African Adaptation of The Little Prince Creatively Engages Young Audiences

The Little Prince Stage Adaptation by guest writer Kgomotso Moncho – Maripane

Picture by Ettione Ferreira Cue Media

 

TheLittlePrince_16
The Little Prince with Khanyisile Ngwabe in the title role

Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s classic story, The Little Prince is written in such vivid imagery and magical surrealism that it lends itself to the playful theatrics of the stage. But the unconventional text may also be a challenge: Because the book already does a lot of the work with its powerful, provocative images, what else can performance do? What can live bodies add to that?

The Market Theatre Laboratory’s new company, Kwasha, headed by Clara Vaughan who co-directs the stage adaptation of The Little Prince with theatre practitioner and academic, Mwenya Kabwe, employs a physical language to the storytelling.

To prepare for the production, the company did circus training with a circus company called Art of Synergy, working specifically with acrobatics, tumbling, lifting, balancing and counter balancing.

“With the idea of magic being so deeply within the story, with a sense of other worldliness and a suspension of adult rules, the circus feels like a really appropriate form. With the theme of flight also being so strong in the story – flying and crashing, travelling through space – it felt always like the qualities of circus, both in its sense of the unexpected and its sense of magic and of defying gravity, really fit with the themes within the book. It was also very important to make the movement of the play as beautiful and poetic as the language in the book,” says Vaughan.

The play achieves this in its moments of beauty where the movement poetically articulates Saint-Exupery’s moral and philosophical ideas which lean more towards the value of life rather than its meaning. However, in some places, the physicality in the show could be more cohesive for the magic of the book to shine through.

The Little Prince is a European text set in the Sahara desert, whose universal themes resonate worldwide. It is the most translated text outside of religious books, with 300 translations including English, Zulu, Afrikaans and Xhosa.

During the early days of rehearsal for this production, co-director, Kabwe questioned how African languages were used in the show. The importance of this showed how careful thought went into giving this adaptation an African context, but without overthinking it.

“The African adaption of anything is a contentious question to grapple with. There are easy surface ways to do that. I feel like we’re trying to ask other questions about what it means to be staging a European text of this nature here. And how just by working with it, it can be localized. In a way, not taking an overt approach to African adaptation, but letting the work, as we discover what it is, what the ideas are that we’re dealing with speak for themselves. Just the fact that it’s this company, and it’s us and we’re here, already feels like an African adaptation,” Kabwe said.

It is by being authentic to its mechanisms and allowing the individual sensibilities of the cast to come together that this production excels. Its African-ness then comes through inherently.  It’s in the subtle music and the organic flow of the languages.

The open and rustic staging speaks to the bareness of the Sahara. It is also evocative of plays like Mncedisi Shabangu’s Thirteen and Prince Lamla’s Coal Yard whose imaginative exploitation of a minimalist stage are innovative. This feeds into the playfulness of the show that stays with you together with its strong messages. The Little Prince directly confronts the conflict between adult and child relationships and the execution of this production engages the perceived notions of what it means to create for young audiences in this country.

For Vaughan, this extends into her own ideas on creating.

“There are ideas that I really care about in terms of creativity and making – the ways that the world instructs what is good creating – which resonates with ways of theatre making. The ways that people lose their desire to make, or their playfulness around making – losing that internal pleasure that children have. That matters to me. It’s something I have been interested in. As an adult, the story around grown up expectations and expectations of being a grown up, really resonate with my internal tensions about what you choose to take on,” she says.

The Little Prince finishes its nationwide tour in Johannesburg, which started at the National Arts Festival and went to Bloemfontein, Sasolburg and Durban. It runs at the Market Theatre Laboratory until November 25.

Marthinus Basson in Conversation with Pieter-Dirk Uys with the Accent on Artists

PDU and Basson
Pieter-Dirk Uys and Marthinus Basson in conversation at the Teksmark. Photographer: Fahiem Stellenboom

At the recent Kunste Onbeperk text market (Teksmark) held in Cape Town, legendary artists (both flying solo with multiple skills) director/designer Marthinus Basson spoke to playwright/performer Pieter-Dirk Uys about his career, with the accent on being an artist and how to make it – in his case – to the top, here and internationally. DIANE DE BEER tuned in:

 

Many will be familiar with the prolific Pieter-Dirk Uys’s career, his initial relationship with the ground-breaking Space Theatre after his return from studies and playwriting in London, followed by his mainly solo career with some cast-rich plays interspersed, but when listening to him chat with friend and colleague Marthinus Basson, it is his chutzpah, his dedication and determination, the people who taught him (sometimes unknowingly) that is a rich source of knowledge for young artists trying to make a living and a career.

He sees himself as typical with his adoration for stars like Elizabeth Taylor, Marlene Dietrich and the one he probably formed the deepest relationship with, Sophia Loren. When Dietrich was brought to Cape Town by a very young Pieter Toerien, the equally young Uys knew this was his time. And it was. Having bought tickets for opening night, he was spotted by Toerien and commandeered to be in the front row every night to present her with a bouquet, which meant he saw every performance. He also slipped into the theatre during the day to see what this performer was up to and caught her scrubbing the stage – every single day. “It was a lesson learnt. That’s what we don’t do anymore and why we’re in trouble,” he says. It’s her stage and she would make sure that it’s pristine – for her and her audience.

When he left drama school to study further in London, similar tactics applied. Early on, he sat in the Old Vic Theatre and heard the greats from Gielgud to Olivier and realised he couldn’t compete with their English. Instead he studied at the London Film School, who accepted his application because he had the money and that’s where he began slowly to create a career that is still flying fast and furiously. He wrote his first play, Faces in the Wall. And then the problem solving started. Where and how to put it on?

“The old Vic is full, but I can put the play on in the cinema during the holidays,” is how he planned. Once the theatre was secured, he got writing again, 32 letters, to ask famous people for help. The Duchess of Bedford and Elizabeth Taylor replied, and both sent him 100 pounds, a lot of money at that time with which he bought some old cinema seats to furnish his theatre space.

He invited everyone he knew who had influence for opening night but forgot to ask the critics. The next night no one came, except for two people. He offered them their money back, but they wanted to stay. “We played and at the end, a woman came to me, an agent Patricia MacNaughton, who is still my agent today. Never cancel a performance because you never know who is in the audience,” he stressed.

“My instinct drove me and I’m a terminal optimist which we have to be as artists because what we do is total madness.” But this is what he wanted to do and where he wanted to be – on stage amongst people with passion and people with humour.

PDU_ECHO_TOTB_019
Pieter-Dirk Uys in performance with Echo of a Noise.

Speaking at the Teksmark and giving a nod to his recent 2018 Hertzog Prize for drama (“they were all my enemies in the past,” he says of his benefactors), he advises playwrights never to be precious about their words. But when you cut, put it in that box under the bed. “It might not work in the current play, but it will be good for one down the line. Recycle, recycle, recycle. A  good idea is always a good idea.”

Of the 30 plays he wrote, four were not good, he believes. “They are the ones that still worry me,” he says. “Failure is a terrible word. If it’s unsuccessful, just keep trying.” He ascribes their downfall to the fact that he listened to other people and not his gut. “Failure is the cement for the wall on which you will eventually put your statue; you’ve got to have failures to have success, but it only happens in someone else’s eyes. Don’t believe them.”

Text, he believes, is unimportant. It’s about the story, a joke is a small story, a prayer slightly larger and the text is just the map. It has to be adapted and changed during the work process. “That’s why I always direct the first runs of any of my scripts,” he says. “It’s a very private thing, that new script. Keep it close to the chest and don ‘t show it around too freely. That’s when the advice starts influencing you.

“And when writing, don’t be scared for moments of silence, play with the cat, watch a movie, the ideas will come when they’re ready. And once finished writing, cut what you have written by half and then you lose 50 percent. That’s what I learnt at film school and I still do that today. It’s scary but it works. Those first 10 pages can usually go…”

Paying tribute to the festivals, he acknowledges that artists need that space to sharpen their pencils but perhaps a more structured circuit can emerge. In a dream world, that would be a festival a month which would keep the artists going all year round.

He describes his solo venture as a risky business. But he knew instinctively then, that in the long run, he could make it work. With today’s overheads, the cost of theatres and advertising alone, is prohibitive for dramas with a large cast. With only himself as the beneficiary, he is lucky if he walks away with 33 percent of the earnings.

How he describes humour, what he works with, is to laugh at the things that people fear.  Or perhaps as Basson describes this particular brand: “Don’t do the obvious which make people feel good; do the opposite that make them question and they feel good because they’ve taken a step in the right direction.”

“I have been unemployed since 1975,” says Uys. “I had to become myself, do everything myself, survival being not stand up but working with a personal chorus line of characters.” All this is also going to change in the future. He is tired of politics which isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, it’s an acquired bad taste. “I want to tell stories about people, children, youth, love and loss, the reality of breathing, to smell the roses and focus on something that matters. For 40 years I have had my head stuck in a political toilet and my sense of smell is gone.  I want to smell the flowers again. That’s why I live in Darling where I can perform live in a world where everything is canned.”

And as an aside, he lets rip about the new hate speech laws. “I’m proud of our young democracy. We don’t need laws, we have a society who stands up and says NO – loudly. The moment something is illegal, you will find a minefield of hate speech and hashtags. We have to find a way of surviving – with humour.”

And finally, to the artists: “You have to be a unique talent. Don’t be a copy, we have enough of those. Be original. Don’t specialise, do everything. You must learn the alphabet of the theatre – everything. Read, watch documentaries by people who do what you want to achieve. Don’t be afraid to adore talent.”

Listening to him speak about his life, that’s where he learnt the most. He was led by the example of the best. And now he follows suit giving great advice, but even better, showing how it is done.

All you have to do is watch and pay attention.

Brilliance at Work in Sam Shepard’s Fool for Love at Jozi’s Market Theatre

DIANE DE BEER

Fool13
Langley Kirkwood (Eddie) and Kate Liquorish (May).

FOOL FOR LOVE

PLAYWRIGHT: Sam Shepard

DIRECTOR: Janice Honeyman

CAST: Kate Liquorish, Langley Kirkwood, Zane Meas, Paka Zwedala

SET DESIGNER: Stan Knight

LIGHTING DESIGNER: Mannie Manim

COSTUME DESIGNER: Margo Snyman

VENUE: Mannie Manim Theatre at the Market

DATES: Until 9 September

With his untimely death last year, it’s been a welcome return to our stages for playwright Sam Shepard with this second production, following Sylvaine Strike’s glorious Curse of the Starving Class at the US Woordfees earlier.

This one features quite a few returns, with Honeyman back at The Market directing after an absence of many years and actors Kirkwood and Meas performing on The Market stage again in quite a while. And they make it work – magnificently.

On no level is this an easy encounter. Even for the two main protagonists, Kirkwood and Liquorish, while these are meaty roles and their performances mesmerising, it’s a tough tale to navigate night after night. Yet, one can hardly blink, so compelling is Shepard’s heart-wrenching story. It deals with failed love yet familial bonds so potent they’re unbreakable, even if they tear the emotions of the two people at the centre to shreds.

It is what makes this so watchable. May (Liquorish) is unexpectedly surprised by a visitor, her old beau Eddie (Kirkwood) in a desolate hotel room somewhere on the edge of life. And what becomes clear lightning fast is that these two lost souls share a history. This is not the first time round for these lovers, even if May declares she has moved on and is waiting for someone to call. Eddie, it turns out, is repeating old family patterns with a woman somewhere in the background hot on his trail.

Fool2
Kate Liquorish (May), Langley Kirkwood (Eddie) and Zane Meas (Old Man).

On the periphery, only intruding on occasion, is a character referred to as Old Man (Meas), who steps in and out of our consciousness, commenting on the tragedy that is seemingly playing itself out. He doesn’t fully participate in their lives yet seems desperately to be seeking absolution.

Hovering in the room, is the knowledge of the arrival of someone that seems to determine the erratic mood swings between May and Eddie. Theirs is no idle chat. It’s explosive and deals with a history that is rough to unravel as they turn towards and from one another with alarming alacrity. Star-crossed lovers perhaps, or is there more to what seems to be a battle between two people who cannot live with – or without – each other?

Honeyman’s probing staging is enhanced by cohorts Knight, whose set contributes to the bleakness and the claustrophobic atmosphere and Manim’s lighting which adds yet another dimension to the upheaval in the room.

Fool3
Kate Liquorish (May) and Langlley Kirkwood (Eddie).

More than anything though, it  lies in the text and the performances – relentless – between especially Kirkwood and Liquorish – as they wear each other down in their coming together for what seems yet another showdown.

Denial runs through this family’s dealings and determines every move they make as they embrace scarily tight before sharply turning away and then suddenly falling to the floor in a rough tumble of harsh words scratching at old wounds.

It is their nuanced performances as they try to still the storm that draws you into the room with no way out. These are two lost souls trying to find solace which they both know is not available in this encounter and yet, they can’t walk away. It’s about going back and finding a life with few options and if there were any to begin with, those are long gone.

Both May and Eddie have been here before and know exactly how their emotional rollercoaster will land while on the side, Old Man (Meas making his mark with a few pivotal scenes), is glaring at the children he declares he can’t recognise. This isn’t his legacy, nothing is familiar.

But this is tour de force Sam Shepard territory – a desolate, bleak landscape, both physically and psychologically, a father figure dominating any dalliance, and two people embroiled in an emotional dance that has no beginning or end.

And then the outsider steps in as a catalyst, with Zedwala giving a fine performance as the baffled prospective suitor who is kept hanging as everyone leaves.

Once again, no one is left standing as this brilliant team (on and off stage) persists.

 

Honeyman Directs Sam Shepard’s Fool for Love with Stunning Cast at the Market

PICTURES: Brett Rubin

fool-with-kate-liquorish-and-langley-kirkwood.jpg
Fool for Love with Kate Liquorish and Langley Kirkwood.

 

Sam Shepard’s Fool for Love with Janice Honeyman as director and a cast including Kate Liquorish, Langley Kirkwood, Zane Meas and Paka Zedwala opens this weekend at the Market’s Mannie Manim Theatre for a short run until September 9. DIANE DE BEER spoke to the director and some of the cast about this explosive play by a playwright not featured much locally yet has so much to say about the lives we all struggle to lead:

 

For Janice Honeyman, it’s all about the text, the Sam Shepard words and the meaning in every little detail.

Sitting through an early rehearsal, it’s clear that this is where the focus lies as the actors slip into this world hardly noticing when someone enters the room or the passing parade at the large windows of the rehearsal room.

While juggling at that time, the second season of The Color Purple which has opened in the meantime, and these rehearsals for a new play, Honeyman, the seasoned director she is, takes things in her stride. But she’s also working with a seasoned cast and one that has taken this grueling play by the scruff of the neck.

Described in the publicity notes as a “relentless emotional conflict”, this is tough yet exhilarating work – both from a performance and viewing point of view. But it has huge rewards – for all involved.

fool-with-langley-kirkwood-and-kate-liquorish.jpg

Liquorish in the role of May opposite Kirkwood’s Eddie, is pleased that they at least knew one another. “It makes it easier to get to feel comfortable from the start with this intimate performance,” she says. And Kirkwood is thrilled to be back on the Market stage for the first time in 20 years. He moved to Cape Town a few years back where in recent years he has spent most of his time performing in film, for obvious monetary reasons. But this is one he relishes.

It’s about exploring Shepard’s masculinised landscape while dealing with a clash of male and female qualities in a play of heightened realism yet with a dash of theatricality as the father figure steps in and out of the story, says the director. And with her own brand of storytelling, she’s not only in love with the Shepard words but also with this mix of reality and fantasy inherent in this play. “It’s about making sense of the play and then turning it on its head,” she says.

For her it is all about detail, the rawness, the visceral quality of the work and the layering which is already visible especially with the two main protagonists, this early in rehearsals. “The stage is really where we all want to be,” says Kirkwood as he talks about the gift they have been handed by being invited to participate in this particular production.Fool Kate Liquorish, Zane Meas and Langley Kirkwood

It’s easy to see why. It is a play that asks much from its cast but with the mastery of the Shepard language and what he plays with, there’s so much to work with. This is storytelling that dives right into the eye of the storm and demands that you deal with everything it throws at you. “Even though I haven’t been on stage for a while, I felt physically fit but perhaps the emotional side was something tougher,” explains Kirkwood.

With Shepard, that’s a huge ask. “It’s real and it’s raw,” agrees Liquorish who has just spent an hour rolling on the floor and tackling her lover in a way we don’t see too often on stage. This is about digging deep as you scratch around family lies and secrets which impact not only on the people directly involved, but also those who move around on the border of these lives. It is about how we affect others with what is happening in our lives and how we navigate our childhood into adulthood and the often-devastating impact.

Fool for Love with Kate Liquorish, Paka Zedwala and Langley Kirkwood

Shepard wrote much about family life, especially the way the men obliterated anyone who dared enter their space, and in the process themselves, as Sylvaine Strike so masterfully illustrated in her Woordfees production of Shepard’s Curse of the Starving Class earlier this year which will hopefully still be performed in Gauteng. And again, it is this never-ending cycle of abuse that clutches with maniacal strength that is again observed here with such power and insight.

“It’s one of those where we have to let it all hang out,” says Liquorish but one suspects, it is the harshness of the emotions that allows the actors to lose themselves in this hellish world they have entered for just a moment in time.

And yet, even if this sounds relentless, it is the Shepard script which is often as funny as it is harsh, and the performance by the actors at the centre of the action as well as the two, Shepard’s obligatory and iconic father (Meas) and a prospective yet unsuspecting lover (Zedwala), on the sidelines, that makes this such compelling viewing. There’s no pussyfooting around. Everyone jumps in and tears this story to shreds. “It’s obviously not for chilkdren,” says Liquorish and Kirkwood is delighted that his two children are old enough to see this one now – and their first experience of him on stage.

fool-kate-liquorish-and-langley-kirkwood.jpg
Kate Liquorish and Langley Kirkwood in Fool for Love as May and Eddie.

And it’s a play where audience can jump right in emotionally and get their hands dirty.

It might seem extreme but as families go, it will also be familiar. “It’s about confronting issues,” says Liquorish who has lost her heart to Shepard’s haunting words. For Kirkwood raised by a single mother and more recently divorced from his wife, this family and their lives also resonates deeply – and it shows.

For those of us watching, it will be a coming together of all of the above – the performances and the production – all aimed at telling this Shepard story in a way that will resonate with as much force and as strongly, as it did when it was first written and performed more than three decades ago. It is a universal story though and there’s no chance of it ever losing its potency – now or in the future. That’s what Shepard is all about.

*Fool for Love opens this weekend (August 18) with a few preview performances, the official opening on August 22 until September 2 at the Mannie Manim Theatre at the Market in Newtown.

Brilliantly Bold Color Purple Soars Beautifully a Second Time Round

Pictures: @enroCpics 

Sisters Celie and Nettie
Sisters Celie (right) and Nettie at opposite sides of the world on different continents.

 

DIANE DE BEER

 

THE COLOR PURPLE

DIRECTOR: Janice Honeyman

CAST: Didintle Khunou (Celie), Lelo Ramasimong (Shug Avery), Aubrey Poo (Mister), Neo Motaung (Sofia), Sebe Leotlela (Nettie), Yamikani Mahaka-Phiri (Harpo) and the rest of the 20-strong ensemble

EXECUTIVE PRODUCER: Bernard Jay

PRODUCTION DESIGNER: Sarah Roberts

LIGHTING DESIGNER: Mannie Manim

SOUND DESIGNER: Richard Smith

MUSICAL DIRECTOR: Rowan Bakker (with an orchestra of 8)

CHOREOGRAPHER: Oscar Buthelezi

VENUE: Nelson Mandela at the Joburg Theatre

DATES: Until September 2

Celie and the women in celebration
Celie and the women in celebration

It’s rare in this country that big musicals like this one get a second season but so popular was The Color Purple first time round, it has returned with huge fanfare in Woman’s Month. And that’s a good thing.

This is quite a show and with one major change, Lelo Ramasimong as the sassy Shug Avery, (previously one of a trio of church ladies who has been replaced by Masego Mothibakgomo, who slips seamlessly into this powerful threesome) the rest of the cast has been given the chance to finetune their performances and even though, first time round, it was already spectacular, Khunou as Celie, for example, has grown magnificently in what was the first time round, a debut performance in such a huge and iconic role.

It feels as if she has slipped into Celie’s shoes more comfortably than then with a confidence that allows her to soar and in the quieter songs, it’s as if she trusts the moment and just is who she should be.

But so are the rest of the cast, from the much more experienced Poo who revels in his portrayal of Mister because of the arc he travels in every show as the one who probably has the most extreme turnaround – from the abuser to one who finally sees the value of the one he never cherished and lost.

Seeing a musical again that the first time round had so much impact is always a time to reflect and reassess but if anything, the effect is even more dramatic because this time round, there are no surprises, it’s just the show and the performers.

One must remember the genre and how much it allows. The story is grave and as much of its time as it is of now. That’s the horror, that so little has changed for women, the lack of power they often have over their own lives and the abuse they face on a daily basis. It sounds as familiar now as it did then and the murmuring and cheering from the audience affirms that. They know and understand these women and their circumstances and are also rooting for change.

Aubrey Poo as Mister
Mister (Aubrey Poo), Shug Avery (Lelo Ramasimon) and her beau and Celie (Didintle Khunou)

Celie is a woman who as a child is abused by her father who rapes her resulting in two children who he gives away. She is then passed on to another abusive man who does with her as he pleases while she cares for his children and his home with no say in the matter. It’s heavy stuff and without delving too deeply, it is the performances and the songs that tell as much of this tragic story as possible. The emotions run high and while abuse tops the list, many other issues are dealt with in this story of redemption.

The music is quite extraordinary and there are many showstoppers, some because of their emotional message like Celie’s Somebody Gonna Love You, Sofia and the women’s Hell, No and Celie’s I’m Here with the titles almost the only explanation necessary but then there’s also Celie and the women’s triumphant Miss Celie’s Pants and the show stopping Any Little Thing by Sofia (Motaung) and Harpo (Mahaka-Phiri).

Shug Avery and her admirers
Shug Avery (Lelo Ramasimong) and her admirers

Ramasimong brings the house down and her sexy Shug to life with her show number and Nettie (Leotlela) lets the tears roll with African Homeland.

It’s a musical where all the elements hold together starting with an imaginative set that is enhanced by luminous lighting while Honeyman has picked and honed her performers – each one of them – to perfection, to tell a story both powerful and poignant.

Once and for all, this glorious cast has made their point. It is all about storytelling. You have to engage, listen to the lyrics and allow the performers to come alive with their emotions in full flow. Like the first time round, it’s high notes and low in song and understanding, and the story is delivered with heaps of humanity first trampled on and then celebrated.

That’s life as we know it but sometimes deny and this is yet another way we can grapple with it and come to grips with the horror of abuse.

And it sounded as if the row of Singaporeans behind me with Bernard Jay in tow, were certainly planning to make this an extended traveling season. This is talent we want to export.

Florence is Theatre of our Time

Pictures: GREG HOMANN

Leila Henriques with Jozi as backdrop

DIANE DE BEER

FLORENCE

PLAYWRIGHT: Myer Taub

DIRECTOR: Greg Homann

PERFORMER: Leila Henriques

LIGHTING DESIGN: Nomvula Molepo

COSTUME DESIGN: Karabo Legoabe and Nthabiseng Malaka

SET DESIGN: Richard Forbes

SOUND DESIGN: Ntuthuko Mbuyazi

VENUE: Barney Simon at the Market Theatre in Newtown

DATES: Until August 26

 

It is the eccentricity of the script, the execution and the performance that all come together in almost explosive manner and holds you (gently) by the throat throughout.

It’s not an easy one, so concentration and focus is necessary but once you slip into this world, it’s an intriguing and intense encounter. First off, the playwright had an obsession and used this (over a few years) cunningly, to create a play that taps into a zeitgeist of many. He deals with everything from colonialism (not easy for a white male to do smartly) to gender especially that of women (another stumbling block he navigates), and the way art was dealt with then – but perhaps more importantly – now. He moves from the safety issues, fences only the physical barriers, to a more problematic area of engaging and appreciating the energy and enlightenment art holds.

Then the director stepped in and working with Taub on the final draft found a way to unfold the Florence story on stage most enticingly while engaging with a set designer who best explored the visual key to this extraordinary work.

Leila Henriques as the actress
Leila Henriques as the actress

Henriques who has been testing the waters these past few years under the guidance of smart theatre makers including Sue Pam Grant and Sylvaine Strike, blossoms and bullies in this double role of Florence Phillips, the woman who founded the Johannesburg Art Gallery (while also raising a few children, setting up a handful of homes for her mining magnate husband and on the side, introducing jersey cows to the Cape!) as well as an actress who is unwilling but considering a portrayal of Florence. Her test is to navigate these two landscapes as if they are linear – the one at the turn of the last century while the other stands strong in the chaotic contemporary era.

It’s heady stuff which has been cleverly complicated by a brilliant set that both leads you into the story but also obscures the actress as she tries to fight her way through her characters and the story she is untangling. It can be described as a messy yet magnificent web, this world and the play that tries to capture different timelines, fragmented and fragile, yet allowing us to grab on and follow the guidance of the performer. All of that contributes to a compelling theatrical experience.

It doesn’t really matter where and when you access what they have to say as long as you participate in the work. Listen carefully and especially cling on to the Henriques performance as she steps in and out of characters, doesn’t really matter who or what she is, but how she is expressing herself about a world that in all respects is often closed to her. Even when she thinks she finds love, it isn’t meant to be. But she battles on because that is what is required to get her way. Softly-softly doesn’t make it here.

Leila Henriques as Florence

That’s probably why Florence, achieving what she did, is described as a formidable and fierce character. She was determined to fight her way through and in the play, she grabs that fence, sticks her head through to catch the light and speaks her mind. That’s just who she was and who you had to be in a world that wanted to decide who and what you should be. But just the list of what she achieved and how she travelled in a time of turmoil, is evidence of her power.

Henriques has similar physical presence and power. She will not be dwarfed by either the physical fence or any barriers thrown at her. She stands strong – both as actress and in performance. It’s glorious to behold. And when it all comes together, from the stunning lighting and atmospheric sound to the vision of the three artists involved, it’s truly theatre of our time – uniquely original.

Jozi and its Art Gallery shine in Florence at Market’s Barney Simon Theatre

Pictures: GREG HOMANN

Florence with Joburg backdrop

DIANE DE BEER

 

Have you heard of Florence Phillips?

She was the woman who was instrumental in establishing the Johannesburg Art Museum (JAG) and the subject of the play Florence, currently running at The Market’s Barney Simon Theatre in Newtown until August 26.

It is the world-premiere of Florence, a solo play directed by Greg Homann, written by Myer Taub and performed by Leila Henriques in her first solo show. “It’s not an easy premise,” says Homann but as someone who lectures and writes about theatre, how to give a play the best chance to land with an audience, is what he understands best.

It’s also the first solo season for Henriques who has a spirited take on what she describes as an “ambitious piece”.

Leila Henriques
Leila Henriques in Florence

“I clearly have to focus and following performances, I feel I have to lie down in a darkened room.” And when you see Florence you will understand why.

It’s a bold choice by artistic director James Ngcobo but he also understands that engaging with the city and its most iconic art structure could start interesting conversations. No, says Homann, he suspects, the art cognoscenti, heritage aficionados and people working for Hollard Life are the ones who will know who Florence is. “The Hollard Life offices are built around the original Philips house which is still in use.”

What Taub has done following different interventions around the art gallery, one including a skateboard performance art piece which is also referenced in the play, is engage with different questions featuring JAG as a centre piece. But this time (helped by Homann in the final draft) the story is told playfully while experimenting with time, place, language, and form to explore our contemporary moment.

Instead of the monologue the playwright had started with, it has evolved into a disgruntled actress who over lunch in a fancy restaurant meets with a playwright about the new work he has written that places Florence Phillips as a ghost at the Joubert Park fence outside the Johannesburg Art Gallery. While considering whether she will play the role, the actress imagines what it would mean to portray a dead white colonial figure today whose legacy and value is both contested and forgotten.

Leila as Florence photographer Greg Homann
Leila as Florence

And placing Florence in the theatre in Women’s Month underlines the contributions and impact that Florence Phillips had in building a greater understanding of art with early-Johannesburg and its contemporary society.

But it is also this melange of issues almost tripping one over the other that turns this into a fascinating piece of theatre.

Being a woman, it makes sense that Florence is perhaps less celebrated than one would expect, yet it was her philanthropic nature which endeared her to both the world of artists and public alike. She was fiercely formidable, notes Henriques who plays her with great bravado and dexterity as she switches between the fiery Florence and the demanding actress.

In its present form, it also allowed the playwright to play with the meaning of art, its relevance in the world today with special focus on the fence which dominates the essence of the play and divorces the art gallery from its immediate surrounds and the people living there. “We play with the fences in our lives and how we think about our identity,” explains Homann who with his set designer, sculptor Richard Ford, used this metaphor with great impact.

Florence was a woman of exceptional strength, passion, and character to have been able to promote and celebrate local and international artists and to persevere in building them a home at the Johannesburg Art Gallery (JAG). Then as now, this was not the easiest of avenues to pursue. She fortunately had the money to follow her dreams – to the benefit of the city even today. Is that still true? That’s arguably one of the issues addressed amongst many.

And filling the extraordinary Florence’s shoes, Henriques returns to The Market in a role that gives her a chance to explore all her strengths as a performer. And she does exactly that. Taub and Homann have thrown the challenges at her but she’s up for it in what according to her director has been a joyous collaboration – and it shows.

Too often women like Florence are unsung heroes and sometimes their contributions went – and go- unnoticed. But they shouldn’t. The courage they harnessed created indispensable heritage and what happens now is something the play engages with especially dealing with JAG’s colonial past. Perhaps, the playwright argues, the story of our early pioneers can be used in a creative way to engage and inspire the public, including the next generation of woman pioneers but could also point to a more future for JAG.Florence Opening Night Invitation Homann describes the play as a brave choice and on the edge of experimental theatre, but he was at pains to showcase the playfulness in both the writing and the character of Florence. “I wanted to give the audience anchors,” he explains. And here he places emphasis on the love story as well as the gallery. “I didn’t want it to feel too fragmented.” And he has an adept accomplice in Henriques who exploits and explores her different characters magnificently.

The director is also excited to once again give life to a new play, one of his favourite things to do. “It’s about finding and determining the access for the audience.” With something this complicated, the production doesn’t even have to be completely successful, he argues, but the trio most invested in this play are giving their best to make it happen.

He feels blessed that the play allows them to be playful with history because of the inherent absurdity and the humour and here again Henriques and her performance is the perfect foil. She captures the power of this extraordinary woman who stepped out of her comfort zone at a time when it was unheard of to follow her dream while opening a world for everyone around her – then and hopefully now and in the future.

It is that loop of time – then and now – that is intriguing, and it lies in both fragmentation and fluidity. “That’s the key,” according to Homann who describes the play as contradictory, complex and messy. But that’s life especially when living in a city like Johannesburg which he views as the second character in the play. “We’re dealing with memory and how we think of time – moving forward and backwards,” he explains.

It certainly is different to anything else we’ve seen in a long time and that’s what makes theatre exciting. It opens vistas in unexpected ways and takes our minds to places we weren’t intending to go.

It’s an exciting and embracing way to understand the world – especially the confrontational one we find ourselves in today.

 

 

.

 

 

 

The Unholy Trinity of Mike van Graan, Rob van Vuuren and Daniel Mpilo Richards Breaking Ground on Landacts

Landacts

DIANE DE BEER

LANDACTS

WRITER: Mike van Graan

DIRECTOR: Rob van Vuuren

ACTOR: Daniel Mpilo Richards

VENUE: Sandton’s Auto & General Theatre on the Square

DATES: Until July 29

 

The unholy trinity of writer Mike van Graan, director Rob van Vuuren and actor Daniel Mpilo Richards are at it again.

They have found a way to tell stories with ease about a diseased country – and have the audience laughing their heads off, while facing the music – willingly.

That’s no mean feat but Van Graan, who not only won the 2018 Hiroshima Foundation for Peace and Culture, a biannual international award recognising those who foster dialogue, understanding and peace in conflict areas, but was also awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Pretoria earlier this year, has been peddling these political wares for a long time and has honed his skills in a way that is perfectly palatable. In fact, this artistic trio fuses three of the best in this particular genre.

It all begins with the playwright who from Pay Back the Curry to State Fracture and now the third in this alternative history lesson, has street smarts but also the knowledge and insight into the shenanigans of politicians who live in the belief that they can pull off the impossible – in plain sight. He has found a way to formulate this heady yet heavy-going message while fully engaging the audience in a rollercoaster ride of what is probably their lives.

Daniel Mpilo Richards

It’s where the fun starts – with the writing. That’s before checking into the content – simply the writing itself. Van Graan is having fun as he reaches from soccer games with political parties playing the field to Shakespeare as he runs through the titles, characters and phrases easy to pick out and giggle about. He lashes out at landgrab as he gets stuck into the Aborigine issues down under while dealing with the results of colonialism that simply won’t go away – anywhere and everywhere you look. It might seem too far away but the similarities as we all recognise are glaring. And yet, its easier to pick up on the wrongs of others, he seems to say. As he shoots straight arrow at the American cowboy who sings a looter’s lament in which he has the following demand: “You shall not take what I’ve taken from you.”

It is the third in the series and it can run forever in the world we live in today. Van Graan himself concedes: “I’m not writing, I’m editing.” But there is more to it than that. Even though there is a formula that runs through the series, the result isn’t formulaic. Van Graan is wise and he takes care with writing that is as wily as it is witty. He has always been the self-appointed town crier, felt the need to broadcast the message and down the years, he has found different ways to conduct and consummate that calling.

All you have to do is listen, smile throughout and then mull over and take the distressing truths on board.

Fortunately, Richards simplifies that process. Part of the magic has been the discovery of this performer. He takes the material and has fun with it at breakneck speed which means from the start, he must be word perfect with a performance that’s seamless. None of the work can be visible and he has to be light-footed yet painfully exact with his execution for everything to work. He plays with every nuance that is required, both to entertain and to underline the gravitas of this material.

Daniel Mpilo Richards1

He has masses of talent which is cleverly displayed from his musical abilities to his way with accents and innuendo which perfectly captures a look required in this instance to tell the story. Talking car guards, someone who is part of everyone’s life daily and religiously ignored by many, the story is easy to tell and while both writer and performer want you to laugh, they also need you to squirm as Richards reminds his audience when they leave, to tip the car guard.

It’s that kind of show. As South Africans there’s nothing we don’t recognise in this familiar landscape. But it has been painted in colours that boldly slap us on the shoulder before it punches us in the gut. And to complete the circle, Van Vuuren’s touch is unmissable as he manipulates and massages the skills of a performer that’s as flexible whether he is flagrantly funny or poignant with purpose when he concludes with a reworked version á la Van Graan of John Lennon’s searing Imagine.

And sadly, at this point, it’s simply that. But at least you will walk out of there laughing…in hope as we always do.

 

 

 

 

It’s Time to Send in those Clowns

Pictures: MARCELLO BASSI

LaChair_Option2
Buhle Ngaba and Klara van Wyk.

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.”

LaChair_Option1
Buhle Ngaba and Klara van Wyk.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Play of Artists by Jemma Kahn and her own Band of Creatives as 2018 Standard Bank Young Artist for Theatre

Pictures: JACOB VAN SCHALKWYK

Jemma Kahn Poster

 

It’s time for the 2018 Standard Bank National Arts Festival from today until July 8. DIANE DE BEER spoke to Jemma Kahn, the innovative theatre maker and Young Artist Award Winner for Theatre about her production The Borrow Pit which performs at the Festival today, tomorrow and Saturday (June 28 to 30) and at The Centre for the Less Good Idea in Joburg on July 7:

 

“Unmitigated joy,” is how Jemma Kahn, this year’s Standard Bank Young Artist for Theatre, describes her rehearsal process for her National Festival production The Borrow Pit.

And even though, as we know, the life of the artist is a tough and insecure one, she is delighted that in this process, she gets to look into the eyes of another artist. “It’s been a profound working experience,” is how she describes the rehearsal period which has been such a luxury – courtesy of the Young Artist award which is amongst others a monetary one – and for Kahn, there was no question, she has spent that on the people helping her produce this work.

KAHN1_PHOTO_JACOB VAN SCHALKWYK
Jemma Kahn

She describes the piece thus: “The place is London, the time 1966. Artist Francis Bacon meets George Dyer and they start a relationship. Bacon was already a prolific painter and public figure and Dyer, several years Bacon’s junior, was a good-looking criminal who had never been in a gay relationship before. Bacon liked to drink heavily, gamble, get into fights and he liked his lovers to rough him up.

“Bacon was a masochist but unfortunately George was not a sadist. So George Dyer’s tender love (inexplicable and frightening to himself) was intolerable to Bacon. He didn’t want to be cuddled and loved and tea and eggy in the bed. Their relationship was a tumultuous one, fuelled by lots of booze on both sides. A tragic quote: “Being the artist’s ‘friend’ – George played down the sexual connection – provided him with enough money to keep himself and a variety of hangers-on more or less permanently drunk”.

“As Bacon distanced himself, George Dyer, heartbroken, went to seek counsel of Bacon’s friend Lucian Freud. Freud was grandson of Sigmund, painter. Freud, like Bacon was that kind of bohemian posh that means he lived in rambling squalor and had weird relationships with his female children. Bacon and Freud were painter terribles, painting figuratively throughout the 20th century despite portraiture being unfashionable.

VANDERWALT_PHOTO JACOB VAN SCHALKWYK
Wilhelm van der Walt plays George Dyer

“Freud painted Dyer’s portrait. To sit for a portrait by Freud was a lengthy commitment of months, even years sometimes.  They must have spoken about Bacon a lot, or perhaps not at all since Freud was a famously mercurial. ‘George got very depressed’, says Freud, ‘he came and stayed with me in Paddington for a while, and I painted him. In the end of course, he killed himself.’ George Dyer died of an overdose in a Paris hotel room in 1971. Two days later a large retrospective of Bacon’s work opened in at La Grande Palais, Paris – many of the paintings on the show were of Dyer.

“Is art more important than people? Are the paintings of Dyer by Freud and Bacon more valuable than he was himself?”

MIYAMBO1_PHOTO JACOB VAN SCHALKWYK
Tony Miyambo plays Francis Bacon

Bacon is somebody who has been floating around her head for a number of years, has even featured in a short film she produced recently and while there is something about actors and celebrities, artists, to her mind, will trump that every time. Her description gives some impetus to the inner working of the play, and what a group of artists of the stature she has gathered, can do with the rich world they have been tasked with.

Some background: Shortly after graduating Kahn spent two years in Japan which had a strong impact on the content and form of her work. Her primary theatre focus is Japanese kamishibai or ‘paper theatre’, a 12th century highly visual storytelling medium. She has been creating and performing kamishibai since 2009 and the interesting aspect has been the way she has developed this particular form of theatre to tell her stories – each production evolving into something that opens yet another avenue for her to explore. And she makes grand leaps.

VIVIERS1_ PHOTO JACOB VAN SCHALKWYK
David Viviers plays Lucien Freud

Collaboration has always been part of her creative process and this time the funds allowed her to stretch that as far as she possibly could. “They had to be paid well,” she stresses. It started with the writing, yet she simply couldn’t afford to bring on a fulltime writer so instead she invited writer/director/film composer Marco Dutra to collaborate on the writing. What it did was to open up the thought processes and filter all those layers while exploring the script. On Skype they teased the thing until it was ready to stand on its own, is how she describes it.

On the production side she further surrounded herself with Jacob van Schalkwyk, artist/writer/filmmaker, as dramaturge and the man who has to bear witness to everything, especially because she was both playing and directing; her childhood friend Rebecca Haysom, an illustrator/artist/curator who helped her with the paintings; and box designer/artist/framer Wessel Snyman who made her the most insanely perfect boxes, which is how kamishibai reveals itself.

On the acting side, Tony Miyambo plays Francis Bacon, “simply because that’s who he is,” David Viviers is Lucien Freud and Wilhelm van der Walt is George Dyer. “They’re all just so gentle and smart,” she says and again waxes lyrical about the process and being allowed to watch how other actors work at revealing their characters. “They arrived in the room at different intervals,” she explains introducing her own role as “everyone else and then some”.

For Kahn, it has been all about the process and when speaking to her just before the company left for Grahamstown, she had earlier found herself in bed reading a book – quite relaxed. But that has been the result of a rigorous planning process and the knowledge of what the rehearsal process has meant to her.

When she received her award, she was told by a wise soul that she could opt for something that would be a commercial success or she could take this opportunity to do exactly what she has always wanted and be damned. No guesses there!

Even if The Borrow Pit appears and disappears swiftly, “sinks without a trace”, Jemma Kahn will have the memory of the artists and the process – worth its weight in gold.

Those of us following her career though have none of those rewards. We need to see it!

*Sadly for those wishing to see, all tickets sold out for Joburg shows. But yea for the arts and artists!!