Actor and theatre maker Roberto Pombo is one of the most exciting young talents around and the productions he has been part of tell the story.
DIANE DE BEER chats to him about his two latest outings with Visiting Mr Green opposite Michael Richard soon to open at Sandton’s Auto and General Theatre on the Square followed by a more personal encounter:
It’s as if 2018 is determined to test actor Roberto Pombo by throwing as many different genres at him as possible.
Early in the year, he was part of the exciting Sylvaine Strike/Sam Shepard production Curse of the Starving Class (also headed for Cape Town’s Baxter Theatre later this year). This was followed by a physical theatre production – a collection of clowns in Babbelagtig at the Klein Karoo National Arts Festival – Visiting Mr Green is next on the list and then a short season of Kidcasino before the show is off to the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown at the end of June.
Concluding his initial Wits studies (and a few shows, including History Boys and a stint as Jemma Kahn’s sexy assistant in We Didn’t Come to Hell for the Croissants: Seven Deadly Stories for Consenting Adults), he studied another three years with Giovanni Fusetti of Helikos International School of Theatre Creation in Italy, a man who has coaxed hundreds of clowns into the theatrical world through movement-based theatre.
That’s when he knew he wanted to be more than an actor, he also wanted to be a theatre maker. And at present he is also furthering his academic studies with a master’s focusing on the buffoon and the clown. “I’m interested in using this form driven by personal narratives,” he explains, and is delighted with his studies. “I’m all into academia now!”
Working with the creators of the cult hit Father, Father. Father!, they (Toni Morkel directing while Joni Barnard joins him on stage) are reviving kidcasino for Grahamstown’s National Arts Festival with a short pre-run at Maboneng’s POPArt at the end of June. “The work is satirical and surreal,” says Pombo and they’re targeting the underbelly of the casino world. While mom is addictively gambling away, the kids are up and running while managing their own sugar high!
It’s all about the obsession with winning and the endless indulgence of compulsive gambling. Describing as dark comedy they promise to entice and unnerve.
This is a second time round for Visiting Mr Green director Alan Swerdlow with Richard and Pombo, who both starred in his earlier History Boys. He describes this one as much more than just a treacly sweet story. “It struck a universal cord,” he says, and it has never been out of production since its first production in 1996 having toured 46 countries in 23 languages.
The writer Jeff Baron told Swerdlow that since he created the two characters, Mr Green (Michael Richard) and young corporate exec (Roberto Pombo), they’ve taken on a life of their own. They’re no longer his. “I’ve had to let them go!”
“It’s that age-old clash of generations,” says Swerdlow as he talks about the two men who are deeply unpleasant when first we meet them. “Reaching out to one another, they find their humanity. But at first glance, we don’t really want to get to know them.”
That’s what makes this such an interesting piece, yet a tough part for Pombo. “I know I just have to jump on that train and ride it,’’ he says. “We need stretching as actors, but I find that so stressful.”
Yet watching him and Richard flinging words at one another, you know they will be up and away once the play is in full swing. “They’re dealing with their demons,’’ says Pombo who as Ross is visiting the elderly Green because he has been ordered by the court to do so after being found guilty of reckless driving and almost injuring the old man.
He describes the text as loaded and layered. There’s a lot going on because the two characters are both Jewish, living in Manhattan and because of the generational difference, their points of view come from different planets. “They’re prickly and both wear blinkers,” adds Swerdlow but slowly they find one another – with empathy.
Swerdlow is excited by the young Pombo because of his understanding of the nuances of text. “Even though his strength is movement based, he is an actor with extraordinary insight and a great grasp of text.” And this pairing with the accomplished Richard who has a wealth of experience behind him, is a no-brainer. Swerdlow is also fascinated with the timeline and how things have changed since the play first premiered. “There’s a unique perspective now.”
Once he takes a deep breath, Pombo realises he will relax, and he understands his current heightened state is part of the theatrical ritual. In fact, most of us have those hurdles we must jump in our careers as we do tasks we know we’re up to, yet find challenging. “It’s the nature of the beast,” he admits determined to enjoy the experience.
With his track record of attempting different ventures and ongoing studies, growth is what drives him.
That and telling stories!
- Visiting Mr Green runs at Sandton’s Auto and General Theatre on the Square from May 15 to June 10.