Women Are Doing It For Themselves

Independent theatre maker MoMo Matsunyane is navigating a new way to create and to secure a future in the arts. She tells DIANE DE BEER about her independence and her latest team effort Dick Or Date? which opens at POPart on Thursday:

DickOrDate

When exciting young theatre maker MoMo Matsunyane suddenly found herself out of work between March and June 2018, she had time to review her life – and especially her work as an artist.

“This time at home made me think really hard about what it was that I wanted to achieve and how is it that as an honours graduate I was sitting at home not working? It was then that I realised the importance of being in control of my career,” she explains.

She knew she had to make her own future work and sprang into action. This led to the establishment and registering of her own production company, MoMo Matsunyane Productions, and working on a new show Dick Or Date? with Lillian Tshabalala.

“I put out a call on Facebook to write a play with someone really funny. Lillian responded with 10 pages of something she was already working on. I thought it was really funny, so we agreed to grow the text.”

The play is about whether it’s possible to find true love online or not and was first called Dating Online but as the work grew and developed in its own direction, they knew they had a slightly different animal to deal with.

“We realised that when it comes to relationships, it’s really between two choices; is he just Dick or are you going to date? And each has its own challenges!”

Dick Or Date? grew into a dramatic comedy that takes you on a love trip with three close but very different friends: Nelly (a hopeless romantic and social media fanatic), Ashley (a privileged young woman who exclusively dates white men) and Maggie, real name, Magogodi (a sex obsessed serial dater who doesn’t believe in love).

Where does a girl go to find her “perfect man” in this instant world of hook-ups and how does she “put herself out there” without looking too desperate? What would happen if women used all the platforms they had available to them today; to date as extensively as they wanted to without judgement? How does one find love organically when it’s readily available online?

One of the delights of this new process was Matsunyane’s discovery that the process of co-writing was so much better than writing alone. “We broke down the storyline and scenes based on what they should achieve. We would give each other homework and slowly began piecing it all together.

“It’s a hybrid comedy and drama which was great to experience as it came to life but it also kept us on our toes because we couldn’t be precious about the work. If something was not working, we had to cut.”

Working in the arts currently is no easy gig as Matsunyane is experiencing while wearing many different hats to make things work. “The industry isn’t as accessible as we think or hope it to be and in the era of social media, popularity also plays a role in who gets the job.”

She knew however that she didn’t want to find herself without work again especially as a creative. That alone could be her driver. “With time, I (and my company) will get to a point where I can put together a team of people who are just as passionate about art as I am and who will help me grow my dreams.”

But ever practical, she knows that it will take hard work and initiative to make her dreams come true. “It will take care of itself. I’m investing in my future and career.”

And she already has loads of experience behind her with winning productions. “I have been producing my own work with a sketch comedy team. I’m a part of Thenx and TAU which has definitely made me more confident in pursuing independent producing.”

Also, these past experiences have taught her how important it is to own your work. “The gear shift now is that I’m an official institution, registered, so I will be able to explore other opportunities that will take my business as an artist to the next level.”

She has the world to contend with though and in a country where the arts have been side-lined for many different reasons, it’s a tough ask for young artists to navigate this closed terrain. “Art has always been political and we know the role it played in liberating our people from the chains of apartheid. However, we also know what isn’t being done for artists,” she says.

“Funds are constantly being embezzled, young artists don’t have enough opportunities and access to collaborate with mainstream institutions and the industry is still too unregulated, which causes a lot of imbalances in opportunities presented.”

She feels they have a long way to go. “The arts survive through people’s passion. Literally. We are called to perform during rallies and at election times but that’s about it. There is a crisis in the industry and we are still too quiet.”

As independent theatre makers, they have had to rely on smaller independent spaces like Maboneng precinct’s POPArt, Thembisa’s TX Theatre and Alexandra’s Olive Tree Theatre to stage our new and experimental work. “I have created a great working relationship with all these spaces and POPArt was more than happy to house us for our debut,” she says thankfully.

“We want the piece to spark critical conversations around sex and relationships. The private becomes public. It’s like having a window into the lives of three young women and how they navigate the dating world in today’s fast paced and technologically advanced society.”

Performed by Lillian Tshabalala, Kitty Moepang and MoMo Matsunyane, Dick or Date? plays on Thu 21st Feb 8pm • Fri 22nd Feb 8pm • Sat 23rd Feb 8pm • Sun 24th Feb 3:30pm at POPart.

Book at https://popartcentre.co.za.

 

 

 

 

 

Nina Simone Four Women Gives Young Black Women A Powerful Platform To Speak Their Minds – It’s About Time

Busi Lerayi with Tshepo Mngoma, the piano player in performance
Busi Lerayi with Tshepo Mngoma, the piano player in performance

DIANE DE BEER

NINA SIMONE FOUR WOMEN

DIRECTOR: James Ngcobo

PLAYWRIGHT: Christine Ham

MUSICAL DIRECTOR: Tshepo Mngoma

LIGHTING DESIGNER: Mandla Mtshali

SET DESIGNER: Nadya Cohen

COSTUME DESIGNER: Onthatile Matshidiso

CAST: Busi Lurayi, Lerato Mvelase, Mona Monyane Skenjana, Noxolo Dlamini

MUSICIANS AND SINGERS: Bryan Mtsweni, Ezbie Moilwa, Mpho Kodisang

Smanga Ngubane, Sam Ibeh

VENUE: John Kani Theatre at the Market

DATES: Until February 24

 

With Artistic Director James Ngcobo’s tradition of commemorating Black History Month, his pick of this play starring mainly women is, as Nina Simone so aptly said, about “an artist’s responsibility to reflect the times”.

With the #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter movements in everyone’s consciousness (or it should be) the Simone-driven play is a clever choice with a cast of powerful young actors strutting the stage.

And even halfway into the run, the theatre is packed with a young (mainly black) audience and they’re enraptured and engaged as these women speak to them with great gusto.

It’s not for the lily-livered because in the main, women haven’t had a voice and black women especially were never invited to speak their mind and tell their stories.

It’s their time and it’s like its all spilling out with an anger that’s palpable but covering a pain that so’s deep and so sore, it breaks your heart while listening.

In song Noxolo Dlamini, Mona Monyane Skenjana, Lerato Mvelase and Busi Lurayi
In song Noxolo Dlamini, Mona Monyane Skenjana, Lerato Mvelase and Busi Lurayi

When Simone slips into a quiet moment and opens her heart about her own experience of living in a world that seems to hate and discard her, it’s like an open wound she exposes to everyone willing to look more closely.

On September 16, 1963, the day after the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, Simone shifted her career from artist to artist–activist. This is where the play begins, in the church with riots outside and the pain of four little girls killed in hatred etched on everyone’s mind. She is writing a song when three diverse women enter and engage about their lives as black women.

But so deep is the self-hatred and lack of confidence, they turn not only on those who mean them harm but also on each other as they compare shades of skin colour and the intent with which each lives her life.

Interwoven with much talk is Simone’s haunting music dominated by Mississippi Goddam, Black is the Colour of My True Love’s Hair and closing with the obvious Four Women, the song from which the women in the play were drawn.

And it is this mix that moves in and out of the consciousness. While the songs complete the conversations of the women, they are more contemplative if heart-breaking before the next storm unleashes as the women twist and turn in their tension and anguish of years of abuse punctuated by the current attack.

Busi Lurayi as Nina Simone surrounded by the rest of the cast.
Busi Lurayi as Nina Simone surrounded by the rest of the cast.

It is a sparse set by Nadya Cohen yet effective in its symbolic power and the women are encouraged to fill the stage, which they do with great abandon. Ncgobo obviously wanted them to embrace their power in this moment – and they do.

The performances are sometimes uneven, Lurayi perhaps hampered by capturing the Simone kinetic energy, but she soars in the quieter moments and in song. It is quite a presence that she has to establish, and the deep timbre of her voice works in her favour. Mvelase, the most comfortable on stage, inhabits her Aunt Sarah, a domestic worker, with quiet dignity, while the young Dlamini is passionate in her rebellion.

Then comes the abrasive whirlwind Monyane Skenjana to perform in the person of an unapologetic prostitute who believes in disarming if not disabling before an offensive can begin. It’s a tough performance to catch but in the mix, it brings the chaos of their lives into sharper focus and adds some light relief to what could become too much to witness and bear.

Cushioning all that is the piano playing of Brian Motsweni supported by a trio of other musicians and two singers, all adding to the depth of the soundtrack. Other sounds like the sudden rush of the riot don’t get the balance right and while the two singers worked well as they sat to the side, the look was confusing. Perhaps they would have slotted in more smoothly as part of the musos rather than characters, but not quite.

Quibbles aside, the importance of the production, what is said and who is saying it, right now, taking into account what is swirling around in the world currently, this is a majestic production.

Theatre is struggling more than ever with little help from anywhere. Even newspapers, their traditional support, are dwindling with less and less art reporting. Yet the audience who were there to look and listen, were predominantly young and black, probably the most sought-after demographic.

And they were delighted – with reason.

Nataniël’s Second Phase Will Have Him Playing On Many Different Platforms

optog kombi and nataniël.pic by optog
Optog kombi and Nataniël. Picture by Optog!

Showman Nataniël is embarking on what he calls the second phase of his career with quite a few tricks up his sleeve. He tells DIANE DE BEER about his future plans:

 

It took only four phone calls, says Nataniël, to cut his salary by half but this drastic measure was necessary for him to get things going in a different fashion.

It’s always been part of his strategy, not to keep doing the same things all the time. Leave before they’re tired and start something completely different.  “I am not going to do anything that I’m not in control of any longer,” he says hence all the changes. And money is no longer a driving force.

As someone who prefers being the one responsible for something he does, whether good or bad, he says it is time out for projects where he is involved with egos bigger than the talent. “It’s not that I am all-powerful, just tired of all the bull!”

“I am back to earning all my money in my own head,” he notes, but he’s used to creating his own world and then sharing it with the rest of us.

men-in-black.jpg
Men in black – Erik, Nataniël and Nicolaas

He and his assistant Nicolaas Swart are currently in Nantes, France (arriving back this week) where his most recent four-season television series (Die Edik van Nantes with his bro which also evolved into his latest cook/lifestyle-book released just before Christmas) was shot, and while this is a well-earned break, it is also a time to scout for new ideas with his brother-in-arms Erik le Roux who lives in Nantes.

“We love working together, so we will come up with something new,” says Nataniël, who has just started his own YouTube channel, something which is part of his plans but will also prevent one of his huge irritations, people randomly posting show videos or unwanted clips of him on the popular channel. “Once you have your own channel, you can remove any illegal ones,” he says joyously.

nataniel slow tear
Nataniël in costume.

He will also be shooting a music video for this platform while in France, the first he has made in 20 years. “We’re going to do it with cell phones,” he says, and it will be a short art film with music rather than a traditional music video.

Importantly, he will be focusing on finding creative outlets that make him happy. What he has discovered in especially Nantes, a creative city, is that he has been allowed to film and introduce basically anything to his local audience. “There’s a pride and a generosity which makes everything accessible and it is such a pleasure to work in a hassle-free environment.”

On the performance side locally, he starts his year on a new platform called Optog (March). The brainchild of producer/pianist Matthys Maree, it is described as one huge concert tour on wheels travelling through the whole of the country and beyond, running from February 14 until December with artists like Nataniël, Karen Zoid, Jo Black, Laurika Rauch, Coenie de Villiers and Deon Meyer, Vicky Sampson and Corlea Botha, all on a musical note with a few theatre productions also going on the road. Stellenbosch, Pretoria, Rustenburg, Polokwane, Welkom, Sasolburg, Kroonstad, Bloemfontein, Kimberley, Durbanville, Port Elizabeth, East-Londen, Potchefstroom, Durban, Windhoek and Swakopmund are all on the map.

Nataniel and Erik in Nantes
Nataniël and Erik in Nantes

“I am visiting rural towns I have never been to,” says Nataniël, one of our best travelled artists locally – and something he will again do more of in the future. He will be performing in three shows: Nataniël Gesels (talks) where he will be presenting one of his famous talks in theatres, something he tested at the end of last year for the first time; Nataniël Unplugged accompanied by Charl du Plessis, which is a more intimate version of his larger shows; and Four Loud People with his full band, the Charl du Plessis Trio and representative of his shows compiled of stories and songs in both English and Afrikaans.

Check out the website for more info and dates (www.optog.co.za) and hold thumbs for their plans to give new life to existing performance sites and halls in the platteland which might generate more platforms for artists everywhere.

In April he will be presenting a show at Artscape titled Anthems. And we’re not talking national flags or such like here! Nataniël describes it as “songs that singers claim as their personal anthems”. It will be in the style of his classical concerts of the past two years and he can be viewed as songs for grownups. “The songs usually represent an era, a life or an event,” he explains, “but anthems can also be attached to movies.” And he will be showcasing a few of his own.

Nataniel
Nataniël at Emperor’s

Later in the year he will return to Emperor’s where he has been performing annually for just short of two decades taking a break last year and this time the run is planned to play almost like 12 individual concerts. As always with Nataniël, what that means exactly will only become clear once we see the latest spectacular extravaganza so much a part of his annual showcase.

For the first time he is also in the throes of writing an original book. “I have written many, but these have always been compiled from either columns or my show catalogues,” he says. This is something different, a kind of memoir, and more than that he isn’t willing to reveal, only that it will be published in both English and Afrikaans and this is the first time he has sat down and written an original book. He’s excited but also nervous while working hard on a Nataniël voice that works as well on paper as in performance.

On the food side, he will do a few kitchen demos – usually presented at the Atterbury Theatre in Pretoria and booked out as soon as the announcements are made – but much more than that he hopes to avoid. “When you have just finished a cookbook, food is the last thing on your mind,” he says, although his Nataniël Collection (food and kitchen products and tableware) in Checkers is going to be expanded and has been doing well around the country. They will be appearing in every shop and he is hoping to add a few new products, something he always enjoys doing.

And in private time, he will be battling cell phones (mainly in shows) and plastic. “Botswana has banned single-use plastic! Surely, we can too. What makes us so special that we keep destroying the planet?”

He argues that nothing usually comes from the top and a minor anti-plastic violence in shop queues, isn’t a bad thing. “Little old ladies should just hit those using plastic bags with their handbags,” he says. “They can get away with it.”

“It’s not that anyone listens to me, but to remain silent isn’t an option any longer.”

Writer and Poet Extraordinaire Chris van Wyk Tells Stories with a Poetic Tongue

DIANE DE BEER

Pictures: Lungelo Mbulwana

zane-meas-in-storyteller-of-riverlea-picture-by-lungelo-mbulwana.jpg
Zane Meas as Chris van Wyk.

VAN WYK – THE STORYTELLER OF RIVERLEA

Written and performed by: Zane Meas

Directed and Designed by: Christo Davids

Lighting design: Thapelo Mokgosi

Costume design: Nthabiseng Mokone

Music: Cyril ‘Dafunc’ Peterson

Venue: Manie Manim at the Market Theatre

Dates: Until February 24

 

Author/poet/storyteller Chris van Wyk wrote for the people, telling stories about his people, but he also had a deeply serious side, an intellectual one that couldn’t ignore what was seriously unjust and wrong in the world he found himself in.

His family surrounded him with love and laughter which allowed him to get more from life than the colour of his skin encouraged him to do in the Apartheid years – and he grabbed on to life with gusto. Van Wyk used his abilities to share the lot of his people probably as much a balm to his own being as to those who read his extraordinary words.

Many will know him for arguably his most loved book Shirley Goodness and Mercy, a memoir which best captured the way a family laughed and cried together to hold themselves apart yet together in a cruel Apartheid world.

But what this script and show do so spectacularly is showcase Van Wyk’s poetry which might not be as familiar to audiences as his family and community featured in his memoirs.

Zane Meas 2 (photographed by Lungelo Mbulwana).JPG

It is in the poetry that he magnificently portrays his mother (The Laughter of my Mother), holds his wife’s impact on his life up for scrutiny, and then sharply looks at the lay of the political land with the horrifyingly haunting In Detention – the best kept for last.

It is in that melding together of the happy and the horrifying that Van Wyk becomes clearly and colourfully defined by his friend Zane Meas whose love of acting was first fuelled when he performed in a play based on one of the author’s short stories.

His love and knowledge of the writer is clear from the script, the way he has decided to tell the story with a lovingness that is hard to describe and shines through also in the performance.

Meas is masterful in his portrayal of Van Wyk and even if you didn’t know they were friends, you know that what you see on stage is the essence of the man in all his colourful cheerfulness even at the end when he reluctantly has to leave his family.

It is his spirit that lives on in his words, the way he views and explains his world, how he has you laugh, yet with a sadness at a life ended too soon. “We know the end,” says Meas both at the start and the end.

Zane Meas1 (photographed by Lungelo Mbulwana)
Telling it like it is…

And while the title says The Storyteller…, Meas is able to direct the writing in a way that tells you who this man was, how he lived his life, the empathy he exudes because of the family he grew up in, and the people he chose to have in his life. And then he shared these insights with the world.

He achieves what many writers can only dream of. His way with words is extraordinary but it is also accessible, something not easily done. He has both a common touch and the ability to appeal to the intellect as he plays with words and ideas without fear even in this country’s darkest days.

These were the things that touched him, the unfairness of it all, which he realised at a young age and the way his parents and granny engaged with his world and showed him a way out of the mess that surrounded him growing up.

He found his salvation in words and when wondering what impact he has had on his world, words are what start stumbling out and for those listening, an awareness that there is so much wisdom lost from this voice silenced too soon.

Meas is determined to honour his legacy and with his friend/colleague Christo Davids as both director and designer, they have pulled a rabbit from their theatrical hat. It could have been just another storytelling nostalgic trip and with Van Wyk speaking his mind, that would have been enough.

They have, however, elevated this performance with loving care and in the detail of the script, performance, design and direction.

Zane Meas (photographed by Lungelo Mbulwana)
It’s in the detail

The design shows that they started out with a clear picture in mind, helped by the short-hand between two actors who have a working life together on stage, know what each of them can achieve and then pushing way beyond those goalposts.

Davids worked the solo show as much as he can (pushing too hard once or twice with an ending that is overly-dramatic and must go) creating his own book of stories on stage, which allowed Meas a freedom to focus on the man and what every word he wrote or spoke, meant.

It helps when you’re intimately involved with the individual you’re trying to explore because in this instance it encouraged them to show the inner workings of Van Wyk’s soul. They’ve put together a life filled with love in words and pictures.

If you can’t make it now, watch out for this one because it should (and will, I’m sure) travel, and while this is a homage by friends, they have truly done justice to the wordsmith Chris van Wyk.

If you want to rush out to discover more of his writing, you know they have found the key. It is some of the director and actor’s finest work.

 

 

For Artistic Director of The Market James Ngcobo, Theatre Is All About Diversity

market-theatre-4275
Lerato Mvelase, Busi Lurayi, director James Ngcobo, Mona Monyane Skenjana and Noxolo Dlamini Picture: Brett Rubin

Into the second month of 2019 and things are pumping at Joburg’s Market Theatre where artistic director James Ngcobo has staged Nina Simone Four Women to celebrate Black History Month with this South African premiere. He speaks to DIANE DE BEER about his future plans in this, his second term, at this iconic theatre:

 

For James Ngcobo, Nina Simone Four Women written by Christina Ham, one of a quartet of hot female playwrights in the US currently, means many different things. Presented in conjunction with the US Mission in SA, he believes strongly in staging this kind of work which forms part of the Market’s 6th annual commemoration of Black History Month.

It’s all about the message, telling the story and the four actresses on stage who will be portraying different aspects of Nina Simone, as the title indicates. “The play is based on four characters Simone created in a song,” explains Ngcobo who sees this as an exploration of the landscape of women.

It was Nina Simone who said: “Music can’t just be about the art, but it has to be an expression of the good, bad and ugly in life.” A staunch activist in the Civil Rights Movement in the ‘60s, she wrote songs that told stories of people she observed in everyday life. It is because of that truth that her music still resonates so strongly today, argues Ngcobo.

On September 16, 1963, the day after the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, Simone’s career shifted from artist to artist/activist because she believed as an artist it was her responsibility to reflect the times. And in this sacred place, four little girls lost their lives.

Nina Simone Four Women is set in the sadness of the church and also uses the framework of one of Simone’s most blistering songs Four Women to portray a quartet of women who suffered from self-hatred due to the different shades of their skin. As if being black in those times in that place wasn’t damning enough, they further judged themselves on the light- or darkness of their skin.

It’s also about the conversations between the four women. It’s about who they are, how they fight the battle, how they escape for solace – and in the background lingers the death of four little girls. For Ngcobo, this story from the past reverberates with the racism of our time.

“Nina made a choice when she started speaking out. She knew that talking about some of the things she did was to the detriment of her career, but that’s what she had to do,” he notes. And like her songs, this play is also all about storytelling. “That’s why her music still has impact today,” he says.

His cast includes Busi Lurayi as Nina (who brought a flippancy to her audition that caught the director’s eye), Lerato Mvelase (who starred in Colour Purple and King Kong, as Auntie Sarah who is only interested in her livelihood, daily washing and ironing), Mona Monyane Skenjana (who was part of his Coloured Museum cast and he’s been wanting to work with again) and Noxolo Dlamini (representing youth and thus hope) as the four women in the title. There’s also a young piano player representing Simone’s brother who tinkles away in the background – as well as two extra singers.

Nina Simone Four Women is staged in the main, John Kani Theatre until February 24, while storytelling of another kind is playing in the Mannie Manim Theatre.

zane meas and christo davids director of van wyk the storyteller of riverlea
Actor Zane Meas and Christo Davids director of Van Wyk The Storyteller of Riverlea

Van Wyk the Storyteller of Riverlea was created and is performed by well-known South African actor Zane Meas and directed by Christo Davids. These two have a previous links with Van Wyk as they both played in Janice Honeyman’s 2008 adaptation of Shirley, Goodness and Mercy which performed to full houses at the Market Theatre. This is the 5th time that they will be working together on stage in a partnership that spans over 12 years.

Anyone who has read Van Wyk’s books will know that he was foremost a storyteller. This particular piece explores his influences as a poet, as political activist and writer, his family life and his tragic battle with cancer.  It is an homage to his humour, political values and storytelling abilities, all of which add texture to the piece and insight into the writer’s life. (see review).

nailed starring khulu skenjana, aya mpama, katlego letsholonyane, zesuliwe hadebe and lunga khuhlane
Nailed starring Khulu Skenjana, Aya Mpama, Katlego Letsholonyane, Zesuliwe Hadebe and Lunga Khuhlane.

In the Barney Simon Theatre Nailed will premiere from February 8 to March 3. The production is sponsored by the Department of Arts and Culture’s Incubation Fund, aimed at assisting emerging practitioners to hone their skills from amateur to professional status.

If you want to tell the naked truth about post-apartheid South Africa, better do it through fiction believes The Market’s artistic director. Author Niq Mhlongo has long been a Ngcobo favourite and he believes he masters his art brilliantly.

His latest work, Soweto Under the Apricot Tree is a collection of short stories about contemporary Soweto, Johannesburg and South Africa and the one that caught Ngcobo’s attention. The stories are an account of township life with commentary on post-apartheid South Africa still grappling with many of the issues emanating from our past. “Every township house always had an apricot tree,” reminisces Ngcobo.

 It is a story about abuse of political power, infidelity and violence. It deals with corrupt, greedy and selfish politicians who are in the business not for the people but for self aggrandisement and personal gain.

This country knows better than many how behavior impacts on the lives of ordinary people and how it affects the morale of a country. That’s why this one will be fun to watch with an engaged audience as well as writing that comes alive on stage.

Nailed is directed by Luthando Mngomezulu, who was responsible for Isithunzi, the 2017 Zwakala Festival winner, and the cast includes Aya Mpama, Khulu Skenjana, Katlego Letsholonyane, Lunga Khuhlane, Nyaniso Dzedze and Zesuliwe Hadebe.

gregory-maqoma-in-exitexist.jpg
Gregory Maqoma in Exit/Exist

Other exciting plays to watch out for is a reworking of Tsafendasby by playwright Anton Krueger starring Renos Nicos Spanoudes and directed by the exciting Jade Bowers, who will add fresh and young perspective; in Exit/Exist, dancer/choreographer Gregory Maqoma takes inspiration from his ancestral past as he blends storytelling with his powerful dance vocabulary and dynamic live music in this moving solo performance with live musicians. It’s an examination of race, political power, and the melding of past and present. (Also watch out for a return of the haunting Cion – inspired by the Zakes Mda book -which will be staged in September to celebrate the company’s 20th anniversary.

There’s also a lot of buzz around the new John Kani play which deals with the relationship between a dying white actor (Anthony Sher) and his black nurse (John Kani) directed by Kani stalwart Janice Honeyman which will be staged in the latter half of the year. The Baxter’s production of Strindberg’s The Goat starring the powerful combination of Jennifer Steyn and Andrew Buckland directed by Mdu Kweyana will also be staged.

Times may be tough, but theatre is as always inspired.

 

 

 

Books & Bones & Other Things Attempts to Unravel The Secrets and Lies of Old

An art exhibition is often exciting not only because of the creativity but also the idea that holds the project. Jan Coetzee’s Books & Bones & other things is an example of just that kind of imagination:

booksbonesotherthings_cover

DIANE DE BEER

 

From the beginning of time, individuals have at some stage of their lives questioned the meaning of life in some way.

It makes sense that a man who has spent his whole working life in academia, studying and researching, would use these tools to question his own life – and thus began what has turned into an exhibition, Books & Bones & other things, which Mark Read of Everard Read Gallery invited academic/artist Prof Jan Coetzee to present for the month of February in CIRCA.

Jan Coetzee started his career at the University of South Africa; later became Professor of Sociology at the University of the (Orange) Free State (1979‑1986); and then moved to Rhodes University (1987‑2010) as Professor and Head of Department. In 2011 he returned to the University of the Free State as Senior Professor of Sociology where he initiated and directs the programme: The narrative study of lives.

jancoetzeeportrait
Jan K Coetzee

Within this research programme, he became interested in books as documents of life. “Throughout my life I’ve always been attracted to old texts – maybe not surprising given the fact that I did classical Greek and Sociology as majors for a BA. Together with my interest in narratives, I’ve also been playing around for years with sculpting,” he explains.

In short, he says, he put together almost 60 installations of “bookworks” consisting of old texts combined with found and sculpted objects. Most of these are enclosed in acrylic museum cases. “The object of this whole exercise is to attempt a reading of these aesthetically pleasing old texts – all of them old and many of them written in closed languages such as Latin, old German, old Slavic, etc.

“The installations attempt to unwrap/open the meaning of this collection of old texts: to try to hear what they are telling us today.”

As an academic he has thoroughly explained this complicated yet fascinating exhibition which would appeal to both scholars and the lay public.

“From the very beginning, humans have been living in storytelling societies. The earliest recordings of our stories are found in art and artefacts, and later on, in documents — the predecessors of what we call ’books‘.”

 Books & Bones & Other Things is thus a dialogue with a collection of books serendipitously encountered across Europe and South Africa. What started as a collection developed into a project to make the author’s own life, as well as life in general, more intelligible to himself and to others, he believes – and hopes.

The books in the collection are old texts which have considerable aesthetic appeal which originated from and bear witness to the actions, intentions, motivations, joys and hopes, as well as the fears and sufferings of human beings.

Each text, he says, narrates a story. But as his process developed, he realised that our ability to hear what they are trying to say is undermined: most are written in old, inaccessible languages which meant that Coetzee could not merely present these books as is.

 

And this is where interpretation came into play. He needed to find a way to retell the stories, to break them open and even subvert traditional narrative conventions by presenting them in a way that conjures up new stories in his mind and – hopefully – the minds of his ‘readers’.

This is when he began critically inquiring into the aims, context, and content of these books by systematically engaging with the title pages of the texts.

“Only the title pages,” he underlines. It meant that without studying the rest of the texts and without examining the meaning of the inside pages, he set out re-imagining the texts by recalling stories from his own life and readings.

He also initiated conversations between the different books so that the individual stories would resound more emphatically.

imperialprincipal.jpg
Imperial Principal

The bookworks, he says, explore the historical development of society and its structures — religion, colonialism, imperialism, racism, language, identity and time — all steeped in Western thought and tradition. “This I relate to the books themselves, and to the sculptures and the religious and cultural artefacts that accompany them.”

Coming to terms with yet another phenomenon of our time, an acknowledgement that in these European texts the voices of indigenous peoples are silent and their values, laws, and cosmologies — their very lives — are largely discounted.  He emphasises this in the use of sculls and chains for example. “What survives all individual authors, all human remembering and forgetting, I show in prehistoric fossils — a knowledge in the bones.”

He compares the results to a small private library in an ordinary family home which reflects something of the family. This collection of documents he feels, uncovers and reveals something of his own roots as it resonates with wider social, cultural, and historical refrains.

dominiumandcontrol.jpg
Dominium and Control

“I cannot think of a more accomplished scholar of stories, or the narrative study of lives, than Jan Coetzee who in this ground-breaking book demands a reckoning with all those stories, of ourselves and others entangled in this post-1994 dance. This attempt at excavating the ‘knowledge in the bones’ is truly an exceptional piece of scholarship by Coetzee and an outstanding set of authors and should be required reading not only for sociologists but story-tellers and -listeners across the disciplines. It is the curriculum we desperately need.”

This is the recommendation of Jonathan Jansen, former Rector and Vice-Chancellor at the University of the Free State of Coetzee’s book which is at the centre of this exhibition.

The exhibition will end on February 28 with an endowment auction of these bookworks – conducted by Strauss and Co – the proceeds going to Kim Berman’s Artist Proof Studio and William Kentridge’s Centre for the Less Good Idea. The exhibition/auction consists of the almost 60 bookworks/installations that form the basis of a book Books & Bones & Other Things published by Sun Press in 2018.

 

US Woordfees Exemplifies a World of Humanity and Theatrical Diversity

The performance year kicks off in grand style with the US Woordfees, the first of the country’s arts festivals. DIANE DE BEER highlights some of the theatrical diversity in the programme of the Stellenbosch-based festival:

Endgame with Soli Philander and Antoinette Kellerman
Endgame with Soli Philander and Antoinette Kellerman Picture by Oscar O’ Ryan.

 

In her welcome foreword to this year’s festival guide, Director of the Woordfees, Saartjie Botha, points to the political dilemma in the country and how that sometimes detracts from the art festivals. But she’s optimistic. “The world of the arts is a gentler place,” she says.“It is confrontational sometimes – and it should be, but it is a world focussed on humanity. And finally creates understanding and empathy for that humanity.”

The University of Stellenbosch Woordfees, the annual arts festival with books as its heartbeat, runs from March 1 to 10 with a programme that has grown through the years and theatre arguably the one that has benefited most – and it needs that more than ever right now. But so do the audiences to get them thinking and talking. Right or wrong, arts festivals have become a lifeline for artists, and for many, one of the few times they have the opportunity to exercise their craft.

Apart from an extensive discourse programme which covers anything from the state of the nation to financial health as well as many book and author-related discussions, their entertainment and arts reach is an embracing one with fine arts, music (classical, jazz and pop), film, stand-up as well children’s theatre all given a strong platform. And added to that is WOW (Words Open Worlds), an empowerment project focussing on the youth of previously disadvantaged communities, which also includes the largest spelling competition in the country sponsored by Sanlam.

Theatre lovers will know that they must add the Woordfees to their calendar with a programme that this year especially sets the benchmark for the rest of the country and times ahead. It is a festival that benefits from its university connection as well as a community that supports the arts and has a strong cultural understanding. But it has also broadened its reach which has meant that its artistic offering has extraordinary depth and variety and that’s exciting. Diversity in the arts – especially in this country – is the only way to go.

toutjies & ferreira (picture by aardklop)
Toutjies en Ferreira

Director Saartjie Botha sets the tone with a piece that is branded both comedy and drama titled Toutjies en Ferreira with two directors, Wolfie Britz and Nicole Holm and a cast to die for, including Frank Opperman, Anthea Thompson, Aphiwe Livi, Malan Steyn, Melanie Scholtz and Antoinette Kellerman. If you have ever wondered about the backstage chaos an hour before the show starts at a festival, this is a rare glimpse into that world bolstered by drama and delicious comedy.

And launching into the stratosphere, extraordinary theatre maker Brett Bailey debuts with a new work, Samson, described as dance-musical theatre based on the Old Testament values of domination, treason and rebellion yet set in today’s world of political extremism, inequality, expatriation and violence. In the spotlight are opera, choirs, animation and electronic music and the vibe promises the brilliant theatre maker is anarchistic.

He explains that Samson brings the Old Testament story crashing into the 21st century, setting the myth of love, betrayal, ethnic tensions and violent revenge within our complex era. “I’ve been working on the piece for around 18 months, so it has been a very thorough process. I’m blessed to be working with some stellar collaborators: Vincent Mantsoe as choreographer, and Shane Cooper as composer. With a live band playing a very contemporary electronic score, huge projections, and some great voices and performers, we aim to deliver something very special.” Prospective audiences should take note.

endgame with rob van vuuren and andrew buckland
Endgame with Rob van Vuuren and Andrew Buckland.

In classical vein Sylvaine Strike follows last year’s inspired Sam Shepard with Beckett’s Endgame with Antoinette Kellerman, Andrew Buckland, Rob van Vuuren and Soli Philander. It has already had a sold-out season at the Baxter with Strike unleashing her magic with powerhouse performances as she dissects the playwright’s exploration of relationships between the controllers and the controlled. Her interpretations are unique, from this time and dealing with the human condition.

Director Marthinus Basson is a name with immediate appeal and with Antjie Krog’s Mi(SA)- Die Nuwe Verbond – ‘n Misorde vir die Universum (The New Covenant – a Disorder for the Universe) and a cast of singers that includes Amanda Strydom, Cecilia Rangwanasha (soprano), Makudupanyane Senaoana (tenor), Ané Pretorius (harpsichord), Erik Dippenaar (piano) and the Cape Town Opera Choir, fireworks are predicted. It is a complex thing (a Basson trait), with a trio of works, the Missa Luba, the Missa Criola and Krog’s new work with music by Antoni Schonken in conversation with the established and celebrated works.Basson pulls it all together with a blend of rites and liturgy to create a contemporary South African soundstage predominantly in Afrikaans but also adding many tongues like Greek, Latin, English, Xhosa and Khoisan words. The choir also brings depth to the texture with individuals telling their own stories and where they come from.

Other English productions include Carpets, a text which first surfaced at last year’s third Text Market initiated by Hugo Theart from Kunste Onbeperk (KKNK). With the help of the Baxter (which hosts the event) as well as NATI (National AfrikaansTheatre Iniative), new texts are constantly being developed and evaluated with some selected to be further developed and staged at the different festivals. At the last Market CEO of the Baxter Theatre Lara Foot added R100 000 to the sponsorship which was matched by NATI for 2019 with the intent of expanding the Text Market to include Xhosa texts in addition to Afrikaans and English. She stressed the importance of developing new voices – and also exposure of the different cultures to one another.And whileJenine Collocott; Carpets wasn’t one of the winning texts, it was selected for a performance at the Text Market where it has benefitted from that exposure. Playwright and director Caitlin Wiggil has written an intriguing story about an agoraphobic woman unable to leave her house because of an earlier trauma.

du toit alberze
Du Toit Albertze, the playwright of Klip Kween.

Two playwrights who were rewarded with writer’s bursaries will be presenting plays: Herschelle Benjamin with Slavenhuis 39 explores what it means to be a person of colour while Du Toit Albertze homes in on a young transgender woman who returns to her birthplace in Klip Kween to investigate her past. She sacrifices her last bit of sanity to go back to Namakwaland to reclaim her innocence from the local pastor. “The narrative becomes just as blurred as the characters’ morality when the pastor’s new victim becomes intertwined in this Christmas play-like tragedy,” explains the playwright.

“Director Jason (Jacobs) and I strive to honour the sisters before us, the daughters of District Six. Also to remind the ‘ooms en tannies’ of transgender existence and exposing the trans- and homophobic religious leaders still abusing their power.”. It’s important that all of this be talked about. “There are too many of us who hide away like vampires. Hopefully these stories will kick some of them out of the closets!”

stof with james cairns
Stof with James Cairns

Both of these young playwrights are worth checking out. It is early in their writing careers, but they have already made their mark as they tell stories that open new worlds.Another transgender story titled Rokkie showcases a 48 year old transgender woman from the Cape Flats, and is the solo debut of Charlton George, an actor with extraordinary talents; while Craig Morris returns with one of his breathtaking performances in Greig Coetzee’s Johnny Boskak is Feeling Funny.

babbelagtig
Babbelagtig – Picture by Hans van der Veen

 

It’s also going to be fascinating watching James Cairns switch to Afrikaans in his solo show Dirt (which he has translated as Stof), directed by Jenine Collocott, who is also in charge of the family-orientated clown show Babbelagtig with an extraordinary comedy ensemble with Jemma Kahn, Roberto Pombo, De Klerk Oelofse, Dean Bailie, Klara van Wyk, Thami Baba and David Viviers.

Marching in step is the Gerrit Schoonhoven-directed two-hander with partners Elize Cawood and Wilson Dunster in Narkose (Anesthesia). Two old clowns, Koos and Koos, are down and out but determined the show must go on. This talented trio have a way of sprinkling fairy dust whenever on stage, even when they gently let rip with the truth. Louis Roux, a young playwright, is helping with the text.

And finally, with a title like GodgOdgoD it’s hard to resist. It has already reaped some rewards with a cast as versatile as Charlton George, Ilana Cilliers and Wolf Britz. Described as experimental, language isn’t the star as the company explores identity, who we are, where we come from and exploding the myths and theories that want to determine the way we live.

That’s only a handful, a starting point especially if English theatre is more accessible at this mainly Afrikaans festival. But do yourself a favour, go online and have a look at their programme which is also available in English. Be prepared to be overwhelmed. It is a staggering offering from the arts in all its glorious diversity.  

 

 

 

 

Debut Novel Talion Bravely Explores and Pushes the Boundaries in Thriller Genre

Photographer: Joanna Olivier

 

booktalion

Discovering a first novel with a young writer in the process of finding his voice is exciting. DIANE DE BEER chats to author Beyers de Vos about Talion, his love of writing and future plans:

 

It’s always a thrill reading the first novel of a new writer, especially when it turns out to be quite experimental, pushing the boundaries and the result of an MA in creative writing under celebrated author Etienne van Heerden.

The young man in question is Pretoria born and bred Beyers de Vos, the novel, a thriller, is titled Talion (Penguin) and the dedication of the book points to the origins of his writing:

For my mother, who taught me to love words.

And for my father, who told this story first

It’s also a love of reading and being blessed with incredible English teachers all through primary and high school, he explains. “They fostered a love of story.”

“I wanted to understand how those stories worked – why I loved them so much and how they were made. When I started writing myself, trying to find those answers, everyone was really encouraging. I also had a really strong sense that my imagination was my strongest asset. If I let my imagination grow, if I figured out how I could harness it, I would never feel alone, never feel powerless, never feel insecure. And after all that, what choice did I have but to become a writer?”

With an undergraduate degree in Publishing, an honours degree in English literature and then the creative writing, following this with a first novel, he felt comfortable enough to resign his job as script writer to focus on a second book. “So reckless of me,” he interjects.

beyers de vos_-10
First-time author Beyers de Vos

Yet when you listen to his story, there’s nothing that’s not carefully thought through in the way he has gone about carving a niche in the world of literature.

“I knew that I wanted to write a novel. But I also knew that I would never commit to it if I wasn’t put under some pressure. I thrive in an academic environment – so an MA seemed ideal. Having Etienne as my supervisor was just luck – he was there and at my disposal. He’s a genius, obviously, and his influence on my work is difficult to measure. With Talion he really guided it from something that could have been more ordinary to something that is maybe a little stranger.”

We’ll get to that strangeness later. First the book, which is a thriller – and that, it seems, is happenstance as it’s not a genre De Vos is going to stick to exclusively. “I love crime literature, I like thrillers. But I’m also a bit of a snob about it – I need my thrillers to be more than your average Jo Nesbo. Not that there’s anything wrong with Jo Nesbo – but as a reader and a writer, I’m much more interested in the darkness of those stories than the thrill of them. What I’m attracted to is tragedy – thrillers lend themselves to that beautifully. The genre is a vehicle, a shortcut, to get to what I’m really after – which is some kind of exploration of why humans are so capable of torturing themselves, and others.”

And whatever way you look at it, a strong feature of the novel is the writing and perhaps more importantly, the young audience it should appeal to. It’s young and happening with the main characters all in that peer group. The fact that it’s set in Pretoria, a city De Vos knows well and captures in an invigorating and unexpected fashion, is also a bonus. He even has Oom Paul and his warriors doing a gig on Church Square!

He isn’t always sure what he is trying to do or why, some of which works and arguably at other times not quite and he is uncertain how to articulate what attracts him to certain stories, death rather than romance for example. “An idea takes hold of me – in this case the idea was ‘what happens to someone psychologically when they decide to kill someone else?’ – and I become obsessed with it. Then I have to write my way through it. I come out the other side with a piece of work, and I’m not sure I understand what I’m trying to accomplish beyond shaking the idea around until I’ve created something meaningful. What is Talion trying to say? What am I trying to say – I’m still figuring that out.”

beyers de vos_-2
Beyers de Vos

That’s not a bad thing though, and he feels similarly about his writing style. “It’s instinct. It has its own rhythm, like music. I didn’t have to ‘find’ it – it just was there, inside my head.” It’s also something that you can feel when reading the book is still being formed, sometimes it seems just too precious, perhaps self-conscious, and as a reader you become more aware of the writing than the story. But what I loved was that he was willing to go this route, to play with ideas and words which will inevitably lead to some failure, yet driven by a desire to do something different, to tell stories his way and to play with a genre that many might advise him to leave well alone.

On some levels it did feel like a first novel because of all the above reasons, but the overriding emotion was one of excitement to experience this writer’s future writing and how he approaches book two following mostly rave reviews for this first one.

Speaking to him about young readers, he argues different sides. “Are my peers reading? If not, is it because they feel alienated by the books that are out there? Are they looking for something new? Is it even a question of age? It’s certainly my hope that a new generation of writers are writing for a new generation of readers, who can pick up a book and say, ‘this book represents me and the country I know and is exploring ideas that are important to me’.”

De Vos, who describes Afrikaans as his home language and English as his first language, notes that he has a complicated relationship with his heritage, which he is only reckoning with now that he is working in Afrikaans too. “The truth is that my publishers asked me to translate it because they thought the market would be more responsive if it was released in both languages,” he says of the translated version. “The Afrikaans market is much bigger, and to be frank, much more supportive. Going forward, I will be working in both languages. I am currently working on a couple of Afrikaans-only projects, as well as a new novel, written in both English and Afrikaans.”

And as a reader: “I read fiction almost exclusively. In the last few months I’ve read The Southern Reach trilogy, which is science fiction, and Snap, a crime novel by Belinda Bauer. I’ve discovered Joyce Carol Oates, and I’m making my way through her bibliography. I also read Transcription, Kate Atkinson’s new novel.”

What I loved about Talion most was the approach on all the different levels, the language, the youthfulness which is fun and informative and also the intent. It is also with some of those aspects that I often struggled most. But given a choice, this is the kind of book I like reading as I discover a new voice still finding its way – but once it hits the ground running, I predict, will soar spectacularly.

  • The author will be part of a panel discussion titled Nuwe Bloed (New Blood) at this year’s US Woordfees on March 6 at 2pm in the Adam Small seminar room

Magically Mesmerising Japanese Islands are Packed with Art and Architecture

In the next two years, Japan will be highlighted on the travel itinerary as they host the 2019 Rugby World Cup and the 2020 Olympic Games. Travelling that far it’s worth checking into some of their magnificence.

 

birthdayfatman_0001 (17)

DIANE DE BEER

 

If your travels are driven and dominated by art and architecture, Japan’s art islands seem designed specially for your desires – and then they deliver so much more.

Hearing about them the first time, they sounded magical, almost unreal – islands filled with art – which I couldn’t believe I had never heard about.

Only once you journey there, the fantasy and fun of it all materialises majestically. The island landscape that’s the backdrop for this art-inspired world often determines the art you will be viewing in what should be an extended trip – as many days as you possibly can pack in.

seascape from naoshima
Seascape from Naoshima

Google was my first port of call when starting my research. And coming back following the visit, returning to that information, much of it only makes sense once you’ve been.

When your research says that you need at least three days, even that isn’t quite enough, but it will be worth your while. Some 3 000 islands are dotted in the Seto Inland Sea of Japan, which separates Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu, three of the four main islands of Japan. Three of these – Naoshimo, Teshima and Inujima –  form the main part of what is described as Japan’s art islands but there are more and they’re multiplying as islanders understand what it can mean for the future of a particular island.

This unique art project began in 1987, when a businessman, Soichiro Fukutake, the chairman of Fukutake Publishing (now known as the Benesse Holdings, Inc.), bought the south side of Naoshima. He then enlisted Pritzker Prize-winning architect Tadao Ando to design his dream and most of the architecture you visit on this main island, all the established museums (and the hotels) are the work of Ando. If you haven’t heard of him before, you will appreciate his architecture once you witness his work. He has also designed, for example, a museum to form part of the cultural precinct planned for Abu Dhabi with the Louvre the first finished project.

an example of tadao ando's architecture
An example of Tadao Ando’s extraordinary architecture on Naoshima.

One of the strongest visual pleasures of Naoshima is that it is one architect and his unique architectural vision that determines the impact. He sets the tone, not only of the museums on the main island, but also of the art.

When you embark at your port of call, it’s all sea, sky and islands with boats of all sizes as far as the eye can see.  And once on the ferry, the landscape, dominated by shades of blue, is completely enveloping and an inviting sign of the excitement that awaits. As you enter the port at Naoshima, one of the famous dotted pumpkins, this one in bright red, of one of Japan’s most prolific artists, Yayoi Kusama, is the first thing that greets you. You know you have arrived.

shrine's glass stairway (2)
Shrine’s sparkling glass stairway

First it’s on a bus (or a bicycle, motored for the hilly countryside) and you’re off to see either the mainstay of the island, the Benesse Museum complex which is furthest from the port, or, on the way there, the Art House project which includes the architect’s own house with his architectural plans explaining his art island mission and his design ethos. We started off there, but it would probably have made more sense once we had seen all his buildings even if they speak with great clarity for themselves.

Six other buildings have been used to create special artworks which include anything from an artist playing with light in almost fairground fashion with extraordinary results, an outside shrine with a spellbinding glass stairway, to a mesmerising pool of darkness, which takes viewers on a specific journey.

Even though I would leave the Ando house till later, the rest of the project is a great introduction, playful and out of the box, while giving individual artists and their unique voice a chance to shine. This is where one could probably also find accommodation (but more about this later).

Then it’s on to the three major museums as well as the outdoor sculptures on the main Benusse site. It’s a fusion of architecture and nature with the island and the surrounding backdrop the perfect setting for Fukutake’s expansive dreams. Importantly, the Ando environment-sensitive designs are part of the landscape as he plays with light and hidden delights in a way that fashions and informs his designs.

His buildings are all different yet have a similar sensibility. His building blocks are concrete with natural light the premiere design feature to show the art in a way never seen. This is especially true of Monet’s Water Lilies, which are given a fresh perspective.

20181014_113658
The entrance to Tadao Ando’s Lee Ufan Museum displays all his design strengths

From the detail of the floors in the passages and specific rooms and even the toilets (or, as some would say, especially the toilets!), every detail is put out there, full tilt. The Chichu Art Museum, for example, is built like a bunker, all underground, but with shafts of light encouraged and enticed to play with the space and the art.

The art includes many familiar names but there’s much to discover and learn, for example, the Lee Ufan Museum is dedicated to this octogenarian Korean artist quite spectacularly. And in especially the Chichu and the Lee Ufan museums, there are only a few rooms with minimal art displayed in a fashion that grabs both your attention and your soul. You are gifted time to appreciate each piece and to absorb the impact. It’s the the best way to view art.

lee ufan's art outside the museum
Korean artist Lee Ufan’s art outside the Museum

The outside sculptures have similar impact. Pieces speak to one another unexpectedly, and others simply because of their placement, sometimes like driftwood on a beach, have a special charm. Because of these outside pieces and the museums which are in walking distance, you engage with nature as much as with the art and the day strikes a particularly balanced note without you even trying.

We were there for two days, thinking we could do three islands, but in the end, only managed the one. It was one of the most unusual art excursions of my life and one I could easily repeat – often. But it takes careful planning, thoughtfulness about where you want to stay, on or off the islands with the ferry which is a joyous ride but takes time depending on the port you choose. Probably the best, if you can afford it, is the Benesse Hotel on Naoshima Island which is part of the museum complex and allows you to see the art in  a way that is completely deluxe – early in the morning and late at night.

You can travel from either Tokyo or Kyoto to Okyama and then one of the ports, either Uno or Takashima, both of which have ferries that travel to and from the three islands daily.

20181013_124353
Art is a way of life on Naoshima

Take note though that it isn’t as easy as jumping on and off a ferry as they’re scheduled very specifically and it’s tough to squeeze in more than one island on a day. If you make the train journey as we did from Kyoto (two hours), once passing through Okyama to Takamatsu, you’re traveling surrounded by the sea – seemingly everywhere – over expansive bridges and this is the beginning of the discovery of the breathtaking backdrop for the next few days.

It’s a fairy tale journey for art and nature lovers.

 

 

 

Social Media and Smartphones Dictate the Pace but Detract from the Vibe

Social media and smartphones can play havoc with the way you understand the world. DIANE DE BEER is hoping for a reality check where the picture doesn’t tell the only story:

20181015_202015
Smartphones on the march

 

There are lots to say for both these modern amenities but sometimes – and that probably has much to do with my age – I can’t help but wonder about real life and slow living that is lost along the way. Two examples of their impact had me puzzling just a bit recently.

The one had to do with commuters on a train in Tokyo all so lost in their smart phones, they might – and probably are – be living in a parallel universe. Back home, an invitation to sample the new summer menu at one of Joburg’s premiere restaurants had me struggling to make sense of the moment as single plates of every dish was passed around for diners to sample, photograph and promote to the outside world – at breathtaking speed or that’s how it felt.

On a trip to Japan, our mode of transport in Tokyo was the train – sometimes above the ground and, when we couldn’t do it any other way, underground. But this didn’t really make any difference to the phone phenomenon which was so pervasive it had my whole party pondering the merits of easy access to … well almost anything. And that is the problem perhaps.

It wouldn’t it be smart phones I suppose if we didn’t have perfect access?

It doesn’t take long for foreign travellers to notice that everyone on the train is either on their phone or sleeping. That’s sounds like a rather mild condition when stated like that. But what I really mean, from the moment you walk into the station and then arrive at the right platform and step onto the train, there’s no eye contact with any individual who is probably making this journey twice a day.

It makes sense that they would use this instant source of entertainment to keep themselves occupied during what must be a tedious part of their day. But it is the level of engagement which completely ignores the public space they find themselves in that is quite fascinating.

Given the Japanese innate politeness, it feels especially as if the young men have found a way of ignoring all the social conventions of their society by simply locking into their phones. From the moment they step onto the train and off and beyond, they have their phone pressed – up close and personal – right into their face and they do all of this while grabbing a seat and then they stay put.

There’s no acknowledgement of pregnant women or elderly individuals who might warrant a young man giving up his hard-earned seat – and which they are advised constantly to do via public announcements and one understands why.

But there’s also no embarrassment or losing face, because he is locked completely off from the world happening around him. If they were reading books or even watching news, that would also add some justice to the endeavour but it’s usually games. We did spot some manga to our relief and perhaps three books (always manga) and perhaps two newspapers on our journey.

BirthDayFatman_0001 (16)

Those on the train who aren’t on their phones (both men and women) are asleep, standing or sitting, sometimes with the phone pressed to their noses. Admittedly, commuting is tiring and while we are on holiday with all the time in the world, this is a hard slog – before and after work – either way.

What is disturbing though is the absence of discovering who these people are. They’re simply missing – any time of the day. It seems that’s what the Japanese do – particularly in Tokyo –when on their commute. The sleeping is less disturbing because tiredness in today’s world is a universal trait amongst workers.

The stress and long days are easy culprits but the cutting off from the outside world, your fellow travelers, to the point of not making any contact at all cannot be healthy. Instead you’re in communication with a machine.

Our fellow commuters seemed lovely people, but who could really tell?

Similarly, a recent media lunch at 54 on Bath’s Level Four to test their new Summer Menu was equally soulless. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not the function that’s at fault, it’s what the world has become and what we have to do, to survive. By ignoring the process and going simply for goal, depth and thus lasting impact is missing, to my mind.

Previously – and not that long ago – a tasting menu would actually include having a meal, conversing with you fellow diners, testing the temperature of the room for conviviality and all those other benefits that add to a great meal.

Call me old fashioned and I am when it comes to this kind of stuff, but simply gathering around a table while the starters, then mains and concluding with desserts are placed on the table while everyone has the chance to sample, doesn’t do the food any favours. There’s too little time to savour and chatter about the food, because everyone is busy taking pictures and posting it on one of the many social platforms all of us use to promote whatever catches our fancy and an event expects.

It’s not that I want to fault the restaurant or their marketing people. This isn’t their doing.  It’s how media works now and how it works best. I love the instant thing and the fact that one can get your message out there.  I use it myself to promote my blog and anything I might post – how could we possibly have done any of this before? It opens new vistas for those who love to write (or want to promote anything else) and want to share what they experience with like-minded souls who might tune into a particular vibe.

Level Four starter_Sweet potato ginger tart (002)
Sweet potato ginger tart starter

It’s not that difficult to give a snapshot and a soundbite about the dishes as they pass you by. The starters feature seared yellow fin, fresh raw peas, avocado mousse, wasabi powder, and pickles; the ‘Black Angus’ carpaccio, quail egg, pomegranate, truffle mayonnaise, and parmesan; the chicken and sundried tomato terrine, with smoked tomato, baby beetroot, radish, apple gel and roast nuts; and my favourite for its originality, the sweet potato and ginger tart, with spicy pineapple gel, corn, lemon cream, and pickled cucumber.

For mains I would opt for the nose to tail eating with the ‘Marino’ lamb cutlet, loin, confit belly, braised shoulder, with pea puree, and asparagus which is hearty and rich in flavour yet strangely works as a summer dish, while with dessert, opt for two classics, lemon crème brûlée or vanilla pannacotta, both with a summer swirl of berries interpreted in different ways.

_'Marino' lamb cutlet (002)
Marino lamb cutlet

The accent is on quality ingredients like yellow fin tuna, duck and Wagyu sirloin while punting local with fresh produce and artisanal cheese. Dining at 54 on Bath has long established itself and with their exec chef Matthew Fox inviting all his chefs to the party to contribute their own dish, there’s an individuality to the different dishes which works well.

There’s a lot going in its favour, but sadly for me personally, sampling a new menu, I want an individual bite of food which I can savour if not in my own time, given some time rather than sitting in the middle of a hectic scramble to get it out there briskly please. It’s as if the chase is on because the ice cream might melt before the picture hits its audience.

Lemon créme brulee (002)
Lemon crème brûlée

Is it only me? Or do I simply long to focus on more than just the destination? Personally, eating has as much to do with the vibe as the visuals.