This past weekend it felt as if theatre was truly back. Watching three extraordinary productions in Johannesburg, all running at the same time, it is a stark reminder of what we missed and a celebration of what feels like the return of live theatre. DIANE DE BEER reviews:

From left: Graham Hopkins and Lihle Ngubo in The Lesson (Pictures by Suzy Bernstein); Alan Committie, Robyn Scott, Berenice Barbier and Sanda Shandu in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf ? and Julie-Anne McDowell and Jennifer Steyn inThe Beauty Queen of Leenane (Pictures Brett Rubin).

It all began when someone at the recent Woordfees reminded me of three plays opening on the Gauteng circuit: The Beauty Queen of Leenane at Sandton’s Theatre on the Square, The Lesson at the Mannie Manim at the Market Theatre and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at Montecasino’s Pieter Toerien Theatre.

With Sandton first on the list, the cast, the director and the play were all strong attractions. With a rare appearance in Gauteng for the sublime Jennifer Steyn (who moved to the Cape a few years back) and the perceptive Charmaine Weir-Smith directing, we were in seasoned hands.

Jennifer Steyn in full force.

The Add to that an exciting younger trio consisting of Julie-Anne McDowell, Bryan Hiles and Sven Ruygrok and this black comedy has everything going for it. Steyn immediately sets the tone with a sublime if scarily monstrous performance as the mother none of us wish for.

Battling to survive the total onslaught in the role of daughter struggling to be servile, McDowell is constantly batting back the barbs with hardly any impact.

And into this grim fight walks two brothers with Hiles the one who upsets the teetering yet finely balanced relationship between mother and child.

It’s about survival, darkly comical and probably one that plays out in many different forms, everywhere and all the time. But it takes the seriously sharp pen of Martin McDonagh (In Bruges; Seven Psychopaths; Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) to add gut-wrenching to the experience. That and the performance of Steyn.

It’s a reminder of her long-felt absence on our stages. The subtlety with which she manages to create the sullen-faced mother is quite extraordinary – both hysterically funny yet deathly sad. It is the kind of performance that could so easily slide into caricature but she holds fast and never ventures that far.

Isolation and the fear of being alone do terrible things to people and while we laugh merrily at the dilemma of this mother and daughter duo, it is something that skirts many lives at some stage. That’s what makes this such a chilling encounter.

Plays until this Saturday

The Lesson starring Fiona Ramsay and Lihle Ngubo.

Ionesco’s The Lesson has been adapted by director Greg Homann for local audiences, and it’s a “welcome back” to another artist who has been out of the country for a few years.

It’s also a thrilling second time this year we see the excellent duo of Fiona Ramsay and Graham Hopkins on stage (with a return of the fantastic Hansard for a short run in January at Theatre on the Square) in a play that is as demanding as it is engaging. And the two veterans (wisely and to those of us witnessing both, with delight) couldn’t have chosen two more diverse plays if they tried.

Both are quite wordy and especially Hopkins has to think fast and furious on his feet while intent on bedazzling his latest pupil with his particular and peculiar lecture style and content. A wide-eyed student (Lihle Ngubo) arrives for a lesson, is welcomed by Ramsay’s rather clumsy if deliciously dilly assistant Marie and introduced to Hopkins’s almost doddering Professor – and the fun begins.

Homann’s director’s notes suggest that there are different interpretations to this locally flavoured adaptation including gender and power, and cultural oppression, or it can be viewed as a study of the relationship between student and teacher (all familiar tropes) but, more than anything, he has created a work that in this well-cast play, is as much about performance as it is about substance.

Graham Hopkins as The Professor.

If you were lucky enough to see Hansard earlier this year, it’s just magnificent to experience Ramsay and Hopkins playing completely different characters, much more wacky, yet approached with a delicacy that shows how carefully you must tread with roles that have to imply rather than be grotesque.

What a thrill for Ngubo to play with actors this experienced and she grabbed rather than shied away from the challenge. Her facial expressions (and costume) said more than words could tell and the interplay between the bullying professor and his awed student is quite riveting, with emotions ranging from amusement to outrage.

As the director also suggests, this is one to mull over and hopefully start a conversation. In the moment, the experience is almost like a slightly hazardous carnival ride.

On until October 30.

And finally it was the turn of Sylvaine Strike’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with Robyn Scott and Alan Committie as Martha and George, while Sanda Shandu and Berenice Barbier as Nick and Honey are lured into the pink-tainted lair.

But in this 60th anniversary production, all this marshmallow fluff that the colours might suggest is nothing but an enticement, as the young couple discover to their surprise. But this quickly changes as they gather their own defences, with different results.

This is all about Strike’s modern take and what the actors do with their individual iconic parts. And a warning: it comes at you with all systems on red hot alert!

Scott (with purpose) has a voice used on different levels and with a mix of accents that might throw you at first – and then it DELIGHTS. Like an animal on the prowl, she uses everything from her over- the-top facial expressions to her strident body manoeuvres to make her presence shimmer and shatter in equal parts. It’s magnificent.

Unexpectedly, because of his stand-up comedy status, Committie has a subtler approach, which is wise, because if both of them came at you at full tilt, it might have been obliterating rather intimidating. Their combined assault is finely balanced to create the perfect storm.

The extraordinary quartet in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

And while they are the prey, there’s nothing meek and mild about the younger couple’s performance. I completely lost my heart to Barbier’s innocence and desire to participate in what feels like fun and games while Shandu, whose race adds another level which is thrown at the audience to do with whatever they wished, has a presence which grows fiercer as the night’s antics progress and disintegrate.

It’s 2022, 60 years after the play premiered. Strike takes the bull by the horns, coming at you full force as people do in this current chaotic world of ours, and while our jaws drop and we grab at our chairs for safety, it’s grand and gregarious and great to wallow in this ecstatic night of sheer horror and hilarity.

On until November 6.

Please keep in mind that it is three hours long, with two intervals. Arrive rested and prepared to engage.

All three these exciting and challenging plays deal in dysfunction and relationships in ways that are darkly funny yet deeply disturbing. With casts who carry a healthy spread of wisdom and exuberance, this was the best way to fling open those theatre doors.

What a joyous and confident return!