Love and trust in a time of ghastliness

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TOUGH woman alone: Aimee Goldsmith is Mirela. Photograph courtesy http://www.egg.news.at

ARGUABLY THE CENTRAL horror of clash between Serbians and Bosnians in the early 1990s was the conflation of neighbour against neighbour and the ugly brutality which saw women and children mauled in the mix of war that had been a suppurating tribal boil for centuries. Aimée Goldsmith and Lidija Marelic have taken on the monster challenge of representing the insanity of love in a time of internecine ghastliness, and their success is unequivocal.

Mirela (Goldsmith) is a young woman, native to Sarajevo whose heart and soul is invested in the texture and the current ugliness of her city. She is Bosnian. Her lover, Aleksander (Duane Behrens) is Serbian and thus unfolds a love story abounding in rich war story cliché – but this is not to its discredit. The clichéd nature of the work is the glue that binds its fabric and while it is by and large predictable, you’re immediately invested in its energies and you remain deeply focused through its tightly choreographed duration.

Enter Peter (Chris van Rensburg). A young gung-ho South African photojournalist, with a Bang-Bang Club dream in his heart and a sense of bravado in his spirit, he loses contact with his team and needs to get to Dubrovnik. Mirela becomes his guide, and she opens up a world that is tearing itself to bloody shreds, as they pass through atrocity-ravished Sarajevo on the way.

But the Serbian military put the screws on Aleksander’s sense of self, they rest a gun and a uniform on his sense of machismo, and the world becomes a place crumpled and smashed to pieces by the monster of fraught loyalties.

It’s a hard hitting play featuring an incredibly fine set that, made of disused cardboard boxes is remarkably evocative of the quirky ceramic work of Carolyn Heydenrych in its scratchy sense of vulnerable boxy architecture. Designed by Kayli Elit Smith, it projects an irrevocable sense of the universal insanity of war which defines Sarajevo as its root by dint of the graffiti it bears. Curiously, the play has scant historical contextual references, which enhances its sense of universality, as it blurs the specifics of the Bosnian war. Change the place names and the accents, and the story could be articulated about a slice of virtually any other war this world has seen.

That sense of moral wretchedness and hysteria in the face of a world with no more values is articulated with a fine sense of directness. Featuring strong sound design, the work is raw and polished in all the right places. There’s terror and filth and blood and rape. And yet there are moments of levity. A dance. An imaginary foray onto the sidewalks of Paris, where champagne is drunk. A last grasp at beauty.

Excellently cast and superbly constructed, Cheers to Sarajevo is an important work which fuses together the complex array of ideologies that enable men to be soldiers and women to be victims, which witnesses love between conflicting powers and see death as the only possible solution. It’s a play that’s both simple and complex in its clear confrontation with the universal madness of war. And it won’t leave you untouched.

  • Cheers to Sarajevo is co-written by Lidija Marelic and Aimée Goldsmith and directed by Lidija Marelic assisted by Lareece Kelly. It features design by Kayli Elit Smith and is performed by Duane Behrens, Aimée Goldmsith, Julian Kruger, Yiorgo Sotoropolis and Chris van Rensburg at the Auto & General Theatre on the Square in Sandton until October 8. Call 011 883 8606 or visit theatreonthesquare.co.za

Seven haunting words to chill your heart

I TURNED AWAY AND SHE WAS GONE!

UNBEARABLE weight of loss: Jennie Reznek is Demeter. Photograph by Mark Wessels, courtesy of the Market Theatre.

THE HORROR OF the sudden loss of a loved one – whether they are taken by death, a kidnapper or an impenetrable illness that robs their existence of reason – is a harsh idea to confront, onstage or off. In I turned away and she was gone, Jennie Reznek searingly confronts your worst nightmare as she conflates classical Greek narrative within a contemporary setting that brings everything from white privilege to the indignity of assisted living under her loupe.

It’s a complex idea articulated with candidness and clarity that will take you by surprise. She engages directly with the audience and skitters lightly between being in the context of the theatre and being in a magical world replete with madness and possibility, with dreams of falling into volcanoes and baths of water as she embodies three generations of women – Hecate, Demeter and Kore (who becomes Persephone).

It’s a tiny slice of Greek narrative cast amid a sea of local and contemporary urban references in a language that dizzyingly writhes and soars with the crude unanswerable emptiness of loss. And it is oft breathtaking in how her language is crafted to reach into the interstices of the difficult relationship between a mother and her daughter. There’s love and resentment, neediness and anguish, jealousy and confusion, give and take which pepper the interplay of generations.

Comingled with extraordinary music by Neo Muyanga and overhead projections of text, the narrative sometimes becomes complicated to read, but mostly it’s difficult to watch Reznek perform through your own tears.

Armed with an extraordinary physical energy and presence, Reznek is not tall or large, but in her gestures and her humanity, she fills the whole theatre and echoes into your very soul. Her portrayal of a young child, a young mother, an older woman, a woman suffering the throes of dementia and a woman on her deathbed are articulated with a wrenching and bleak humour and wit that you can’t bring yourself to laugh at because it is so fiercely tender. And yet it has a resonance because it is articulated from within, from the underbelly of the kind of emotion the woman herself, the woman on her deathbed, the woman who has lost the word for ‘soap’ experiences.

Reznek has a very specific and elaborate physical language which conflates mime with emotional gestures and this sometimes evokes sign language and makes you feel as though you’re watching something cast in a grammar you don’t completely understand. But you roll with the structure of the material and the muscularity of the classical tale which holds it all together and prevents it from slipping into maudlin anecdote. It’s a beautiful piece of work which will burn you with its emotional fierceness if you allow it to.

  • I turned away and she was gone is written and performed by Jennie Reznek and directed by Mark Fleishman. It features design by Neo Muyanga (music), Craig Leo (set), Ina Wichtereich (choreography) and Sanjin Muftić (videography) and performs at the Mannie Manim Theatre, Market Theatre complex in Newtown until October 2. Call 011 832 16412 or visit markettheatre.co.za

Feverish for that acid green sedan

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GETTING on his boogie shoes: Daniel Buys as Tony Manero. Photograph courtesy http://jozistyle.joburg/saturday-night-fever/

PICTURE THE SCENARIO. It’s the mid-1970s in the boroughs of New York City, and white working class teenagers are dancing themselves wild because there’s nothing else to do to keep body and soul together, other than joining the church or getting a low-key boring job. The opening chords – both musically and visually – of the current production of Saturday Night Fever, punctuated with classic songs from the Bee Gees articulates this with aplomb.

But it is the inadequate balance of sound and vocals, some truly grotesque choreography and underwhelming performances that leaves the production wanting. And yes, it’s a dated show, reflecting petty racisms and sexisms of teenagers in America from 40 years ago, but it’s still deemed an iconic classic; had it been performed with slickness, its sense of anachronism would have been forgivable.

Further, if you’re a die-hard Bee Gees fan, you, too, might be disappointed while you wait to be swept away on a swathe of nostalgia by your favourite tunes penned and originally performed by brothers Barry, Maurice and Robin Gibb in that distinctive falsetto.

Shows recreated in the last couple of years under the Broadway rubric, such as The Jersey Boys, which performed in South Africa in 2013, directed  by West Hyler, or Dream Girls of 2011, under the direction of Brittney Griffin, were performed in such a way that a song could freeze the moment, cause tears to fall and grown men and women to dance, weeping with love, in the aisles, whether or not they were alive when that music was fashionable. This doesn’t happen in this rendition of Saturday Night Fever. Rather, the music seems toned to be beneath the rather flimsy tale of the dreams of a poor boy to find the girl and the dance moves he deems his.

So, what happens is you struggle to hear the dialogue. The microphones attached to the performers’ foreheads force the sound out at such a level, that the words reverberate in the vast shell of the venue and smash against one another, becoming by and large inaudible. The dancing, with lots of really bizarre lifts and front splits for the women, is neither elegant nor erotic. Does it evoke the ethos of disco chaos of the seventies? Maybe. Certainly the costumes fit the era carefully, with the girls’ leotards and boys bell-bottoms – and of course the inimitable white three-piece suit which John Travolta brought into common fashion parlance with the 1977 film.

Daniel Buys in the starring role of Tony Manero has the voice and the moves, but lacks the sense of authority that a performer like Travolta exuded in this work. Instead, you find yourself trying to remember which one’s the one, when he and his buddies are out on the street.

Having said all of that, Matthew Berry playing the hapless Bobby C, one of Tony’s boys opposite Kiruna-Lind Devar as Pauline, Bobby C’s sweetheart arguably create several moments in this show which redeems the trek to the State Theatre. Beautifully cast, both of these young performers embrace the nuances of their – albeit tiny – roles, with fullness, sensitivity and dignity. They sing beautifully and liaise with conviction.

And then, there’s the acid-green 1970s sedan on the set, which is such a remarkably lovely idea that it should have been written about in the programme. Its elegant unpretentious curvaceousness, even the way in which its boot no longer closes properly, lends a tone of the time and flavour of the era which is irrepressible.

Indeed, the machinery of the set of the State Theatre is another element to this production which takes your breath away. Comprising numerous elevators in a variety of sizes, to say nothing of structures which move in on cue and on wheels, the world of the underbelly of New York is brought with all its dirty sham, drudgery and dreams, onto this stage in Pretoria in a manner so beautifully co-ordinated it rips your attention from the dynamics on stage. Here, you get to see inside Tony’s house, with his upstairs bedroom. There’s the park, and the apartment of Stephanie Mangano (Natasha van der Merwe) who grabs Tony by the libido, the bridge central to the tale and the disco venue itself.

Sadly, the State Theatre remains a conundrum for the regular theatre patron, and this old bastion of culture feels like a building site. The downstairs parking leaks and many bays are not accessible because the building’s in disrepair as a result of neglect. There are bits and chunks of the venue that are defined by shrill warnings to the public to stay away because they are unsafe, and huge electrical cords hang in disarray across the opera venue’s walls – a venue which remains as oblivious to safety needs of theatre venues as it was when it was first opened in 1981.

  • Saturday Night Fever based on the eponymous Paramount/RSO film and the story by Nik Cohn was originally adapted for stage by Robert Sligwood and Bill Oaks. It is directed by Greg Homann with design by Rowan Bakker (musical direction), Weslee Swain Lauder (choreography), Denis Hutchinson (set and lighting), Sarah Roberts (costumes) and TrevOr Peters (sound). It is performed by Joanna Abatzoglou, Matthew Berry, Cameron Botha, Vanessa Brierly, Daniel Buys, Kiruna-Lind Devar, Londiwe Dhlomo, Keaton Ditchfield, Toni Jean Erasmus, Devon Flemmer, Zane Gillion, Nurit Graff, Nathan Kruger, Sebe Leotlela, Clint Lesch, Brandon Lindsay, Phumi Mncayi, Bongi Mthombeni, Raquel Munn, L J Neilson, Mark Richardson, Phillip Schnetler, Craig Urbani, Natasha van der Merwe, Steven van Wyk and Charmaine Weir-Smith, and an off-stage band under the direction of Rowan Bakker and Drew Rienstra: Donny Bouwer (trumpet), Jason Green (bass), Maureen Marler (‘cello), Dan Selsick (trombone), Kuba Silkiewicz (guitar), Brian Smith (reeds), P W van der Walt (drums), Daline Wilson (violin), at the Opera Theatre in the State Theatre complex, Pretoria, until October 9. Call 012 392 4000 or visit statetheatre.co.za

Fat and sassy

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INSULT me all you like, I still love you: Vicky (Michelle Botha) and Henry (Tobie Cronje). Photograph by Kosie Smit.

THE ‘F’ WORD’S become constrained by frowns and taboos in the last little while, particularly under the rubric of “sugar-free September”, a dietary challenge for the month. In this fast-paced world, where slang is coined overnight and things become offensive with increasing rapidity, you could fall into a trap of being deemed a body-shamer by saying things that three weeks ago were quite innocent. Enter Charles Laurence’s My Fat Friend, a hilarious bit of theatre which tears apart these levels of taboo and political correctness with abandon, but offers a twist in the plot and an astute mirror to society.

The play wouldn’t quite be the same, however, without the delicious magic that veteran performer Tobie Cronjé brings to the mix. With a physique not that different from a beanpole and an ability to have you rolling on the floor, with just a flick of his eyebrow or a folding of a leg, even before he’s opened his mouth, he is an absolute delight and lends frissons of Gary Reich’s British TV series Vicious to the work.

Henry (Tobie Cronjé), James Anderson (Jeremy Richard) and Vicky (Michelle Botha) live in a Hampstead house, which Vicky owns. She also runs a second hand bookstore which is adjoined to the property. While James is flagrantly Scottish and desperately young, Henry is outrageously gay and on the outer border of middle aged. He wears a natty little toupee, which goes awry at times, and is assigned the best and bitchiest lines. And Vicky is, you guessed it: the fat friend, who deals with her unmarried status by eating. A lot.

With headspinning costume changes that will leave you questioning the veracity of your own vision, it’s a tale of loving insults and a hungry need for love as a respite from boredom and loneliness. Almost farcical in its construction, it’s a smoothly constructed piece, elegantly filtering in some of the nastiest retorts you can imagine, and while it’s a piece with a bristly shell, it has a real heart inside it with a potent moral in its tale.

Featuring Charlie Bouguenon as Tom, the love interest, it’s a work that cocks a fond snook at the culture of weight loss as it grins naughtily at the notion of what makes a woman’s body beautiful. Completely unpredictable and satisfyingly engaging, this is more of a delight than any guilty guzzling of sugar can possibly be.

  • My Fat Friend is written by Charles Laurence and directed by André Odendaal. It is performed by Michelle Botha, Charlie Bouguenon, Tobie Cronjé and Jeremy Richard, at the Pieter Toerien  Theatre, Montecasino theatre complex in Fourways, until October 2 and at the Pieter Toerien Theatre on the Bay in Cape Town, November 9-26. Call 011 511 1988 or 082 715 0123 (Kosie Smit) or visit www.montecasinotheatre.co.za

Never forget to smell the roses

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LITTLE boy, frightened: The inimitable Sandra Prinsloo is Oskar. Photograph courtesy Montecasino Theatere.

LOVE, LOSS AND growing old are inescapably part of the human condition. Put these three elements in a children’s cancer ward, and you might expect to yield a narrative which is hackneyed and clichéd. Indeed, you already know how the story ends. But in the loving hands of consummate professionals – from the writer, Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, to the translator Naómi Morgan, to the director Lara Bye and the performer, Sandra Prinsloo – Oskar en die Pienk Tannie is a play so beautifully crafted with such an astute sense of self, that it will rock your emotional equilibrium.

Oskar is a ten-year-old boy. He has leukaemia. Moored in a children’s hospital with a community of friends, including “Popcorn”, “Braaivleis”, “Einstein” and “Blue Betty”, kids with equally scary medical problems, he’s intelligent and sentient enough to understand that his prognosis is not good. But there’s God, who he writes to, and the eponymous “Pienk Tannie”, called Ouma Rosa, a hospital assistant, who tells him tales of women’s wrestling and carves out legends for him to hold onto and laugh at. She’s a little coarse round the edges, but overwhelmingly pragmatic. She takes no shit, has  “passed her sell-by date” and exudes the type of complex humanity you might remember in Julie Walters’s portrayal of Mrs Wilkinson in the 2000 film called Billy Elliot.

Filtered with a deep understanding of language, of human convention and the dramatic emotional extremes and unrelenting egocentricity of a prepubescent child, not to forget the horror of loss, this is an extraordinary work in which the magnificent Prinsloo paints a whole world out there, armed with just a table and some well-managed lighting.

But more than that, this is a one-person play and Prinsloo takes on the fierce vulnerability of the child as well as the gruff love of Ouma Rosa, and the myriad of other characters, with complete candidness. You are never allowed to forget the tragic circumstances of Oskar, but as the work unfolds, you get to hold onto dreamed up legends, which can make 12 days into 120 years, and projects a whole rich trajectory of dreams onto something that in the real world is curtailed and broken by sadness.

And yes, it’s in Afrikaans, but arguably the force of the narrative and the simple complexity of the writing supersedes language barriers and within the first few lines of the play you become so consumed by its magic and texture, that the medium turns universally understandable.

A beautiful six-tissue production, which will leave you with hope in your heart and an imperative to look for wonder the world every single day, Oskar en die Pienk Tannie is a delicate piece constructed with know-how and wisdom, but above all, with uncringing directness.

  • Oskar en die Pienk Tannie is written in French by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt and translated into Afrikaans by Naómi Morgan. It is directed by Lara Bye and performed by Sandra Prinsloo, at the Studio Theatre, Montecasino theatre complex in Fourways, until September 25. Visit montecasinotheatre.co.za

Would you like a cup of tea with that, Madam?

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DRINK it all up: Bontle (Dimakatso Motholo) and Flo (Mammatli Thakudi-Nzuza). Photograph by Mariola Biela.

STEP ASIDE, SOLANGE and Claire. Forget the clichéd sexy French maids’ garb with stockings and suspenders, frilly aprons and cleavage.  With domestic servants like Bontle (Dimakatso Motholo) and Flo (Mammatli Thakudi-Nzuza), the strategic and oft sinister plotting between siblings and subservients, coined in Jean Genet’s iconic play The Maids (1947), is ramped up to a new level of relevance, and the audience is kept splendidly in the know and the now, in this extremely fine production.

You may have seen earlier performances of The Maids. In drag. With white women. Playing heavily on the period style of the set. You may have read sociological studies on the relationship between a maid and her madam. You may know the blatant and blunt stereotypes in  Zukiswa Wanner’s Maid in SA: 30 Ways to Leave Your Madam (2013). Between Sisters is a fresh take on all the values offered by these disparate works, ideas and perspectives on servants, as it gleefully knits together volatile and prescient issues central to the identity and complexity of domestic maids in contemporary South Africa.

Ultimately, it’s a work about power. And manipulation. But it’s seldom what you think; there’s a couple of fabulous little twists in the tale, which quite take you by surprise. But the roaring success of the work is hinged on exceptionally strong performances by Motholo and Thakudi-Nzuza and a beautifully and utterly irreverently written script which conjoins everything from contemporary Sesotho slang to David Tlale fashions.

With vicious irony and sinister intent, these sisters, who wield insults like fully-loaded weapons and monger hate like professionals, skirt and titter around dresses, money and cups of tea in ways that will keep you on the edge of your seat. There’s a brilliant mix of evil intent and hilarity, secret plots and open lies that make this a delicious work to watch, whether you know Sesotho or not.

Featuring simple yet wise design elements that cast you, as the audience, right in the thick of the luxurious bedroom of ‘Madam’ (Reneilwe Mashitisho), effectively on the other side of her mirror, the work is pared down succinctly, and a novel use of suspended elements adds to a sense of idiosyncrasy.

But more than a socially sophisticated yarn about three women, money and role-playing that is oft less about idle pretense than you think, this is an important theatrical gesture. It brings the fire and the fury and the astuteness of young theatre practitioners to the fore, stretching their performance mettle, but also inflaming their sense of relevance. This is a play which must travel.

  • Between Sisters is directed by Refiloe Lepere and devised by Lepere with the cast. It features design by Sinenhlanhla Zwane and Natalie Paneng (set and costumes). It is performed in the Wits Downstairs Theatre by Reneilwe Mashitisho, Dimakatso Motholo and Mammatli Thakudi-Nzuza, as part of the Sex Actually Festival, hosted by Drama For Life, at Wits Theatre complex in Braamfontein, until September 10. Visit dramaforlife.co.za

The stuff of nightmares

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SILENT reach: a still from Shirin Neshat’s Roja. Photograph courtesy Goodman Gallery.

AS YOU WALK into the gallery space, an aura of stunned silence enfolds you. There’s a single silver gelatin print by Shirin Neshat from her film Roja hanging on the wall before you: A young woman in black stands in front of a huge, vaguely mushroom-shaped building. And it is mesmerising. And terrifying, in a way you can’t quite put your finger on … but try as you will to pull your attention from it, you will fail.

It is the magnetism of these quiet yet deeply threatening works that force you to remember the title of the exhibition, and indeed, as you watch each of the two films on show in the gallery – Roja and Sarah – you feel yourself twisting and turning in your own metaphorical bedclothes as you struggle to make sense of a dream context that is impossibly frightening while it borders on the intangible and obscure.

There’s a passage in Milan Kundera’s 1979 novel The Book of Laughter and Forgetting in which a woman finds herself alone on an island inhabited by children.  It’s an immensely disturbing passage, blending a sense of sexual violation with an understanding of disorientation, but it is written with such a delicate yet acerbic pen that it is unforgettable and leaks into your subconscious. Similarly with Neshat’s work.

Entwining tones of light and the power of water to render images ghoul-like in their intensity and obscurity, this veteran Iranian-born, nomadic artist, whose work premiers in South Africa with this exhibition, knits together an understanding of fear in a world fraught with the threat of conflict. And yet, in its obscurity, it holds to the notion of dream.

But this is not comforting. Similar to Esther, Queen of the Swamp, a chilling video installation by Israel-based artist Miri Nishri – exhibited in Johannesburg in 2013 –Neshat’s film Sarah trammels through a sparsely treed forest, but it embraces a such a potent sense of dramatic expectation that you feel your heart beating rapidly in anticipation as you sit in the darkened space and drink up the sheer texture and focus of the material.

It is, however, the film Roja that might throw you emotionally. Conjoining so tight a focus with so broad a reach, the work engages with what could be the weight of guilt which a parent imposes upon an adult child. Or with the looming presence of politics. Rich with recrimination, accusation and theatricality, the work is bold, breathtakingly beautiful and in many ways almost sterile in its sense of silence. But you will take it away with you, when you leave the gallery. And when you try to sleep at night.

Elegantly hung, this exhibition, which focuses more on the nebulous stuff of dreams than on the politically articulate gestures involving text on the body for which Neshat is better known, comprises 10 works – including the two video installations – and each of the photographs is not only printed to a large format, but it is so big from a visual and an iconic angle that it stops you dead in your tracks.

  • Dreamers by Shirin Neshat is at the Goodman Gallery in Rosebank, Johannesburg, until September 14. 011 788 1113.