Dirty, smarmy secrets

Smallanyana

HE ain’t heavy, he’s my mop: Jerry Mntonga plays Handy Andy. Photograph by Mariola Biela.

THE POMP AND flippancy of a political leadership blindly consumed with its own intrigues and self importance comes under the brutal gaze of seven young Wits writers in Smallanyana Skeleton, a parody loosely cast around South African values. Blending a multitude of talents, from beat-boxing to set design, the work is fresh and vital, cleaving irony and wit with a deeper message, but on the whole, it is bruised by a lack of polish.

As you walk into the rubbish-strewn theatre, it is being mopped by a guy in overalls. The wet mop on the theatre’s black floor becomes a cipher for a multitude of messages, from sex to death, as the guy, “Handy Andy” (Jerry Mntonga) is part outsider and part insider in this tale of sordid immorality based on getting down and dirty in secret, stealing big things such as monuments and fooling tax payers.

With unquestionably inimitable value as a new South African story, the work is hinged  too closely to real people on the current political stage: a character called Honourable Godzille, compromises the parodic thrust the work promises. Is this a play about Helen Zille or is this a broader-based attack on hypocrisy and the skeletons in cupboards of a generic political leadership?

While there is an occasional tendency toward overacting by some of the cast, there is also an energy which leans a little too closely to cinematic dynamics, downplaying formal theatre conventions and hurting the clarity of the tale itself.

Having said that, this work contains some of the self-reflective humour of a selfie-obsessed, social media-dependent society that only writers of this generation can articulate with as much internal knowledge, and harsh criticism, as the work requires. There are some truly fine moments of nuance and improvisation in this play, which is built against a very nifty set conflating newspaper street posters with media interaction rather deliciously.

While the tale is a smarmy one which languidly flows from the issue of rubbish disposal pipes being too wide or too long and into sordid hotel bedrooms, thence to toilets and closets, it is hurt by too many transitions where you’re left in the dark while the cast changes scenes. These breaks in the narrative flow hurt the focus of the story, and often, you’re left proverbially in the dark as extraneous bits and pieces of narrative are strewn about, sometimes not completely coherently.

But the immense value of a play of this nature, featuring students ranging from first years – Nambitha Tyelbooi who plays Jenny List (the journalist) and Thando Mulambo who plays Honourable Humdrum, to young professionals – cannot be underestimated. The fun that was had in the construction of the work shows unquestionably, and is contagious. But the hilarity of the tale, and to an extent, its darkness gets bewildered in the overall messiness of the story.

  • Smallanyana Skeleton is written by Samantha de Jager, Sam Kentridge, Lehlohonolo Mmeti, Sarah Nansubuga, Daniella Oosthuizen, Caitlyn Spring and Joe Young, facilitated and directed by Kgafela oa Magogodi. Featuring design by Julian August (lighting) and Edmund Braatveld and Tsholo Ramosepele (set and costume), it is performed by Bradley Cebekhulu, Abongile Matyutyu, Jerry Mntonga, Lucky Mqoboli, Thando Mulambo, Danielle Oosthuizen and Nambitha Tyelbooi, in the Wits Amphitheatre until August 27. 011 717 1376

To simply gaze into the face of Matisse

By Lilly Oosthuizen

StudentReviewMatisse

SIMPLE lines: Matisse’s confident line work is mindblowing.

ONE MOMENT OF awe in this widely publicised exhibition of the work of Henri Matisse is his quick and bold portraits: in particular his self-portrait; Mask (1945). Self-portraits are a looking glass into the world as the artist sees it, turned on himself; it is a tense moment.

These portraits are a great marker for how Matisse came to his famous paper cutouts. Following the line of the drawings, you can see how deft and confident his marks are. You could probably count the amount of marks he has made on one hand: each one with purpose and a crucial need to describe character.

These portraits are like signatures. They are so well practiced and knowing. You cannot copy the marks he has made without being completely sure of your hand. The marks are musical in their composition. You can imagine the artist’s hand; ba dum dum dum, flick swish swoop, all to describe a face. How beautifully he does it.

It is no surprise then, how musical his cutouts and his plates for the Book of Jazz are. They, like the portraits, are confident – each snip has such a precise yet fluid purpose. Although the work seems to be made with precision, it is not serious. The atmosphere in this exhibition is playful. His cutouts are joyous and they do indeed emit an enormous sense of rhythm and meaning.

Rhythm and Meaning takes the audience through the steps in Matisse’s career, from his student work right through to his paper cutouts. Although the story is a brief overview, the exhibition really gives insight into Matisse’s “signature” as it were, and how it developed.

  • Rhythm and Meaning is at the Standard Bank Gallery in central Johannesburg until September 17. 011 631 4467.
  • Lilly Oosthuizen is a third year visual arts student at the University of Johannesburg. She is currently one of the participants in a course in Arts Writing, given by Robyn Sassen

Framed afresh: King Shaka

Ilembe

OUR captain, our king: Sangomas played by Charity Hlophe and Tholani Miya set the scene as chorus to iLembe. Photograph courtesy http://www.culture-review.co.za

In 2004, the late historian David Rattray single-handedly performed the tale of the Battle of Isandlwana, the first military encounter in 1879 between the British Empire and the Zulu Kingdom. The heady mix of energy and fact, sound effects and drama, politics, supposition and legend, drenched as it was in a splendid and discursive array of blood and heroism, was simply unforgettable, cast as it was in the humble Benoni-based hall of Sibikwa. iLembe, which was staged albeit briefly in Grahamstown and Johannesburg – also under the auspices of Sibikwa – echoes this supreme level of storytelling with guts and vigour.

Taking apart the historical figure of Shaka, king of the Zulu nation, the work offers a clearly woven tale which is a combination of song, gesture, spoken English and isiZulu (with surtitles) as it exposes the traditionally accepted history’s controversial underbelly, posing contradictory questions about the character of Shaka. This is achieved through the words of four characters in the history: Henry Francis Fynn (Jeremy Richard) a British immigrant trader-turned-medical adviser to King Shaka, complete with his brimless straw hat; Shaka’s interpreter Jackot Msimbithi (Andries Babalo Mbali); Shaka’s attendant Mbopha (Sabelo Mnisi); and Shaka’s sister, Nomcoba (Busisiwe Nyundu). Replete with a duo of sangomas onstage (Tholani Miya and Charity Hlophe) who chillingly and beautifully play the role of a kind of a Greek chorus, the work is compelling and driven.

And while they raise controversial issues that die-hard Shaka fans might find enraging, they offer the kind of three-dimensionality to the man that the makers of HBO series Oz do in their portrayal of men so capable of horror, but so endowed with humanity that your morals get confused and swayed. Is this man good? Is he bad? Is he, like most of us, an indefinite mix of both good and bad? King Shaka is not represented as a character in the play, but his presence is palpable and engaged with splendidly. You know you are in the presence of royalty as you enter the theatre.

Further to that, there are nuances and decisions in gesture and direction, dealing in particular with a sloped prop on stage that will truly take your breath away. Myriads of people, a whole army, the reach of an enormous land are evoked with wisdom and clarity.

The curious thing that happens in the interplay of language on this stage is that you develop a thirst to know the nuances of isiZulu, if you don’t already. The surtitles are succinct and pared down, but the isiZulu words that they correspond to are considerably longer. If you don’t understand isiZulu, you lose all the metaphors and flowers, and textures and idioms of the language.

Similar to works like the magnificent Tau, by Thabiso T. Rammala, iLembe brings the taboos and contradictions of traditional African narrative to a stage which could proudly be global, in its polished direction, performance and choreography. It smashes the parochial ideas that African traditional theatre on so-called western stages dragged with it for decades: here is proud African traditionalism and it is fierce, convincing and magnificent.

  • iLembe is written and directed by Phyllis Klotz and Smal Ndaba. It features design by Oscar Buthelezi (choreography), Themba Mkhize (music), Stan Knight (set and lighting) and Sarah Roberts (costumes) and is performed by Andries Babalo Mbali, Charity Hlophe, Tholani Miya, Sabelo Mnisi, Busisiwe Nyundu and Jeremy Richard. It performed at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, and more recently in a short season at the Soweto Theatre in Jabulani, Soweto. sibikwa.co.za

Even the shadows get to trip the light fantastic, here

Impact1

MAN in a frock: Muzi Shili captures the verve in Hinkel’s Bolero. Photograph by Suzy Bernstein

CONTEMPORARY DANCE HAS a reputation for being self-indulgent, inaccessible and boring. Very occasionally however, you do get a real opportunity to see something extraordinary. And that occasion is often so rare, in a season so brief that you have to act quickly. Impact 1 is exactly what dance should be: it’s a shortish evening comprising three works that will make you sit up and focus, and leave you feeling rewarded.

Several years ago, showcases of this nature were de rigueur for several of South Africa’s dance companies. But the trend waned. Hopefully Impact 1 and 2 will engender a new understanding of contemporary dance outside of the traditionally February timeframe of Dance Umbrella.

First up is José Agudo’s beautiful contemplative piece, A Thousand Shepherds, danced by members of Cape Dance Company. This essay in the movement of shifting sands, fire and nomads is evocatively supported by Vincenzo Lamagno’s music and caressed into full life by Wilhelm Disbergen’s magical use of light. There are moments in this work when you feel as though the dancers are able to become submerged in the floor, or defy gravity entirely and rise from it. And where you lose your sense of context entirely and feel as though it’s just you watching these mesmerising performers. Like dervishes, they work together and apart, offering glorious synchronisation, mysteries, politics and history as they immerse themselves in their floor-length cowled robes, genuflect and move as though mercury or electricity was sprinkled through their limbs.

Curiously, the second piece, Belinda Nusser’s Phase 5 Confronted bears a number of similarities, in structure, movement and ethos with the Agudo work. Danced by members of Tshwane Dance Theatre, with the addition of Nathan Bartman and Ipeleng Merafe from CDC, this piece is supported by music by Amon Tobin Murcof and Massive Attack, which feels like a concatenation of rough pebbles, ball-bearings and marbles running down your spine and through your brain. Sometimes this sound lends you a delicious feeling of coolness and at others, it jars. The dance itself involves sophisticated movements, but on the whole, it has an aura that is cold and intense and there are moments when the ethos of the piece teeters over into something that feels like an exercise routine rather than a dance work.

The final work on Impact 1 is an adaptation by Alfred Hinkel, the founder of Jazzart, of his iconic 1976 Bolero, which is danced to the eponymous work by Maurice Ravel, a jazzy balletic piece which first saw light of day nearly 90 years ago. This delicious celebration of dance brings in men in skirts, women flaunting their curves and playfulness, maturity and a sense of authority that makes you remember why Moving Into Dance Mophatong has the reputation and history it does. Conjoined with Disbergen’s  masterful lighting, even the shadows of these performers trip the light fantastic. Dancers such as Muzi Shili, Sunnyboy Motau and Eugene Mashiane bask and make love with the music, the movement, the very business of being alive in the world, melding very African dance gestures such as gumboot, with the European shimmer and beat of Ravel, that will leave you buoyant and singing bars of the music all the way home.

What a joy it is to be able to watch contemporary local dance in the beautiful, well designed and dignified premises of the Mandela. Not only is it time for contemporary dance to be showcased more aggressively in curated shows of this nature, but it’s time for the Joburg theatre to become a proud and exclusive venue of local talent.

  • Impact 1 performs at the The Mandela, Joburg Theatre complex in Braamfontein, until August 21. It comprises the following pieces
    • A Thousand Shepherds choreographed by José Agudo and featuring music by Vincenzo Lamagna, lighting by Wilhelm Disbergen and costumes by Kimie Nakano. It is performed by the Cape Dance Company under the artistic direction of Debbie Turner: Ciara Baldwin, Nathan Bartman, Lwando Dutyulwa, Carmen Lotz, Odwa Makanda, Ipeleng Merafe, Thamsanqa Njoko, Mthuthuzeli November, Louisa Talbot, Gemma Trehearn, Lee van der Merwe and Marlin Zoutman;
    • Phase 5 Confronted choreographed by Belinda Nusser, featuring music by Amon Tobin Murcof and Massive Attack and lighting and costumes by Belinda Nusser, assisted by Gwendolyn Gourley-Botha. It is performed by members of Tshwane Dance Theatre, under the artistic management of Liyabuya Gongo and Laura Cameron: Nathan Bartman (by permission of CDC), Laura Cameron, Liyabuya Gongo, Thabiso Khoma, Ipeleng Merafe (by permission of CDC) and Kyle Rossouw;
    • And Bolero choreographed by Alfred Hinkel, featuring music by Maurice Ravel, lighting by Wilhelm Disbergen and costumes by Veronica Sham, Wilhelm Disbergen and Avril Bennet is performed by members of Moving Into Dance Mophatong under the artistic directorship of Mark Hawkins: Oscar Buthelezi Teboho Gilbert Letele, Eugene Mashiane, Thabang Mdlalose, Mandla Sunnyboy Motau Ntuli, Sussera Olyn, Asanda Saru Rudah, Macaleni Muzi Shili and Thenjiwe Soxokoshe.
  • Impact 2, comprising works by members of TDT and MIDM, runs from August 24-26 at the Fringe Theatre, Joburg Theatre complex, Braamfontein. http://www.joburgtheatre.com/impact-no-2/

Girltalk for combatants

Screams

FACE to face, they scald each other: Tinarie van Wyk Loots opposite Masasa Lindiwe Mbangeni. Photograph courtesy artslink.co.za

SOMETIMES YOU MAY be so overwhelmed by the iconic status of the creative team behind a work that you might be blinded as to its merits or otherwise. The Dying Screams of the Moon written by Zakes Mda and directed by John Kani is an intriguing piece of theatre which demands dialogue in its wake. It isn’t, however, the most perfect of plays on stage right now.

You realise you’ve entered a church as you take your seat in the auditorium, and you might have to stultify the urge to genuflect, whether you come from a church ethos or not. But quickly, you realise, this church is down at heel. While the smell of incense wafts in the space, the building has seen more robust days and there’s a frank humility about it which speaks of poverty.

Indeed, this little sacred building used to be a church. These days, it’s a chapel, but still the moniker “… of the broken Christ” as its congregants fondly used to call it, holds. The organist (Ezbie Sebatsa Moilwa) rehearses. And then, a young woman (Masasa Lindiwe Mbangeni) appears. She’s statuesque and poised. She holds a paper bag, but she’s clearly in of distress. As the tale unfolds, it becomes clear that this farm, this church, represent a very fond yet compromised piece of her history, and she is returning home.

Enter another young woman, roughly of the same age as the first (Tinarie van Wyk Loots), and her bolshie sense of ownership takes the fore. As do the skin colours of the two – the first is black, the second, white. This is about land. It’s about men. It’s about the discrepancies of wealth in this pock-marked country in which we live, and the swath of history that has coloured so much of it in blood and hate.

Thus unfolds a conversation that is muscular and pointed. It gives flesh and credibility to what both women say and how their perspective is shaped and moulded. You will not be able to draw your attention from the utterly focused performances of both van Wyk Loots and Mbangeni: they’re beautifully cast and make for resoundingly fine sparring partners.

But the play is a tilted one. From the outset, you instinctively have empathy for the black woman. She’s vulnerable yet strong. Alone, yet equipped with the conviction and the self-belief to articulate her position without fear. Instinctively, you don’t want to support the white woman. She is fierce in her political views, patronising in her engagement with the hapless stranger and so deeply moored in a racist ideology, she cannot recognise the ghastly faux pas she makes.

At the denouement of the play, emotion flows: and one woman seeks succour from her ostensible enemy. But can you empathise with either? You remain coldly unable to. It’s a curious problem in a play of this nature: while you can understand the validity of both of these sketched sides of the South African political spectrum, are there indeed just two sides? Both characters are written too one dimensionally and there is no wiggle room for nuance, or levity, particularly with the white character.

Further to this, while the organist plays beautifully, and has impressive music credentials, he is not a professional actor, an issue which becomes crudely obvious when he is called upon to speak, even if it is just for a word or two. This is a pity and mars the critical credibility of the work. Surely there are performers on our stages who can play music and act?

The Dying Screams of the Moon articulates values, words and ideas that five years ago would arguably have been scorned and frowned upon in audiences. While the approach does seem crude, the nature of the work opens vital conversational doors.

  • The Dying Screams of the Moon is written by Zakes Mda and directed by John Kani. It features design by Nomvula Molepo (lighting), Karabo Legoabe (set) and Nthabiseng Makone (costumes). It is performed by Masasa Lindiwe Mbangeni, Ezbie Sebatsa Moilwa and Tinarie van Wyk Loots at the Mannie Manim Theatre, Market Theatre Complex, Newtown, Johannesburg, until August 21. 011 832 1641 or markettheatre.co.za.

Man enough

Tau. July 2016.

EXPECTORATION and manhood: Tau’s journey of self-discovery. Photograph by Suzy Bernstein.

“DUMELANG”, HE SAYS, standing just inside the doorway, to the right. So does he, on the left of the doorway. But they both says it in such a gentle undertone that you only really register that they’re greeting you once you’ve passed them. This delicate opening gesture to the play not only sets the tone to a beautiful whirlwind of cultural complexity embodied in the clash of traditional practice with a desire for contemporary balance, but it also touches your core and stimulates a reaction in you. Do you greet the men with equal respect? Do you ignore them? Do you nod and grin sheepishly, afraid they might burst into long sentences in Sesotho which you do not understand? Do you loudly declare “Good evening!”, back at them?

It’s immaterial, really, but this simple understanding of how we as a mixed society grapple with the tools of language, ritual and habit, frames this extraordinarily beautiful and sophisticated piece of storytelling with a succinct but devastatingly powerful hand. Tau (played by Abednigo Moruti Dlamini) is the name of a young man who skirts stereotypical definition with a silent potency. But he’s a young man in a deeply traditional rural community in the Free State and the ritual of circumcision and isolation is one he must confront with his peers in order to attain adulthood.

There unfolds a rich and deeply textured work about male bonding and homosexuality, taboos and curses, gender equality and red shoes, to say nothing of the utterly breathtaking night landscape of animals, crafted with sounds made by the cast. It’s a work which will sweep you from your comfort zones, whether you speak Sesotho or not, and force you to scrabble in the secrecy that holds the manhood of a society together. And there’s an element of intrusion into the culture, but also one of extreme mystery and wonder and contemporary pragmatism which is completely seductive.

Several years ago, there was a lot of local theatre that drew from within traditional African culture. It was passionate work, earnest in its sense of urgency to have a place on the professional stage, but often the paraphernalia of rural ritual was thwarted on stage as it was overwhelmingly amateur. When you watch a work such as Tausimilar to Sibikwa’s production of iLembe  – you rapidly realise that there has been a generational shift in South African theatre and this supremely talented team of performers and creatives is able to meld together the age-old values with modern discourse and utterly beautiful construction. The time has come for these stories to have potent life and value under the gaze and conversation of new dreamers, thinkers and theatremakers, and they are doing it with wisdom and beauty that lends Africa’s old tales a universality which is fresh as it is compelling.

Tau is an exquisite work that is clear to follow but satisfyingly nuanced in its reflection on the values it scrutinises. But its blend of a cappella with precise and intense fight choreography ramps it up even further. It will shift your centre. Forever.

  • Tau is written by Thabiso T. Rammala and directed by Thabiso T. Rammala and MoMo Matsunyane. It features creative input by Monageng ‘Vice’ Motshabi (dramaturge), Hlomohang Mothetho (lighting) assisted by Ntokozo Ndlovu, Thando Lobese (set and costumes) assisted by Lebogang Mokgosi and Philani Nelson Masedi, and Nhlanhla Mahlangu (choreography). It is performed by Allen Cebekhulu, Abednigo Moruti Dlamini, Nono Dombo, James Mankgaba, Khothatso Mogwera, Paul Noko and Mosa Sephiri, at the Barney Simon Theatre, Market Theatre Complex, until August 21. 011 832 1641 or markettheatre.co.za.

Thirty years of gods, bulls and other beasties

JohannMoolman

WORTH worshipping? Johann Moolman’s Place of the Rain Bull, a work in stone and rusted mild steel. Photograph courtesy Fried Contemporary Art Gallery.

FIFTY YEARS, A hundred or more from now, what will archaeologists retrieve to establish who we were as a society and what made us tick? Shape-Shift, a retrospective exhibition by Johann Moolman contemplates that idea of obsolescence with a strong sense of history but not without a wry grin at the hubris of our society.

Moolman’s name, if you’ve been following visual art for awhile, hasn’t been headlined in local commercial galleries for some time, and this exhibition makes it feel the time is right for a revisit of these quirky, curious and beautiful pieces, made with a strong hand, potent craftsmanship and a capricious sense of possibility. The show comprises paintings, sculptures and relief works, but also altered found objects.

But while the work feels prolific, the space is limited, and as you walk into the gallery, you feel bombarded: the show seems to cram too much into too small a space.

As you move deeper into the space, however, this shifts. The gallery’s main space comprises one large room, one smaller room and a garden, into which the work spills. Curiously, the smaller room in the establishment doesn’t feel as cluttered as the large space – rather, the closely ranged pieces feel like a friendly crowd. They cluster with a sense of their own poetry and the installation is a comfortable one, resonating with the kind of curatorial ethos that was achieved in Wits Art Museum’s retrospective of the work of Peter Schütz last year.

There are two clear poles in the material – while some of it tends toward naturalism, some of it reaches toward a diagrammatic reflection of values and it is the latter which makes you smile and gives you a sense of awe. To its credit, the work is not curated with a numbingly rigorous sense of chronology and early works neighbour later ones, offering a fine and witty sense of repartee.

As you run your eyes up the length of a tall thin piece to discover a delightful head with simple horns, you realise this is much more than a simple stick. It’s a god. It’s a rain bull. It has presence. Run your eye down the work, and in some instances you will discover emblematic breasts, a pregnant belly or a penis jutting out of the work – delightful signs that give this creature a therianthropic nature: is this a man or a beast? Is it a girl or a boy? Is it a mix between the two?

It evokes the tall drums from Ghana, Ashante and Luba culture, which are gendered – as well as figures in African traditional pieces, as it touches on the succinctness of Brancusi’s sculptures.

And yes, this work flits between values cast by European modernism in relation to an African aesthetic and more self-conscious contemporary manoeuvres. But after all the vociferous debates surrounding this kind of approach, you need to be able to see the items for what they are. This rain bull’s head is clearly an evocatively shaped stone and yet mantled and horned as it is, it becomes something else. This shaped stick is a portal into another world, and that squat form is a symbol of sexuality. Tribute is paid to Henry Moore, to our human ancestors and to our traditions of ferreting histories.

It’s the kind of show that deserves a national museum space and a gallery season that warrants long contemplative hours of looking and thinking, but in the absence of all these wishful ideals, and even in the absence of a corridor of space between some of the works, it is still the kind of show that will touch you in a multitude of ways, and the tightly-packed crowd of close to 60 works becomes forgivable in the light of the thrill you get in being able to see a trajectory of 30 years of thoughtful incisive work.

  • Shape-Shift by Johann Moolman is at Fried Contemporary Art Gallery, 1146 Justice Mahomed Street (formerly 430 Charles Street) in Brooklyn, Pretoria until August 13. 012 346 0158 http://www.friedcontemporary.com