DIANE DE BEER reviews:

MASTER CLASS by Terrence McNally

Director: Magdalene Minnaar

Cast: Sandra Prinsloo, Alida Scheepers, Brittany Smith, Tylor Lamani and José Dias

Venue: Montecasino’s Pieter Toerien Theatre

Dates: Until April 2

THIS is Sandra Prinsloo’s time.

Having recently seen her performance in Florian Zeller’s Moeder and now this revival of Master Class as Maria Callas in a mentorship rather than singing role, her range is astounding. For the past few years, she has been touring mainly in solo shows and it’s been a joy to have her back with ensemble casts, still reigning supreme.

If you’re expecting a Callas double, you will be disappointed, it’s not that kind of performance even though there are hints and gestures to pay homage. 

This one’s all about the process, how to become an artist and if you’re blessed by the theatre gods, you’re shown the finer points by La Divina. That’s where the focus lies, in the script and the performances.

Prinsloo turns into the fading yet never diminished star in front of your eyes. With a voice that’s dropped an octave, an attitude that displays both wisdom and wit and an accent to add to the theatricality of the piece, you’re swept into this world.

Alida Scheepers with Aandra Prinsloo in Master Class.

McNally cleverly fashioned a play that’s as much about becoming an artist as being on stage, and then he centred it around one of the world’s most dramatic divas, one who seemingly turns a master class into something that’s as much about her as it is about the students.

But in the process, she reveals as much about the artist as she does about the woman. Even at that time when social media wasn’t yet part of the publicity machine, the great ones couldn’t find anywhere to hide. Perhaps at a much slower pace, but eventually the stories would come out. This is why the reminders of her and Ari Onassis’s turbulent love life have impact.

And even if all of this adds flashy flesh to the McNally text, at its heart, it is a treatise on  the making of a true artist. All the other shenanigans, as Callas implies, are mere sideshows. But you have to pay attention to making an entrance, having a look, to understanding and investing in every word you sing and more. Everything comes together in a performance that will have you holding the audience’s attention, which is exactly what Prinsloo does in the persona of Callas as she chastises her young students when they perform with what she perceives as too much charisma and not enough care.

Master Class with Sandra Prinsloo and Tylor Lamani.

They hardly have the chance to utter a note before she destroys what might have been the smallest sign of an ego with shattering disapproval and a sharp gesture to underline her disdain. And then comes the command to sing again. Those who can’t stand the pressure are bitingly rebuked and if they still have any aspiration left, the performance is less assured.

The supporting cast, from José Dias (also musical direction) as the unperturbed répétiteur to the three courageous singers brave enough to face the harsh sometimes hysterical disdain of the tempestuous tutor, are a good foil with McNally introducing a dash of diversity with a trio of types from the nervous ingénue (Scheepers) to the self-assured poseur (Smith) and the cheeky, almost dismissive tenor (Lamani). Their singing is another highlight of the performance.

Master Class with Sandra Prinsloo and Brittany Smith.

I wasn’t sure of the flashing way the memory reels of Maria and Ari were introduced and found it quite disruptive. Perhaps loadshedding also had an impact. And perhaps Callas and Prinsloo would have been better served in another costume, one more suited to a master class.

But in the end, Prinsloo’s performance is the one that stuck as she made sure that the way Callas served her art was always at the forefront of her performance. Talent is obviously the X factor of great artists, but without blood, sweat and tears and an unwavering and selfish dedication to your art, few will achieve the ultimate prize.

That’s what Callas knew and delivered both on and off stage and what McNally so masterfully captures in Master Class with Prinsloo persistently reaching for perfection.

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