Pictures: MARCELLO BASSI
In a dystopia of Womxn’s Day pink ribbons, fuchsia-glitter quicksand and the bloodied afterbirth of a new, New South Africa, our clowns wait… while the outside world is in chaos – squabbling over fool’s gold at the end of a nation’s rainbow. This is how director/writer Penny Youngleson describes her latest show for the National Arts Festival to DIANE DE BEER:
Anyone thinking that the battles for womxn have run their course with the #MeToo movement aren’t living in the real world.
What it has done for women theatre makers and womxn artists like Penelope Youngleson in general is create a more level playing field, an awareness and a level of access to something like the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown for the first time in 44 years.
The exciting director/writer concedes that things are moving, but she has been working in this space for far too long to think that it will be easy. But she is celebrating that they are the first female company on the Main Festival in the history of the Festival. And there are more firsts on the Main. “We are the first all-female clowning show and the youngest, and actor Buhle Ngaba is the first black female clown and one of the few in the country,” says an elated Youngleson.
But she adds quickly, “We’re not making a protest piece because #MeToo is trending and it’s the ‘right’ time to care about inclusivity: we’re making it because we want our ceiling to be our sisters’ floor.”
The protest theatre she’s referring to is titled La Chair de ma Chair (Flesh of my Flesh) which was fashioned after the male-centric double acts of South Africa’s protest theatre trope; the production consciously self-references palimpsests of local canons – including productions like The Island and Woza Albert – to interrogate our performance heritage and, in particular, its relationship to womxn as theatre activists and change agents.
She elaborates: “There is also a tongue-in-cheek nod to the classic French work, Waiting for Godot, as we observe two South African clowns…in limbo. One black, one white. They are living in a future South Africa. One beyond time as we are currently living it. And in the middle of a past we can’t get away from.”
She was first approached by her two actors Ngaba and Klara van Wyk who have known each other for years and done many of workshops and informal plays together as clowns and physical performers. They had a discussion about how they wanted to work on a piece together – and then invited her as a writer and director.
“We started having discussions about the ‘shape’ of the project and what we were all interested in. And we pitched to a couple of festivals and platforms…and no one wanted us. We were these three womxn wanting to make a pink, sparkly show about an apocalyptic future with two clowns waiting in limbo, covered in glitter. Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t an easy sell.”
Things shifted and a couple of months ago the National Arts festival got back to them and said they wanted them to do the show for the Main stage. “We started formal rehearsal in May.”
Detailing the production, Youngleson explains that clowning is a very specific discipline that she doesn’t have much experience in – but Ngaba and Van Wyk have been practising for years now. “Their training processes were different, but both draw from the traditional French schools and masters. Protest theatre in South Africa has a fond reliance on clowning and a celebration of the clown to unravel serious subjects in an accessible and non-confrontational format,” she notes as it also explains their choice.
“Beckett’s clowns are a different breed (in some ways) though,” she says, “and their tensions lie in the breath and rhythms of their language and their existential crises braided into the crushing banalities and minutiae of everyday life.”
“We chose clowning as one of the performance conduits in the show because clowns cannot be held accountable for their actions – they are most successful in performance when they are ‘failing’ by the world’s standards; and their humanity and vulnerability in that moment is what resonates with audience members and makes us love them for their honesty and innocence. We applaud their obtuse objectivity in the face of hegemonic morals and structures…and we laugh because we’re so relieved it isn’t happening to us! That’s what I think,” she says.
“Clowning is, in that sense, the perfect vehicle for discussing politically charged content because the clown doesn’t judge whether it’s right or wrong for more than half the population of the Western Cape to be living in apocalyptic conditions in informal settlements. The clown doesn’t preach. Our clowns just happen to live in a pink, sparkly world (where ‘the city works for you’) and nothing functions and nothing can grow and they’re stuck, indefinitely. With no hope. But it’s funny, so we don’t switch off. We listen. And, hopefully, talk afterwards.”
Youngleson further explains that South Africa is a country that lives in a constructed newness defined by its overshadowing past. “Our style and playmaking references this forward and backward dithering between who we were and who we are trying to be. I hope the piece feels very South African. It should, if we’ve done our jobs right.
“The clowns find themselves in a future, dystopian South Africa. The way we (in 2018) understand the world, is gone – but they can remember ‘before’. They’re in a no-man’s land. Which suits them just fine (being two female clowns). But how much do they have to remember to know who they are? And when does the remembering start to become rebuilding. And the rebuilding become re-enforcing…and does the re-enforcing lead to the same mistakes/atrocities being made over and over again?”
From that point of view, she believes they are, but expresses the hope that they are following in the footsteps of their South African canon of classics and that that they disturb and provoke just like these masters of theatre did before them.
Pre-empting any questions, she adds that Flesh of my Flesh refers to someone being born/made out of someone else. “It seemed like a very appropriate title for a show about how we try to live in a new, New South Africa. And, yes, the French title is a pretentious clue that we use a European tradition of clowning in our work, to critique and provoke contemporary, supposedly post-colonial content.
“There is a set narrative and a script to La Chair. There are text- and character-driven scenes…and there are non-verbal sections… and there is ‘pure’ clowning that relies on improvisation and audience engagement. The three of us each bring our own specific strengths and we’ve tried our best to marry them in this production.”
The show, which will be staged by this trio of award-winning artists at Grahamstown on the Main Festival on July 4 and 5, is multilingual and uses Setswana, English, Afrikaans, isiXhosa and gibberish. Now we need to hold thumbs that while people are laughing through their tears, it also delivers a budget for further touring.
Let’s send in those clowns!
La Chair de ma Chair (Flesh of my Flesh) performs on July 4 and 5 at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown.