piece, and lend it fire.

  • Mr Popper’s Penguins, featuring lyrics by Jody Davidson and music by Brett Schirer is based on the novel by Richard Atwater and Florence Hasseltine Atwater, and directed by Francois Theron. It features design by Clint Lesch (musical direction), Chantal Herman (choreography), Sarah Roberts (costumes), Stan Knight (set) and Jane Gosnell (lighting). It is performed by Bethany Joy Harding, Samuel Hyde, Thokozani Jiyane, Sanli Jooste, Naret Loots and Siphiwe Nkabinde, with a child cast comprising Clarise Bard, Dionysia Bizos, Danella Cassel, Larona Christopher, Hannah Cohen, Simone Greehy, Joshua Hibbert, Maya Izaki, Summer Kerwin, Katarina Lee-Cook, Rachel Lee-Cook, Aaralyn Muttitt, Gabriel Poulsen, Tannah Proctor, Mathew Rusznyak, Sizwe Sibotshiwe, Kgahliso Solomon, Aisha Thokoane, Litha Tuku, Thando Tuku and Kayleigh van Wyk [the children who featured in the performance upon which this review is premised were Larona Christopher, Hannah Cohen, Summer Kerwin, Aaralyn Muttitt, Tannah Proctor and Sizwe Sibotshiwe]. It performs at the National Children’s Theatre in Parktown, until December 23. Call 011 484 1584 or visit nationalchildrenstheatre.org.za

She said what?!

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TRUST me: Two sides to the same girlfriend. Hannah Nokwazi and Mathabo Tlali. Photograph courtesy Binnie Christie.

WHAT HAPPENS WHEN you leave your new girlfriend in your house alone for the first time? Does she go and do the domestic chores thing: iron your sheets, cook and clean so that you will return overwhelmed with her pre-1950s womanly values and discipline? Does she roll around languidly on your sheets, thinking about last night? Or maybe she goes and does her own work, to put her mind off how much she misses you? But perhaps she turns manic and rifles through your stuff, with a voracious urgency to find out all your secrets and explore all your most intimate flaws. She said, She said teases the possibilities open. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Young playwright Binnie Christie tosses up these curious possibilities with her cast, comprising Hannah Nokwazi and Mathabo Tlali, in a work that is redolent not only of the staging of Zakes Mda’s The Mother of All Eating in 2014, but also of a university production of Sartre’s The Flies, staged by Wits students the year after. It has to do with the successful splitting of a single character into two completely opposed roles. What you get is an inner dialogue effectively turned inside out, and the secret words that the proverbial devil on your one shoulder and angel on the other whisper to your inner psyche are brought devastatingly well to the fore. It also takes the idea of a mono-drama and splays it open, lending it even greater possibilities.

This kind of level of collaborative mettle was engaged in a work staged earlier this year as part of the Sex Actually festival. Between Sisters, directed by Refiloe Lepere, tore strips off previous versions of Jean Genet’s The Maids. While Tlali and Nokwazi occasionally get a little carried away with themselves, generally in She Said, She Said, they do not disappoint in their feisty give and take.

The casualty in this work however, is the narrative itself. It needs tightening. The energy of the performers, the wit of their dialogue and the circumstances in which they find themselves – or rather in which ‘she’ finds herself – are magnetic, but the work itself needs begs for further tweaking and more bravery in the area of pushing back but also reflecting stereotypes even further and presenting the cold heart of the new woman in Sello’s life. The character slips in and out of accents and languages which is beguiling and headily self-disparaging but the flow of contemporary jargon with narrative values is not always smooth.

Having said that, there are few things in this beleaguered creative industry right now that are quite as exciting as young energy that has the chutzpah and self-belief to cock a snoot at the restraints of limited funding and difficult pragmatics. Part of the fifth edition of the Women’s Theatre festival at Olive Tree theatre, She said, She said, deserves legs and heads that turn and take notice.

  • She said, she said is written and directed by Binnie Christie and performed by Hannah Nokwazi and Mathabo Tlali. It was showcased at the Olive Tree theatre in Wynberg, between November 11 and 13.

Lost in the Wood

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DIRECTIONLESS and forlorn: Little John (Phumci Mncayi) and Friar Tuck (Desmond Dube), doing the traffic light jive in their bid to rob from the rich and give to the poor. Photograph by Mariola Biela.

INDEED, THE SILLY season is already upon us. But silly is as silly does and when the volume and strobes in an auditorium are ramped up to deafen and blind an audience in order to compensate for a messy hodge-podge of a story featuring political- and market-related humour that is so tired you have to be seriously drunk to laugh, you can only despair. Robin Hood and the Babes in the Wood the city’s highly punted pantomime for the year, takes silly to a new level of incompetence. It features so much self-indulgent clap-trap in its narrative flow, choice of music and ribaldry that not only does the story lose its way spectacularly, but it is also crushed under the weight of too many agendas.

With stand-out performances by Graham Hopkins as the evil villain Norman the Nasty Sheriff of Nottingham; Kate Normington in the role of an Irish geriatric fairy called Silly Sylviana, the Spirit of the Forest; Desmond Dube as Friar Tuck and the very talented Dale Scheepers as one of the hapless ‘babes in the wood’, Tokkel; it is not the performers or the choreographers who can be condemned. They do their best. They’re immensely skilled. But they’re working in a context which so lacks narrative definition that it feels as though anything goes. The work is an unsuccessful mashing together of a bunch of tales surrounding Robin Hood, the medieval activist who stole from the rich and gave to the poor, and that of Hansel and Gretel, two poor children condemned by a nasty step mother to die in the forest. Both these central classics are pinned to poverty, patronage politics and corruption rhetoric specific to the time in which we live, only it’s not funny.

Sadly the political shenanigans of the time have been so widely laughed at, analysed, criticised and condemned by all and sundry that the humour has begun to pall. And in this production in particular, it’s as subtle and nuanced as a sledge-hammer hitting a fly.

Where the two tales meet and why they’re pushed together is a mystery. Pantomime is traditionally such a complex and bawdy bit of burlesque to begin with, it’s not clear why this production needed even more frills than normal by taking on two stories at once.

The requisite over the top drag character is played by LJ Urbani with immensely tragic make-up, in the role of the wicked step-mother, but the moments of genuine hilarity are few and far between. If you can look beyond the arbitrary and irresponsible use of strobes, and forget that the sound is at such a decibel level that you feel the vibration in your teeth, there’s still not much left, particularly for the littlies. When this production is not messily presented in its narrative, it’s seriously scary or crudely cruel. Thus the entertainment value is substituted for a kind of sensory assault. If that’s your thing, you might love it. When audiences of large scale musicals shout hysterically on cue at every drum roll, it’s either because they think they should, or because they’re crying about the money they’ve just spent so badly. In terms of big shows fitting the family entertainment bill for the end of year treat, this one certainly doesn’t cut it.

  • Robin Hood and the Babes in the Wood is written and directed by Janice Honeyman. Featuring design by Graham McLusky (lighting), Rowan Bakker (musical director), Richard Smith (sound), Bronwyn Lovegrove (costume co-ordinator), Nicol Sheraton (choreographer), it is performed by Teekay Baloyi, Izak Davel, Desmond Dube, Darius Engelbrecht, Clive Gilson, Nurit Graff, Kyra Green, Graham Hopkins, Dirk Joubert, Dolly Louw, Yamikani Mahaka-Phiri, Noni Mkhonto, Phumi Mncayi, Candida Mosoma, Bongi Mthombeni, Tshepo Ncokoane, Kate Normington, Carmen Pretorius, Dale Scheepers, LJ Urbani, Natasha Van Der Merwe, Maryanne Van Eyssen and Jaco Van Rensburg. It features a live band under the baton of Rowan Bakker and Drew Rienstra on keyboards, comprised Deon Kruger (guitar), Kuba Silkiewicz (bass) and PW Van Der Walt (drums), and is at the Nelson Mandela Theatre, Joburg Theatre complex in Braamfontein, until December 30. Call 0861 670 670 or visit joburgtheatre.com

A Monteverdi potpourri and the power of wow

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MY enemy myself: Lamento confronts the nuance that makes perpetrators victims, and victims, perpetrators. Photograph by Graham de Lacey.

IT’S NOT EVERY day that you’re privileged enough to see a staging of 17th century madrigals with real Baroque instruments played on a major Johannesburg stage. It’s also not every day that you get to see Monteverdi translated into isiZulu in the surtitles, with the timelessness of his tales woven into current South African narrative. Lamento, created by Kobie van Rensburg calls itself a pastiche in the self-consciously postmodern understanding of the term: blending new animation technology with a genuine respect for the authentic Monteverdi nuances, it’s an astoundingly beautiful experience.

In 2007, Philip Miller staged his extraordinary ReWind: A Cantata for Voice, Tape And Testimony. While Miller’s work remains in a category of its own in terms of the uniqueness of the perspective and the fresh boldness in his complicated yet clear weaving together of music values and political narrative, there’s a resonance here with Lamento. Divided into seven discrete scenes, the story it tells is tragic and heroic, political and prescient, balanced by diverse perspectives, but in truth, it becomes less of a concern to you in the audience, than the sheer beauty of the piece. This has, primarily, to do with the quality of the musical performances of the singers and instrumentalists dovetailed with the technological set.

The experience of hearing the beguilingly simple music language of Monteverdi, supported as it is with but six instruments and five performers onstage, is in itself enough to raise goosebumps. Sandwich it into an ensemble that involves blue screen technology and a whole array of tricks and idiosyncrasies and you get swept away on many currents simultaneously.

And that richness of diversity is the work’s popular selling point – not everyone loves the idea of  17th century proto-opera in Italian – but it is also, in a sense, its weakness: so much is happening at the same time, all the time, that you find yourself focusing on the music and allowing everything else to slip into lesser definition. So the narrative gets lost. The technology begins to feel a little gimmicky at times. And the humour feels forced. That is, until it’s brought to life again by the singers, who inject that spark of relevance and fire into this incredibly fine ancient music, thus becoming the secret ingredient which forces you to overlook flaws with a forgiving, nay, an adoring, eye.

Touching on everything from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to the Soweto Uprisings, Sharpeville, Vlakplaas and #FeesMustFall, it has a spot of Nkandla and a reference to selfies in it. On a level, when you contemplate the immensity it reaches and touches in confronting the sadness of violent loss in a political context, the soul of the work begs for it to be more abstract and more simple, and again, as these thoughts are articulated in your head, it is the singing voices which shift your perspectives away in a swathe of call and response songs.

If you think of The Magic Flute – Impempe Yomlingo, performed in Johannesburg in 2008 under the auspices of Isango Portobello, something similar happened there too. The work was an isiZulu translation of Mozart’s eponymous opera. Rather than a traditional western orchestra, it featured African musical instruments and African solutions to the opera’s drama. It was utterly magical, but it seemed to be bending over backwards in its attempts to pull out all the stops and redress every historical imbalance you can think of. And this conflation of magic and trying so hard to showcase everything possible is Lamento’s slight stumbling block.

See it for the novelty it offers, and while you’re wowing at the modern technology, you will quietly fall completely in love with Monteverdi. And the rest becomes incidental.

  • Lamento is written and directed by Kobie van Rensburg based on scenic madrigals by Claudio Monteverdi. Featuring design by Kobie van Rensburg (video, stage and set) and Michael Maxwell (lighting), it is performed by Nick de Jager (tenor), Bongani Mthombeni (tenor), Nombuso Ndlandla (soprano), Ronald Paseka (bass) Elsabé Richter (soprano) Sibusiso Simelane (tenor) and accompanied by the Lamento Ensemble: John Reid Coulter (harpsichord/organ), Waldo Luc Alexander and Jonathan Meyer (violins), Tessa Olivier and Frederike Scholtz (violas), Berthine van Schoor (cello) and Uwe Grosser (chittarone/Baroque guitar), at the John Kani Theatre, Market Theatre complex in Newtown, Johannesburg, until November 6. Visit markettheatre.co.za or call 011 832 1641.

The Glorious Depths of Luli

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CENTRE of the world to me: Fiona Ramsay gets under the skin of Luli Callinicos. Photograph courtesy Megan Willson.

EVEN IF YOU think you know the characteristic way in which veteran actress Fiona Ramsay performs and looks and sounds, there are moments in If We Dig where you may feel pushed to disbelieve that this is she. Magnificently crafted around the important research of veteran social historian Luli Callinicos, this work is not only a tribute to the nub and grit of anti-apartheid energies during the bleeding and shameful 1970s and 1980s, but it is also a painstakingly fine celebration of South Africa’s minority groups, with all their idiosyncrasies and values: people who have shaped the rich tapestry of contradicting passions that make us human. And South African.

Embraced by a set comprising a generous ring of the detritus of research, the books and files, the newspaper cuttings and old photographs, the work is a powerful celebration of the generally uncelebrated cogs in the South African system. Of Johannesburg’s indigent East Rand towns such as Boksburg and Benoni. Of Hillbrow and of exile.

Think of the poor white unlettered young woman who fell in love with a beautiful young black pianist to learn appallingly of how the system rubbished obvious hierarchies in the value of a human being to the world. Then there’s the young staunchly committed Afrikaner woman who grew to political awareness in the garment workers’ union and enjoyed such a deep commitment to communist ideals that it damaged her marriage. And the cleavage between the Greek, Jewish and Muslim communities of a city that was struggling to find its sense of moral balance in a world coloured by petty discrepancies rendered punishable in the hands of bigots: all of these tales are those of real people, part of the prodigious research conducted by Callinicos through her “bookish” but also potently rich life’s work.

The life and work of a living historian is hardly what you could call dynamic or sexy on obvious levels, but it is handled here with such grace and verve that it will engage you and hold you through a direct exploration of the human detritus of a rotten world. The digging analogy is about looking beyond face value, rather than mining, which the play’s marketing poster seems to allude to. And there are some great truths mouthed in this lovely work: not only through the characters brought to life from Callinicos’s research, but from the self-effacing, generous portrayal of a woman with passion, commitment, intellect and soul.

  • If We Dig is directed by Megan Willson based on the life and writings of Luli Callinicos. It is performed by Fiona Ramsay at the Barney Simon Theatre, Market Theatre complex in Newtown, Johannesburg, until November 6. Another season of the work is planned for 2017 at the Market Theatre. Visit markettheatre.co.za or call 011 832 1641

 

Electric rain and ill winds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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