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.

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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

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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.”

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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.

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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!!

 

Zikhona Sodlaka Stakes her Claim as the Majestic Queenie in the Market’s Nongogo

Photographer: Lungelo Mbulwana

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Zikhona Sodlaka as Queenie with Bongani Gumede and Peter Mashego in the background.

DIANE DE BEER

NONGOGO

DIRECTOR: James Ngcobo

CAST: Zikhona Sodlaka, Vusi Kunene, Peter Mashego, Bongani Gumede, Zenzo Ngqobe

LIGHTING: Wesley France

SET AND COSTUME: Nadya Cohen

VENUE: Mannie Manim at the Market Theatre

DATES: Until July 15

 

Queenie towers over everyone in the room with her power, personality and presence.

The casting is a stroke of brilliance with Zikhona Sodlaka making her debut at the Market Theatre in the role of a woman who encourages many different interpretations. She is described as “a woman of strength, determination and courage as she dreams of a better life and has a past that’s riddled with dark secrets”.

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Zikhona Sodlaka as Queenie with Peter Mashego as Blackie

Sodlaka takes Queenie by the scruff of the neck and turns her into a creature so mesmerising, she completely inhabits the stage as she stalks the room filled with men, all who only have eyes for her –  and each also with his own desires and needs.

Johnny (Ngcobe) appears in the room almost like a whirlwind as he broadcasts the possibility of a big entrepreneurial break. Queenie is immediately enchanted by this handsome stranger who is filled with dreams that appear close to her own. He opens up to her as she does to him much to the distress of her longtime partner Sam (Kunene), a tough businessman who believes he has total control over this woman and in the end, is nothing more than the pimp he used to be. Blackie (Mashigo), her deformed almost slavish hanger-on, will do anything for this woman he is so obviously bewitched by.

And thrown into this mix is the familiar drunk, always part of the shebeen, Patrick (Gumede, a Market Lab alumni), the man who because of his addiction can be manipulated by those who have dark needs.

The setting is Queenie’s shebeen, one of the few places of freedom during the apartheid years. The stage is set for a play of Shakespearean emotions driven by Fugard’s understanding of the human condition and his language that lies easily on the tongue.

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Vusi Kunene as Sam with Zikhona Sodlaka as Queenie.

But in the end, it is the performances in a piece that’s all about ensemble with the queen bee at the centre. Sodlaka is easily up to the task as she rises in raucous laughter, then sinks to the depths of despair at the snap of a finger. Her Queenie is someone who is at the service of others, always trying to please, with hardly anyone really seeing her as the woman she is. Until this stranger enters. She allows herself to see possibilities and opens herself up once again to the charms of this man who she invites into her inner sanctum which has been closed to others for such a long time.

From a tiger to the coquette, it’s all there as she is thrown about by those who demand and dominate her life – but no more. This is her chance and she will fight for it.

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Zenzo Ngqobe as Johnny.

On the night, the men were still struggling to find the rhythm and momentum of their moves, especially Ngcobe, who started with a sprint rather than a canter and then had nowhere to go. This fine actor will fine-tune and come with more nuance as will Kunene, whose initial whimper should be stronger from the start to establish the potential power he has over this strong woman who seems to be her own mistress as she plays with her new man.

Mashigo’s shuffle in both stature and character was pitched perfectly while Gumede’s cameo as the drunkard, intoxicated as well as in remorse, hit all the right notes. And once all these men slip into sync, it will unleash the full power of this intriguing Fugard play.

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Peter Mashego and Zikhona Sodlaka waiting their turn.

Ngcobo’s second attempt is fascinating with a cast so different from the first time round a few years back – and brave. That already changes the piece. The intro (without spoiling the surprise) which establishes a particular approach to the play, could have been signalled again at a later stage to establish the intent. And similarly, one is puzzled by the decision to keep some actors on stage throughout, while others enter and exit the stage. Perhaps uniformity would have served the play better.

But with all the niggles, and that’s what these are, it is a production that excites and exudes energy as it explores the agony and ecstasy of people trying to live their lives in the toughest times – to the fullest.

Chantal Stanfield Tells and Does it Her Way In Koe’siestes to Kneidlach

DIANE DE BEER

Chantal Koe'siestes to Kneidlach
Chantal Stanfield in Koe’siestes to Kneidlach

FROM KOE’SIESTES TO KNEIDLACH

WRITER/PERFORMER: Chantal Stanfield

DIRECTOR: Megan Furniss

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

DATES: Until June 23

 

When actress Chantal Stanfield asks someone about a word a family member of her soon-to-be Jewish husband used in her presence and she discovers it is derogatory on par with the K- or N-word, she is devastated knowing that it isn’t something she can just let go. She would have to tackle it head-on. But how? Well, by slipping it into a play naturally. Checkmate!

This is why it is such a savvy piece of writing. The above is the only section where she really goes quiet and addresses the elephant in the room in serious fashion, but then she flips it to the bright side with her winning solution to a devastating dilemma. That’s how she approaches her marriage, that of a Coloured woman (“some are comfortable with the word and others not,” is how she deals with that) with a Jewish man.

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Everything has a context and when she deals with this particular cultural clash we know it is loaded on many levels – one could say in today’s world but really, it seems to get worse by the day looking forwards and backwards. What she has done though is found a young man with a sweetly suburban family where the happiness of the individual is the most important driving force. Ditto for her Cape Flats family. That is rare – sadly. Usually families are much more intent on cultural homogeny and protecting their purity from outside influences rather than individual happiness.

She dives right into the religious aspects of the relationship as she joins her new boyfriend and his family for Shabbat, a Friday evening meal that begins with a blessing called kiddush followed by another blessing recited over two loaves of challah.

And while those in the auditorium obviously au fait with these cultures on both sides are collapsing all around, what she is dealing with and sharing is both funny – and not. But again, she has found a way to put it out there while being entertaining and allowing people to face their fears, laugh out loud and then discover what we’re doing to one another. She goes on hilarious rants pointing to all the humiliation dumped on her by yet another family member or friend from her soon-to-become relations who congratulates her on her well-spoken English and comments from within her own community that with this union, at least her children have a chance of better hair!

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Stanfield is both smart and talented. She plays with accents, languages, hairstyles, how to dress when and introducing friends to family. All of this is set to a musical soundtrack which is also clever because her other half is musician RJ Benjamin. They met because she was listening to his music while working in Turkey and started tweeting him which started the ball rolling – big time. That’s where the story begins, and the actress has found a way to delve into her life which affects so many people, while others can listen and learn.

While it deals with the world’s most single-minded problem, racism, something few want to grapple with, she has turned it into entertainment, making light of her love entanglement yet never diminishing the disastrous effects of racism on individuals. Her show invites people to listen and participate in a way that few of these discussions would.

Solo shows are tough to do. Not only are you the only one on stage, but when it is your story, the vulnerability issues are vast. But Stanfield has turned all of these to her advantage. Because she tells a story that is heartfelt and obviously hers, she makes no bones about that, it works. She delivers with ease on every level and ticks all the boxes with authenticity and honesty ahead in the race.

She has a smart director which you need in this instance when flying solo with your own story, and one who understands the world she is navigating. All of these combine to produce comedy with a conscience which is probably the best way to deal with issues that have been around forever yet desperately need to be dealt with – constantly.

Taking a Walk on the Wild side in Avenue Q with a Cast and Director with Swing

Pictures: Christiaan Kotze

Avenue Kate Monster and Princeton
Kate Monster (Ashleigh Harvey) and Princeton (Ryan Flynn) get up close and personal.

DIANE DE BEER

 

AVENUE Q

DIRECTOR:  Timothy le Roux

CAST: Ashleigh Harvey, Ryann Flynn, Daniel Geddes, Yamikani Mahaka-Phiri, grant Towers, Rebecca Hartle, Nieke Lombard, Graeme Wicks, Songezo Khumalo

PUPPET AND SCENIC DESIGN: Kosie Smit

MUSICAL DIRECTOR: Dawid Boverhoff

VENUE: Pieter Toerien’s Main Theatre at Montecasino

DATES: Until July 15

 

Especially in musical theatre where so much of what we see is stuff we’re familiar with, Avenue Q comes like sneaky fresh breeze – cool as a cucumber.

It’s the production – a musical play of puppets steered by a sassy group of actors – that keeps this one turning on a dime as they tell a story of disillusionment as they leave their comfy enclaves of learning to find their way in the world.

It’s wise as the ages but with a youthful exuberance which is firmly stamped into every slinky move made and musical note warbled as they push a story as cynical as they come. And yet, at the heart, it’s all marshmallow soft as the boy and girl walk off into the sunset.

Avenue Q Gang
The Avenue Q gang in full swing.

Of course, a few things are turned on their head, as this one is wont to do. The sex and the talk (about sex, race and gender mostly, but also about finding a purpose) are more raucous and slurpy as the puppets find their inner soul, and the talent pops all the time which it needs to do in a show where singing a song is taken to new levels – and that’s part of the fun.

It’s a show that asks you to engage from the start and once you’ve taken that leap, it’s a treasure trove on many diverse levels.

It starts with the originality, which keeps it current because of the themes but also because of the way it is presented. It’s about the puppets and the way they look and perform with the help of a cast who have found hidden skills and turn every performance into so much more than just a sing-and-dance number.

Even though they make the puppets come alive, the actors never disappear and what they achieve is part of the magic of the show. The audience is engaged in a way that adds to the excitement and exuberance.

You can sit back and smile your way through this one and wallow in the wonder of local talent, beginning with Timothy le Roux, who has put together a show that is razor sharp in the tiniest detail. And it has to be precisely that, or it wouldn’t work. If you can’t buy into the premise, you will lose much of the magic but when you do, it’s a wild and joyous ride. That’s what Le Roux has skilfully managed in near-miraculous fashion.

Avenue Geddes as Nicky
Two actors (Nieke Lombard and Daniel Geddes) manipulate Nicky the Slacker.

But then there are the puppet masters and that’s exactly what they are. They don’t dominate their puppet, yet they become part of the experience in a way that adds depth and delight to every character. It’s incredibly charming to witness and part of the marvel is the way each one on stage pulls it off and adds layer upon layer to the show.

Starting with the main guy and his gal or it could be the other way round – it’s absolutely that kind of show. Everyone is embraced whether you’re a slut or a Republican senator, there’s place for you on Avenue Q, a neighbourhood where the other becomes just another of this tightly-knit community of oddballs.

Avenue Ashleigh as Lucy
Princeton (Ryan Flynn) and Lucy the slut (Ashleigh Harvey) with Trekkie Monster (Daniel Geddes) behind.

But back to the gal (Harvey) and her guy (Flynn). Harvey has done her musical rounds and yet, it’s as if this one fits her like it was written for her. Her performance is rich in emotion, and with her singing simply extraordinary. Her main character, Kate Monster, steps aside when she’s slutty Lucy, but sometimes you have both characters on stage and that simply defies description, the deftness so delicious. She simply soars into the stratosphere with this one.

Avenue Ryan Flynn as Rod
Rod The Republican Senator (Ryan Flynn).

And that goes for Flynn too, who is starring in his biggest musical role to date and simply embraces every challenge. Also flicking between Princeton, the main guy on the lookout for purpose and a recent college graduate, and Rod the Republican senator, who is battling his rigidity, Flynn simply grabs hold of each one’s personality – sometimes at the same time.

It’s exceptional stuff and part of the hilarity of watching this one is revelling in the star power that emerges. The rest of the cast, each and everyone – from the gruff Trekkie Monster (Geddes) to Coleman, desperate to be the comeback kid (Mahaka-Phiri) – they all have to deliver or it just won’t have the zing.

It’s the tiniest gem this one but if you are blessed enough to catch the shine, it brings a new musical happiness that celebrates being different – not just as people but also in performance.

That’s rare in musical speak!

A Battle of Demons and Wit in Visiting Mr Green in a Classic Generational Clash

DIANE DE BEER

Pictures: Philip Kuhn

Visiting Mr Greens

 VISITING MR GREEN

DIRECTOR: Alan Swerdlow

CAST: Michael Richard, Roberto Pombo

VENUE: Auto and General Theatre on The Square, Sandton

UNTIL: June 10

 

It’s a play that feels as familiar as comfy slippers in chilly times. There’s a classic old-time feel about it and depending on your view of the world and how you prefer your theatrical ventures, this will determine whether you are challenged or simply entertained.

Ross (Pombo) is visiting the elderly Mr Green (Richard) because he has been ordered by the court to do so, once a week, for the next six months after being found guilty of reckless driving and almost injuring the old man. He, however believes Mr Green walked recklessly in front of his car. “I might have been going too fast,” he concedes.

But that’s basically how the story goes, which then allows the two men to battle their demons as they get to know one another. It’s uncomfortable stuff because they inhabit such different planets but that’s also what adds fuel to this fire.

From Richard’s first shuffle into the room, it’s clear he has fashioned his character in a way that inhabits not only the way he speaks but also moves – even eats. His is a crotchety old-timer who has no one who allows him any soft landings, so he simply keeps bulldozing ahead. Loneliness is how he operates even though Ross doesn’t believe that’s good enough.

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Ross on the other hand is also struggling with his lifestyle but that’s not self-imposed even though many – Mr Green included – would want him to believe it is exactly that.

It’s the acting that makes this one stand on its toes from Richard who seems to know this old codger well as he fires a series of salvos in every conversation. He’s at odds with any conversation with Pombo’s Ross who must work diligently at paying his dues for his bad behaviour on the road.

And the young Ross swings from exhaustion to exuberance as he is struck sideways by Mr Green’s thoughtless swipes and then sees an opportunity to atone for his own thoughtlessness. Pombo adds zip to his youthful portrayal of a troubled young man who is trying to kickstart and navigate a now stagnant life.

It is the battles that are fought in families – often senseless – that adds grit to Visiting Mr Green and we all recognise that these are still too prevalent today. Even in a world with the Guptas almost upending a country or Trump causing mayhem in Jerusalem, mothers are still driving their daughters dilly when they gain too much weight or a family crisis ensues when someone dares to slip a toe out of the closet.

The play didn’t get me excited even if the performances did. It is good to see an old hand like Richard tackle a character he has done in different guises before while Pombo, who is more a physical theatre guy, can play as straight as he needs to play to serve the play. Personally, I would have liked to see the issues moved into the new millennium with the current world as the backdrop. If it’s all still playing out as they are in this play, that in itself would say something.

One request would have been to cut the interval. The play isn’t that long, and it would have benefitted and exacerbated the monotony of the visits and they way they grind each other down, without the break.

Energetic Roberto Pombo Excites With Theatrical Onslaught

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:

KidCasino - kyle prinsloo
Picture: Kyle Prinsloo – Jodi Barnard and Roberto Pombo in kidcasino.

 

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.

Babbelagtig
Picture: Nardus Engelbrecht – Dean Balie, De Klerk Oelofse and Roberto Pombo in Babbelagtig.

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.

Visiting Mr Green
Picture: Philip Kuhn – Michael Richard, Alan Swerdlow and Roberto Pombo

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.

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Picture: Philip Kuhn – Michael Richard and Roberto Pombo in Visiting Mr Green

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.

Roberto Pombo and Inge Crafford-Lazarus
Picture: Antoine de Ras – Roberto Pombo and Inge Crafford-Lazarus in Sylvaine Strike’s Curse of the Starving Class

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.

Actors Dawid Minnaar and John Kani Truimph in Fugard’s The Train Driver

Dawid Minnaar and John KaniPictures: Lungelo Mbulwana

DIANE DE BEER

THE TRAIN DRIVER

PLAYWRIGHT: Athol Fugard

DIRECTOR: Charmaine Weir-Smith

CAST: John Kani, Dawid Minnaar

LIGHTING: Mannie Manim

SET AND COSTUME: Thando Lobese-Moropa

VENUE: Mannie Manim Theatre at Joburg’s Market

UNTIL:  June 3

 

THERE’S a reason certain actors gain extraordinary reputations and to have two of them in a Fugard face-off on stage, is something to cherish.

The Train Driver while written post 2000 and only performed locally once before, is classic old-time Fugard, a story that might seem without much flesh and yet, in the South African context, every sentence is layered with pain and memory. The Train Driver is written in the familiar Fugard idiom which is so much part of his local stories, the way he teases and twists with his tale, coaxes it to unfold and doesn’t take a breath until he deals that final blow.

Minnaar in repose

Weir-Smith first wanted to know if she could relate to the story before accepting this gig – and how she honours the text is part of why it plays with such honesty. It cuts to the bone with no adornment, and very little to detract other than the two men sharing their story – and in the South African context in the past and still today, the stories of two men with similarities, yet the colour of their skin denies them any clear thinking or reaching out. The damage which is ongoing is too much to bear.

Her only nod to any embellishment is a very selective use of music, especially at the end, when the most exquisite and heart-wrenching sounds of the Pretoria Palisander Choir with Ukuthulu  (Prayer of Peace) give expression to everything that’s gone before.

But royal kudos should go to the two actors who took this one and turned it inside out to tell a story of its day – looking back and to the future with a clarity that literally doesn’t leave a stone unturned. Minnaar as the train driver in search of Red Doek, the woman who stepped in front of his train with a baby on her back, seemingly has the meatier role, and yet, it is also Kani as the foil, the one listening with particular intent, who pulls us into the eye of the storm.

John Kani1

As the intruder in this sacred space, Minnaar’s Roelf is completely unaware (as he would be in this context and simply bulldozes ahead in search of salvation. Kani’s Simon is simply someone who happens to be in this space, but Kani the actor makes sure everyone watching knows exactly how Simon feels about this white man who has crossed so many lines without any knowledge or sensitivity of where he is or what he’s doing.

It’s an intriguing tug of war, cultures and humanity as Visagie is battling his personal demons while Simon is perplexed by this spectacle that is taking over his graveyard. “There are only black people here,” he exclaims, because that should make the white man go away.

Minnaar and Kani

In his own unique way Fugard has always held a mirror to his South African people, in particular by telling a story that he knows we will understand without any explanation. Roelf (or Roelfie as Simon prefers calling him) has walked into no-man’s land because of the colour of his skin but he also endangers Simon because of how this encounter will be viewed by those watching and claiming this space.

And while Roelfie rants and raves about his life and how it has been driven to nothing by this unnamed woman, Simon watches, listens and waits. What he is hearing from this white man is not strange to him. His whole life has been determined by the ways of others and it is happening over again and again and again.

From the start, Minnaar goes at it full steam and he has to do that to allow for the full impact of what Fugard wants to unleash. It is the small story between these two men that looms large in their lives – because that’s all they have. That has always been Fugard’s way, to let the unseen little people show the way.

With Minnaar back on the Market stage (the Mannie Manim theatre aptly) and together with Kani, it is a glorious meeting of theatre genius –  all in search and to the benefit of the story.

Exactly what Weir-Smith was hoping to achieve.

 

Athol Fugard’s Train Driver On the Right Track with John Kani and Dawid Minnaar

Pictures: Brett Rubin

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John Kani, Charmaine Weir-Smith and Dawid Minnaar

 

With director Charmaine Weir-Smith focussed on the storytelling, Athol Fugard’s The Train Driver which runs at the Market’s Mannie Manim Theatre from May 4 to June 3 starring Dawid Minnaar and John Kani is in gently guiding hands. DIANE DE BEER spoke to three amazing artists:

 

 

It is the unexpected coming together of two theatre greats, John Kani and Dawid Minnaar, in The Market’s Fugard@86 season that had director Charmain Weir-Smith bubbling with excitement at the offer to direct Fugard’s little known The Train Driver.

Even though she was ecstatic at the thought, she first had to check whether she connected with the story. “I have to be able to tell the story,” she says – only then could she celebrate with exuberance.

For Minnaar and Kani, it was an easy fit. These two acclaimed actors, while both working in Gauteng, had never worked together. “He has always been on my list,” notes Kani even though he has resisted playing in his friend Fugard’s The Train Driver, because he couldn’t see the point of his character.

But he didn’t need much convincing and when Hollywood (where he is busy with the latest version of Lion King) gave the thumbs up because of a break in his schedule, it was all systems go.

For Minnaar, returning to The Market is something to cherish. He regards it as his theatrical home, but in the past few decades his appearances there were minimal. Hopefully that’s about to change.

It is a haunting play that is only fully realised in performance which is why these two actors and their particular skills are exactly what Fugard would have imagined for this post-apartheid play. In part he reflects on the state of the nation with a clarity and simplicity of thought that possibly only South Africans can fully grasp.

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John Kani and Dawid Minnaar

What this theatrical trio appreciated was the commitment from each other. It’s the process they appreciate and enjoy which in today’s festival-driven world is such a luxury. “They think it is a snap of a finger and you have a play,” says Minnaar wryly as he dreams about escaping the relentless festival circuit.

Time allows the director and the actors to work with the text. That’s when they get to the essence not only of the text but also of each other. One can just imagine these two passionate performers and their processes as they twist and turn their characters inside out to get closer to the truth.

It’s a Fugard text that teases the players while not allowing any tricks, to get to the truth. And for the audience the experience is similar as he slips in familiarities in our landscape as clues to what he is really dealing with.

On the surface it is the story of a tormented train driver, Roelf Visagie, who turns up at a graveyard with unmarked graves at the edge of an informal settlement in the middle of nowhere. He is  determined to find the grave of an unknown woman who with her baby on her back, stepped in front of his train. He is in obvious distress as he seeks the guidance of the gravedigger, Simon Hanabe, who is unable to be of assistance but nevertheless willing to sympathise.

Generosity is what was evidenced in the rehearsal space, that and an absence of ego, says the director who believes that is what is necessary for the authenticity that will make or break this particular play.

And while Kani was initially puzzled by the purpose of Simon with Roelf the focus as he struggles to come to terms with the way his life has been upended by a single act, that is no longer true. “I am pleased to be paying tribute to my friend Athol,” he says.

His connection with and knowledge of Fugard’s work and writing has been hugely important to this production. The playwright has Americanised some of his work over the past few years while writing from that country. “He speaks, for example, of barbeque rather than braai,” says Weir-Smith and having sat through a rehearsal, the way they have worked with the text has grounded it locally in a way only Fugard would – thanks to Kani.

Simon, argues Kani, is the one who knows about loss and blame. “I know how to listen,” he adds, and Weir-Smith agrees. “You are the one who holds Roelf,” she says. And even though his own script load isn’t that heavy, he had to learn all Minnaar’s lines. “There aren’t many queues,” he wails which means he has to know when and how to simply nod or come in with a brief phrase or two.

Kani describes the female director as someone who “mothers the process”. And for the director, it is simply about telling a story. “Once upon a time there was a woman with a child …”

No more no less – especially with this one where you don’t want anything to take away from the writer and his words, the way the story unfolds and the two men untangling their minds and their worlds in a way that brings new insights – or reminders of where we are even when dealing with the past.

For Minnaar this is a time of firsts. Not only is this a meeting of minds with Kani, it is also his first encounter with Fugard. “It feels right for me now,” is how he views the season. “I am honoured and to do a Fugard, is fantastic.”

Watching the two men at work and play is a privilege but nothing is guaranteed on stage – not even with Kani and Minnaar. Yet when you watch them slip into their characters, silently but with an assured stride, it is a world of make-believe that comes alive.

These are artists who believe in what they do and will work as hard as it takes – given the time and place – to make it work. We who can witness this, are blessed and Fugard will know that The Train Driver is cherished in this company of true artists.