The Theatre Gods Align for Koningin Lear

Koningin Lear with cast
TV screens amplified

We haven’t just gone back to nineteenth-century levels of income inequality, we’re also on a path back to “patrimonial capitalism”, in which the commanding heights of the economy are controlled not by talented individuals but by family dynasties.

From “Why we’re in a New Gilded Age”, The New York Review of Books — 8th of May 2014, Paul Krugman, reviewing Le Capital au XXI e Siècle, Thomas Piketty

And published as an introduction in the printed version of Koningin Lear

 

DIANE DE BEER

Pictures: Hans van der Veen

 

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The magnificent Antoinette Kellermann

Playwright Tom Lanoye has masterfully taken the iconic Shakespeare tragedy, King Lear, and recast it in a contemporary landscape with the most pressing issues of the 21st century all coming into play –  greed and grandiosity leading this particular wolfpack.

He starts with gender, flip-flopping the roles as the title Koningin Lear suggests, and gives the mighty Elizabeth Lear three sons: Greg, the eldest, Henry, the second in line, and Cornald or Corneltjie, her darling child. With the eldest two married, the two wives, Connie, the OTT shopaholic, and Alma, from the wrong side of the tracks and struggling to shrug that off, both play a particular type yet also connive with their husbands to secure future power.

Yet, as the original so smartly shows, greed might be the excess of our time, but there’s nothing new in the world of the top dogs except perhaps technology and the universal scale at which that power grows and disintegrates. It’s no longer a single kingdom on an island, everything and everyone in our universe is connected.

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Neels van Jaarsveld and Anna-Mart van der Merwe

When you sneeze – especially if it affects the money markets – the effect takes on tsunami proportions. And this is where director Marthinus Basson ups the ante, being someone who always holds the bigger picture close. With this one it really counts.

The design adds to the dynastic feel of the production, which plays on different levels. Basson emphasises the age we live in with technology.  A backdrop of TV screens used in many different ways immediately add urgency and heightens the impact of the precarious nature of what Elizabeth is about to do.

More than anything else, power corrupts. And to play with it almost nonchalantly like this mother does, we all know will have devastating consequences.

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Antoinette Kellermann

This a family concern –  one that is worrying, because it is not necessarily the best that steps into a leadership position. Family is the determining factor, whether worthy or not.

Just a few minutes in, we already know that Elizabeth’s adviser would have been a better choice to make the handover a smooth and more successful one. For decades Robert Kent has been Elizabeth’s shadow, completely loyal to the family, often at his own cost

Lanoye’s words needed to be transformed in a South African context by someone who could adapt yet not dilute the essence of the playwright’s words. Antjie Krog, who previously worked wonders with the Mamma Medea translation, was the obvious choice. Not only did she have to translate, she had to transfer it to a local context.

Just listening to the language of this magisterial text is sublime, even the way Krog uses swear words or plays with the different characters in the way they use their language. She also knows how South Africans will react to different cars as wealth trophies and that “my losie by Lords” has more impact than Loftus, for example. It is all in the detail and why you can’t read, listen and experience the language and meaning enough.

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A scene from Koningin Lear

It’s a play that indulges your sense of disgust at the wealth accumulated by the powerful, their lifestyles, arrogance and disregard for anyone but their immediate family and then only those who find favour. They live by different rules and have no idea of or interest in anything but their own prosperity and anything that affects their well-being.

It is a work of majestic scale and demanded a majestic cast. With Antoinette Kellermann as Koningin Lear, half the battle is won. She is majestic as the matriarch of a business empire that she is in the throes of handing to her three sons. But first she asks for a declaration of their undying love with the results disastrous as she sets in motion a run of revolting, rampant greed and how that unhinges a dynasty in a modern world.

It’s no surprise that Steinhoff is snuck into the text at some point. If you still hadn’t got the drift, that will force you to take notice

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Edwin van der Walt in his extraordinary turn as the junkie and the powerful Antoinette Kellermann

We know the original story. It’s the way Lanoye has made this tigress fight until her last breath, the way Kellermann has ingested the text so that she can charge into glorious battle with her character and slay any dragons in her path.

And here her demise doubles up as she doesn’t only hand over all her weapons, her wealth and thus any sway, she also struggles with dementia with age finally catching up, something no money or willpower can change.

As the sons struggle with their inability to conquer the business world, pale shadows of their mother, their wives on the sidelines egg them on and soothe their egos.

It’s like an epic melodrama with a master conductor and performers who know how to play every word in its finest nuance. With the gravitas of André Roothman as Kent and a supreme supporting cast, it’s a play that strikes no false notes. Everything is music to your ears.

The three sons, Neels van Jaarsveld, Wilhelm van der Walt and Edwin van der Walt, with Anna-Mart van der Merwe and Rolanda Marais as the wives, represent a family in freefall. Not only have they not been schooled to take on their heritage, they only register the perks without any of the pitfalls.

On the sidelines, Matthew Stuurman is the carer and very importantly the moral compass who has nothing to gain or lose yet reacts with compassion to someone’s need, not something that registers where money is the only currency.

From start to finish, it is a production that ticks all the boxes. From the content to the language, the design and the staging, the extraordinary choice of cast with Kellermann conquering her most challenging role, it’s theatre to savour – over and over again.

Koningin Lear with cast

Koningin Lear is on at Cape Town’s Baxter Theatre  from November 7 to 16.

 

Royal rewards for Koningin Lear led by Marthinus Basson at 25th KKNK Festival

PICTURES: Hans van der Veen

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The cast led by Antoinette Kellermann in Koningin Lear

With Koningin Lear rewarded in all the categories they were nominated for at the Klein Karoo National Arts Kanna Awards – eight of them – it was an extraordinary year for theatre. DIANE DE BEER reviews the spectacular 25th anniversary of the KKNK and the way festivals have changed hearts and minds. (See full list of winners below.):

 

While waiting for a show to begin, a festival goer went up to actress Cintaine Schutte and thanked her for the kind of work they were doing. She was referring to Huishou, a play that spotlights a same-sex couple.

What was more interesting was her age (approximately 70 plus) and that she was an inhabitant of Oudtshoorn and she was waiting to see Rokkie with Charlton George telling a transgender story. “I don’t know about these worlds,” she explained and that’s why she specifically chose these two particular plays, to broaden her scope.

That’s what an arts festival can mean to a rural community and its people. Through the 25 years of its existence, those of us who have been attending and reporting on the festival for all those years have noticed the audiences mature in their appreciation of a world that they might not always recognise or be familiar with and embrace it in all its diversity.

In the process of writing this, I watched a BBC arts programme Front Row discussing censorship and the anxiety amongst the public in both Britain and Brazil about a play dealing with a transgender Jesus written and performed by Jo Clifford.

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Rudi van der Merwe and Oyama Mbopa (right) in Lovers, Dogs and Rainbows.

To even see a production like Rudi van der Merwe’s Lovers, Dogs and Rainbows supported by Pro Helvetia Swiss Arts Council would not have happened a decade ago without a fuss. This is the kind of innovation that all arts festivals long for – worldwide.

It’s an agonising balancing act for the artistic directors to serve the widest possible community while creating an identity for the festival which will appeal to newcomers but also those searching for the extraordinary.

Van der Merwe’s physical theatre piece told a story of almost excruciating emotional transformation as the young boy tried to establish his identity in the small rural town of Calvinia. Now based in Geneva, he interrogates his past with a documentary shot in the town of his youth in 2017 and played as a backdrop (yet centre stage) while Van der Merwe and Oyama Mbopa move from the shadows into the light simply to disappear again in a physical drama all its own.

Marginalised places and people dominate his playground as the camera lingers on the coloured and the LGBTQ community, as among the most displaced in this world, where the shock of apartheid still lingers and people and livestock from cattle to dogs are all treated harshly as if that is the way of the world.

Van der Merwe and Mbopa move in and out of elaborate scenes dressing up while moving from darkness to spotlight – often in chains as their lives must have felt to them in this isolated world where people are all trying to survive. Living on the edge wasn’t even part of that equation.

In conclusion it is in a spoken/printed letter to his father in his new home language – French screened as part of the documentary that he breaks out of any prescribed mould, any pretense of who he is emotionally and physically and yet his message is shrouded in a kind of secrecy as if he still cannot shout too loudly. Or might he be in a place where it doesn’t matter?

Not all of the translation of the letter is visible all of the time, so one snatches at something here and there.  I thought that in a show planned in minute detail, there’s a message, perhaps a warning here, that everything is not as it should be even if he has embraced his new world, who he is and how he wants to tell his story. But he corrected this blurring of the message after two shows by moving to the side.

It is the approach and the execution, the content and the substance that all contribute to this extraordinary performance that grabs one by the throat and doesn’t let go for the longest time.

Antoinette Kellerman in Koningin Lear
The phenomenal Antoinette Kellermann in Koningin Lear

On the other end of the spectrum, there’s the magnificent troika of playwright Tom Lanoye, translator Antjie Krog and director Marthinus Basson. Koningin Lear is a majestic production worthy of the 25th anniversary of the KKNK with Antoinette Kellermann in the role of a lifetime (and her career as we all know, is not a shabby one).

But Lanoye, having said that the role was created with her in mind, has written a part for the ages, on a scale that not many women get the chance to play. From the moment she enters the stage and grabs the attention, dressed to kill, until she collapses in a bundle of bones in a shabby slip of a petticoat with her darling son dead in her arms, she is allowed to tower above them all with a might that obliterates, until it turns on her in similarly cruel fashion.

With a script that would have many on their knees, but that Kellermann masters powerfully, her queen of the business world storms majestically but stumbles as disastrously as she demands that her three sons vie for the family riches by declaring their undying love.

It’s in the shading of her character and her speech that Kellermann astounds in this almost three hour play as she paints a picture of a woman fading both mentally and physically as she is ravaged by the worlds she was seen to have conquered yet is ready to relinquish – or so she thinks. It’s about grandeur and grandiosity which falters as greed in every sphere becomes the overwhelming motivator.

Not only does Kellermann command the stage and the character physically, emotionally she gives it all in a role which demands this kind of effort. The work isn’t visible, and the results are riveting.

A New York Times quotation published in the book of the translated play from a review written by Paul Krugman of  Thomas Piketty’s Capital of the Twenty First Century captures the intent of this Lanoye flirtation with King Lear: We haven’t just gone back to the nineteenth-century levels of income inequality, we’re also on a path back to “patrimonial capitalism”, in which the commanding heights of the economy are controlled not by talented individuals but by family dynasties”.

And this dynastic aspect is glaringly explored and exploited in the three sons: Gregory (Neels van Jaarsveld playing the bully with brawn), Hendrik (Wilhelm van der Walt portraying his character’s smarmy self-serving mode) and Cornald (Edwin van der Walt as the gentler more caring sibling and in a contrasting scene-stealing junkie performance).

The eldest two brothers are supported by their differently conniving wives, Connie (a brilliant Anna-Mart van der Merwe as the flamboyantly brassy broad) and Alma (Ronalda Marais as the silent usurper whose roots tug at her better self but loses the battle).

A business-like André Roothman as the somewhat bewildered Kent and Matthew Stuurman as the carer and moral compass, Oleg, complete a cast that contributes and brilliantly balances the whole.

With all his design and directing flair on display, Basson began with clever casting because with a storming Kellermann in the lead of a play titled Koningin Lear, it could have been a lopsided production and it needed all the pieces to fit together.

None of this would have been possible without Antjie Krog’s staggering translation of Tom Lanoye’s Flemish text. She has such command of what she wants to say and how she says it that it gives a specific context, a gravitas as well as playfulness, all of which combine to make it such an exciting and textured work to both watch and listen to. It also allows the actors to spread their wings and with a director of Basson’s stature and vision, the guidance to make this one fly.

It deserves to be seen and theatre goers who understand the language should not let this one pass if there’s another opportunity. Many flew in specially and they were rewarded royally. (Presently a run is planned at The Baxter later this year and perhaps there’s a possibility at the final of the Afrikaans festivals in Potchefstroom).

Other notable artists include Sima Mashazi with her Miriam Makeba Story, a musical performance with the singer sharing a personal connection with the iconic songbird. Supported by the excellent jazz pianist Ramon Alexander, it was a simple yet compelling performance which allowed the music to shine as it should.

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Johnny Boskak with Craig Morris Picture: Retha Ferguson

Craig Morris travelled from the Woordfees with Johnny Boskak but this time he played in both English and Afrikaans. He says that the languages and their specific rhythms have interesting effects on the character, and it was fascinating to see it performed in Afrikaans with a smart translation. It’s a piece that has withstood the test of time driven by Morris’s physical approach to the role which takes audiences on a wild ride reminiscent for me of a film like Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

And for the sheer joy of it, the delightful Springtime in which Hendrick-Jan de Stuntman meets Merel Kamp (Jos van Wees and Merel Kamp). Presented on an outside stage in front of the ABSA Auditorium for everyone to watch, the two actor/mime artistes were each hooked to a swing furnished with very lively springs which meant that their love story was told with a jaunty air and a jolliness that was mesmerising – entertainment supreme.

Naturally there was more, but if I had to put a few perfect shows together to make or break an arts festival, this would be it. A bouquet that incorporates something larger than life, something that pushes the gender boundaries, someone who captivates musically, a motormouth in motion and a buoyant romance of the sweetest kind.

JAKKALS EN WOLF ONBEPERKDEBUUT Gesinsvermaak ’n Kunste Onbepe
Devonecia Swartz as Best Newcomer in Jakkals en Wolf Onbeperk

The Kanna Awards:

Best literary contribution for her translation: Antjie Krog for Koningin Lear.

Best Production and Best Debut Production: Koningin Lear.

Best Actress: Antoinette Kellermann in Koningin Lear.

Best Actor: Craig Morris in Johnny Boskak voel ‘n bietjie…

Best Supporting Actress: Anna-Mart van der Merwe in Koningin Lear.

Best Sopporting Actor: Edwin van der Walt in Koningin Lear.

Best Director as well as Best Design: Marthinus Basson for Koningin Lear.

Best Musical contribution: Sima Mashazi for My Miriam Makeba Story

Best Newcomer: Devonecia Swartz in Jakkals en Wolf Onbeperk.

Herrie Prize for innovation: Rudi van der Merwe for Lovers, Dogs and Rainbows 

Best Visual Art: Ugandan Donald Wasswa and Kenyan Onyis Martin and their collective exhibition Imagining Tomorrow.

Best Technical contribution: Jaco Conradie

Special Service Kanna: Daleen Witbooi

 

 

 

Paradise is a Farm in Africa

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Pretty as a picture

DIANE DE BEER

 

If you are ever looking for the perfect getaway, Halfaampieskraal is heaven.

In their latest book Halfaampieskraal The Way we Live, the first quote reads “The perfect place to do nothing at all.”and it captures the farm which opens its arms to guests so generously and completely.

Turning off from the N2 at Caledon and driving in the Stanford direction, it is a part of the rolling wheat fields of the beautiful Overberg. It is still very much a working farm and when paging through The Way We Live, I was reminded of a friend’s 50th birthday celebrated there a few years back.

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The glamour of the past

It’s all about the place and its people, the way you become part of the farmstead while luxuriating on recliners under huge trees with homemade cocktails and unusual snacks while farm animals come and peek at the latest arrivals.

The rooms which are just behind the main house are drop-dead gorgeous and quite unique in the way they have been designed. This is obviously someone’s passion and it shines through.

Owner Jan-Georg Solms (with partner Cobus Geldenhuys) describes it as “curation of my favourite things – and lots of them”. He explains that with this being the family farm, he also inherited much of what is featured and he and partner have an annual breakaway to Greece where he often picked up objects, he lost his heart to. “I have an eye for pieces that can be fashioned differently and given a second life.”

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The charm of farm living

But he has stopped chasing new purchases and prefers appreciating beautiful objects in other homes and buildings rather than a personal desire to own even more. The rooms are done subtly but with a luxurious tint. “The idea is that you have to feel comfortable, as if you know the room intimately.” Included are heavy linen gowns, beds that are slightly larger and higher than the norm with down duvets stuffed with the feathers of their own geese, but in European weight.

The rooms are stocked with excellent coffee, buttermilk rusks and fresh fruit. Mosquito nets stand alert in season and bathrooms are oversized, all with open showers (wet rooms), some including baths and others, outside showers. Flowers fill all the rooms and the main house stoep, if you can tear yourself away from your room, is a favourite gathering spot to enjoy either sunrise or sunset.

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Interior at Halfaampieskraal

The main house which also has some rooms but is also the gathering place is a jumble of well-organised themes “which allows guests to peek around and lose themselves in flavours and textures of bygone eras”. The rooms have names like Plantation Room, Reading Room Officer’s Mess, Red Dining Room (with a 53-year-old post office wall-to-wall red carpet from his parents’ time) and Empty Room (filled with objects…) which gives you an idea of the feel and style of this quite extraordinary vintage farmstead.

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Dining in splendour

And with all this chic comfort, in addition, there’s the extraordinary delicious factor of the food. “We keep files of all our guests (with 60% of them being returns) and the menus we’ve served, not to repeat ourselves,” he responds when I ask him about our weekend meals. Many of the guests order some favourite from the previous menu though.

Their chef Marlette Scheltema has been with them for some time and has chef training, but she easily adapted to their style of cooking: simple food, generous, but not an overly loaded plate. “We draw a picture every time of what the plate will look like once the guests have dished up, when planning menus.

“Most food is served table/family buffet. We use what we have locally, simply because we want food less travelled.  Marlette now does almost all the cooking, and I get to taste everything!”

Our menu was as follows:

Friday casual evening with spanakopitas, lemon and tzatziki for starters, paella on the fire for mains, and a simple lemon-pudding;

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Three cheese breakfast soufflé-tart and Turkish cucumber;

Breakfast Saturday was the three cheese breakfast soufflé-tart, boerewors and the most amazing Turkish cucumber;

 

Saturday evening, the night of the celebration, started with canopies of toffee tomatoes and salmon-rolls. Starters: field- and porcini-mushroom soufflés, baked in cream and pecorino. Mains: home grown leg of mutton, cooked at 110 deg C for 9 hours, served with a green-oil-gremolata dressing. The sides included caramelized onions with branches of bay leaves; Potato Ann, upright butternut, courgette strips and small beetroots. Desert was an old fashioned croquembouche, with the crème patisserie flavoured with frangelico and decorated with pistachio brittle. Served with tiny liqueur milk shake shooters – and quite spectacular to suit the occasion.

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For those still standing, breakfast Sunday was the house standard Brekko-pan – a big pan, with small pork bangers, bacon, onions, garlic, cherry tomatoes, dried oregano and a bit of cream, baked slowly, with halved hard-boiled eggs added in the end. This was served with traditional vetkoek and jam. All breakfasts start with a fruit platter with their six-spice syrup and double cream yogurt and their own honey, freshly squeezed orange juice and extra strong coffee.

What you have is pretty much a breakaway weekend of fine farm dining in style with as much rest in-between as possible although the area offers much opportunity for exploring if you wish.

But first have a look in their latest coffee table book packed with the most beautiful pictures and recipes from the farm which will give you a chance to see for yourself if this is your idea of paradise – at a cost that isn’t prohibitive. Check their website for more information.

 

*You can buy Halfaampieskraal The Way we Live at www.kraal.biz also Wordsworth, Love books in Mellville and Exclusive Books. It won the South African Gourmand World Bookbooks award (category: Hotels)

 

 

Women Capture their Stories with Needle and Thread

Bertha Rengae, Group coordinator of Group 3 of the women of the Mapula Embroidery Trust
Bertha Rengae, Group coordinator of Group 3 of the women of the Mapula Embroidery Trust

A fundraiser for a group of Rwandan embroiderers is being held at the end of the month in Pretoria following in the footsthe establishment of a unique embroidery and empowerment project in the Winterveld:

 

DIANE DE BEER

 

A remarkable story has emerged from one of South Africa’s most dire areas, the Winterveld, where a group of women were trained in the early ‘90s by members of the Soroptimist International Pretoria Club for an income-generating, empowerment project.

The Sisters of Mercy provided a classroom and an embroidery project for the women of Mapula which started initially with 14 women, evolving through the years and growing to include 150 women, guided and supported by experienced individuals.

In a unique storytelling fashion, with needle and thread, these women have been sharing their stories over the past 26 years. And it is often these personal remembrances capturing our past from a unique vantage point that has captured the imagination internationally. Over the years, the high levels of technical and visual artistry with social and historical commentary have resulted in recognised works of art.

Their ideas are generated from lived realities, local magazines, newspapers, internet and television. Artists in the project draw the images while others translate them into brightly embroidered wall hangings, cushion covers, place-mats and bags, all represented in Mapula Embroideries.

Women from the Mapula Embroidery Trust in the Winterveld
Women from the Mapula Embroidery Trust in the Winterveld

These have been exhibited widely, both in South Africa but also internationally, all over the USA and Europe. Mapula embroideries and artists feature in more than 12 art publications and they have won several awards.

Women in the Mapula Group won the FNB Vita Craft Now Gold award for example; an order for 52 items for the Oprah Winfrey Academy for Girls was executed; and many different art museums across the world feature their work and celebrate the Mapula women and they are included in many private collections.

A well-researched book Mapula: Embroidery and Empowerment in the Winterveld by Prof Brenda Schmahmann was published in 2006 by David Krut Publishing.

The project now consists of three groups: two groups are situated in the Winterveld, North West of Pretoria, and one in Hammanskraal. The production of the goods is managed by the embroiderers themselves and since 2016, the Mapula Embroidery Trust with NPO status was established.

One of the members, Pinky Resenga testifies that the project saved her from a life of drinking and living on the streets. “With the income I could extend my mother’s house. After helping her I hope to build my own four rooms for myself and my children.”

The income generated through the Mapula embroidery project has assisted women over the years to clothe, feed and educate their children. Today, 28 years later, the Mapula Embroidery Project with its strong foundations is well established.

Women from the Kibeho Embroidery project
Women from the Kibeho Embroidery project

A few years ago, after visiting the Mapula Project, Netty Butera, the wife of the Rwandan High Commissioner to SA (after visiting the Mapula Project), approached the Soroptimists who initiated Mapula to start a similar project in her country with the initial training of 12 women.

Again it was to add value and the possibility of a regular income to extremely vulnerable women in the south of Rwanda at a place called Kibeho, close to the Burundi border. It is regarded as a holy place because in 1981 it is believed the Virgin Mary appeared to some teenagers. It marked the rise of the remote Kibeho to a spiritual hub on the global arena. Many pilgrims visit annually and if the women instead of begging could generate an income from the sale of an embroidery project, it would improve their self-esteem and offer their children a different future.

Following much planning, three women, Rosina Maepa and Dorah Hlongwane from the Mapula Embroidery Project and Janetje van der Merwe from Soroptimist International Pretoria left for Rwanda with suitcases packed with embroidery cotton, fabric, a brand-new sewing machine, two steam irons, needles and scissors – all to get the project started in a new country.

Local contacts, liaisons as well as facilitators were arranged to keep the process flowing and in the past few years, another training trip for a further 19 women was included which brings the total number of women who are part of the project to 31. Marketing of the products is still a huge problem and something they hope to improve dramatically so that those involved benefit to the maximum.

Rwandan embroideries
Rwandan embroideries

With this as the focus, a fundraising afternoon of socialising and sharing will be held at the residence of the Rwandan High Commissioner in Pretoria on March 31. It will start with the best Rwandan coffee and tea, followed by an opportunity to buy some of the unique Holy Land Kibeho Embroideries, listen to an introduction of Rwanda and an illustrated talk on the empowerment of women in that area through the embroidery project.

A Rwandan dinner with South African wines will be served after the presentation giving those attending the chance to experience another African cuisine. Tickets for the event are R200 per person and bookings can be made at 083 447 7909/082 903 1178/073 564 8215.

South Africa is a country that makes it easy for individuals to reach out. Some wonder if their efforts make a difference, but when one witnesses a project like Mapula and how the lives of people are changed – even across borders – it shows how even a little assistance can go a long way.

 

 

Nina Simone Four Women Gives Young Black Women A Powerful Platform To Speak Their Minds – It’s About Time

Busi Lerayi with Tshepo Mngoma, the piano player in performance
Busi Lerayi with Tshepo Mngoma, the piano player in performance

DIANE DE BEER

NINA SIMONE FOUR WOMEN

DIRECTOR: James Ngcobo

PLAYWRIGHT: Christine Ham

MUSICAL DIRECTOR: Tshepo Mngoma

LIGHTING DESIGNER: Mandla Mtshali

SET DESIGNER: Nadya Cohen

COSTUME DESIGNER: Onthatile Matshidiso

CAST: Busi Lurayi, Lerato Mvelase, Mona Monyane Skenjana, Noxolo Dlamini

MUSICIANS AND SINGERS: Bryan Mtsweni, Ezbie Moilwa, Mpho Kodisang

Smanga Ngubane, Sam Ibeh

VENUE: John Kani Theatre at the Market

DATES: Until February 24

 

With Artistic Director James Ngcobo’s tradition of commemorating Black History Month, his pick of this play starring mainly women is, as Nina Simone so aptly said, about “an artist’s responsibility to reflect the times”.

With the #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter movements in everyone’s consciousness (or it should be) the Simone-driven play is a clever choice with a cast of powerful young actors strutting the stage.

And even halfway into the run, the theatre is packed with a young (mainly black) audience and they’re enraptured and engaged as these women speak to them with great gusto.

It’s not for the lily-livered because in the main, women haven’t had a voice and black women especially were never invited to speak their mind and tell their stories.

It’s their time and it’s like its all spilling out with an anger that’s palpable but covering a pain that so’s deep and so sore, it breaks your heart while listening.

In song Noxolo Dlamini, Mona Monyane Skenjana, Lerato Mvelase and Busi Lurayi
In song Noxolo Dlamini, Mona Monyane Skenjana, Lerato Mvelase and Busi Lurayi

When Simone slips into a quiet moment and opens her heart about her own experience of living in a world that seems to hate and discard her, it’s like an open wound she exposes to everyone willing to look more closely.

On September 16, 1963, the day after the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, Simone shifted her career from artist to artist–activist. This is where the play begins, in the church with riots outside and the pain of four little girls killed in hatred etched on everyone’s mind. She is writing a song when three diverse women enter and engage about their lives as black women.

But so deep is the self-hatred and lack of confidence, they turn not only on those who mean them harm but also on each other as they compare shades of skin colour and the intent with which each lives her life.

Interwoven with much talk is Simone’s haunting music dominated by Mississippi Goddam, Black is the Colour of My True Love’s Hair and closing with the obvious Four Women, the song from which the women in the play were drawn.

And it is this mix that moves in and out of the consciousness. While the songs complete the conversations of the women, they are more contemplative if heart-breaking before the next storm unleashes as the women twist and turn in their tension and anguish of years of abuse punctuated by the current attack.

Busi Lurayi as Nina Simone surrounded by the rest of the cast.
Busi Lurayi as Nina Simone surrounded by the rest of the cast.

It is a sparse set by Nadya Cohen yet effective in its symbolic power and the women are encouraged to fill the stage, which they do with great abandon. Ncgobo obviously wanted them to embrace their power in this moment – and they do.

The performances are sometimes uneven, Lurayi perhaps hampered by capturing the Simone kinetic energy, but she soars in the quieter moments and in song. It is quite a presence that she has to establish, and the deep timbre of her voice works in her favour. Mvelase, the most comfortable on stage, inhabits her Aunt Sarah, a domestic worker, with quiet dignity, while the young Dlamini is passionate in her rebellion.

Then comes the abrasive whirlwind Monyane Skenjana to perform in the person of an unapologetic prostitute who believes in disarming if not disabling before an offensive can begin. It’s a tough performance to catch but in the mix, it brings the chaos of their lives into sharper focus and adds some light relief to what could become too much to witness and bear.

Cushioning all that is the piano playing of Brian Motsweni supported by a trio of other musicians and two singers, all adding to the depth of the soundtrack. Other sounds like the sudden rush of the riot don’t get the balance right and while the two singers worked well as they sat to the side, the look was confusing. Perhaps they would have slotted in more smoothly as part of the musos rather than characters, but not quite.

Quibbles aside, the importance of the production, what is said and who is saying it, right now, taking into account what is swirling around in the world currently, this is a majestic production.

Theatre is struggling more than ever with little help from anywhere. Even newspapers, their traditional support, are dwindling with less and less art reporting. Yet the audience who were there to look and listen, were predominantly young and black, probably the most sought-after demographic.

And they were delighted – with reason.

Nataniël’s Second Phase Will Have Him Playing On Many Different Platforms

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Optog kombi and Nataniël. Picture by Optog!

Showman Nataniël is embarking on what he calls the second phase of his career with quite a few tricks up his sleeve. He tells DIANE DE BEER about his future plans:

 

It took only four phone calls, says Nataniël, to cut his salary by half but this drastic measure was necessary for him to get things going in a different fashion.

It’s always been part of his strategy, not to keep doing the same things all the time. Leave before they’re tired and start something completely different.  “I am not going to do anything that I’m not in control of any longer,” he says hence all the changes. And money is no longer a driving force.

As someone who prefers being the one responsible for something he does, whether good or bad, he says it is time out for projects where he is involved with egos bigger than the talent. “It’s not that I am all-powerful, just tired of all the bull!”

“I am back to earning all my money in my own head,” he notes, but he’s used to creating his own world and then sharing it with the rest of us.

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Men in black – Erik, Nataniël and Nicolaas

He and his assistant Nicolaas Swart are currently in Nantes, France (arriving back this week) where his most recent four-season television series (Die Edik van Nantes with his bro which also evolved into his latest cook/lifestyle-book released just before Christmas) was shot, and while this is a well-earned break, it is also a time to scout for new ideas with his brother-in-arms Erik le Roux who lives in Nantes.

“We love working together, so we will come up with something new,” says Nataniël, who has just started his own YouTube channel, something which is part of his plans but will also prevent one of his huge irritations, people randomly posting show videos or unwanted clips of him on the popular channel. “Once you have your own channel, you can remove any illegal ones,” he says joyously.

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Nataniël in costume.

He will also be shooting a music video for this platform while in France, the first he has made in 20 years. “We’re going to do it with cell phones,” he says, and it will be a short art film with music rather than a traditional music video.

Importantly, he will be focusing on finding creative outlets that make him happy. What he has discovered in especially Nantes, a creative city, is that he has been allowed to film and introduce basically anything to his local audience. “There’s a pride and a generosity which makes everything accessible and it is such a pleasure to work in a hassle-free environment.”

On the performance side locally, he starts his year on a new platform called Optog (March). The brainchild of producer/pianist Matthys Maree, it is described as one huge concert tour on wheels travelling through the whole of the country and beyond, running from February 14 until December with artists like Nataniël, Karen Zoid, Jo Black, Laurika Rauch, Coenie de Villiers and Deon Meyer, Vicky Sampson and Corlea Botha, all on a musical note with a few theatre productions also going on the road. Stellenbosch, Pretoria, Rustenburg, Polokwane, Welkom, Sasolburg, Kroonstad, Bloemfontein, Kimberley, Durbanville, Port Elizabeth, East-Londen, Potchefstroom, Durban, Windhoek and Swakopmund are all on the map.

Nataniel and Erik in Nantes
Nataniël and Erik in Nantes

“I am visiting rural towns I have never been to,” says Nataniël, one of our best travelled artists locally – and something he will again do more of in the future. He will be performing in three shows: Nataniël Gesels (talks) where he will be presenting one of his famous talks in theatres, something he tested at the end of last year for the first time; Nataniël Unplugged accompanied by Charl du Plessis, which is a more intimate version of his larger shows; and Four Loud People with his full band, the Charl du Plessis Trio and representative of his shows compiled of stories and songs in both English and Afrikaans.

Check out the website for more info and dates (www.optog.co.za) and hold thumbs for their plans to give new life to existing performance sites and halls in the platteland which might generate more platforms for artists everywhere.

In April he will be presenting a show at Artscape titled Anthems. And we’re not talking national flags or such like here! Nataniël describes it as “songs that singers claim as their personal anthems”. It will be in the style of his classical concerts of the past two years and he can be viewed as songs for grownups. “The songs usually represent an era, a life or an event,” he explains, “but anthems can also be attached to movies.” And he will be showcasing a few of his own.

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Nataniël at Emperor’s

Later in the year he will return to Emperor’s where he has been performing annually for just short of two decades taking a break last year and this time the run is planned to play almost like 12 individual concerts. As always with Nataniël, what that means exactly will only become clear once we see the latest spectacular extravaganza so much a part of his annual showcase.

For the first time he is also in the throes of writing an original book. “I have written many, but these have always been compiled from either columns or my show catalogues,” he says. This is something different, a kind of memoir, and more than that he isn’t willing to reveal, only that it will be published in both English and Afrikaans and this is the first time he has sat down and written an original book. He’s excited but also nervous while working hard on a Nataniël voice that works as well on paper as in performance.

On the food side, he will do a few kitchen demos – usually presented at the Atterbury Theatre in Pretoria and booked out as soon as the announcements are made – but much more than that he hopes to avoid. “When you have just finished a cookbook, food is the last thing on your mind,” he says, although his Nataniël Collection (food and kitchen products and tableware) in Checkers is going to be expanded and has been doing well around the country. They will be appearing in every shop and he is hoping to add a few new products, something he always enjoys doing.

And in private time, he will be battling cell phones (mainly in shows) and plastic. “Botswana has banned single-use plastic! Surely, we can too. What makes us so special that we keep destroying the planet?”

He argues that nothing usually comes from the top and a minor anti-plastic violence in shop queues, isn’t a bad thing. “Little old ladies should just hit those using plastic bags with their handbags,” he says. “They can get away with it.”

“It’s not that anyone listens to me, but to remain silent isn’t an option any longer.”

Writer and Poet Extraordinaire Chris van Wyk Tells Stories with a Poetic Tongue

DIANE DE BEER

Pictures: Lungelo Mbulwana

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Zane Meas as Chris van Wyk.

VAN WYK – THE STORYTELLER OF RIVERLEA

Written and performed by: Zane Meas

Directed and Designed by: Christo Davids

Lighting design: Thapelo Mokgosi

Costume design: Nthabiseng Mokone

Music: Cyril ‘Dafunc’ Peterson

Venue: Manie Manim at the Market Theatre

Dates: Until February 24

 

Author/poet/storyteller Chris van Wyk wrote for the people, telling stories about his people, but he also had a deeply serious side, an intellectual one that couldn’t ignore what was seriously unjust and wrong in the world he found himself in.

His family surrounded him with love and laughter which allowed him to get more from life than the colour of his skin encouraged him to do in the Apartheid years – and he grabbed on to life with gusto. Van Wyk used his abilities to share the lot of his people probably as much a balm to his own being as to those who read his extraordinary words.

Many will know him for arguably his most loved book Shirley Goodness and Mercy, a memoir which best captured the way a family laughed and cried together to hold themselves apart yet together in a cruel Apartheid world.

But what this script and show do so spectacularly is showcase Van Wyk’s poetry which might not be as familiar to audiences as his family and community featured in his memoirs.

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It is in the poetry that he magnificently portrays his mother (The Laughter of my Mother), holds his wife’s impact on his life up for scrutiny, and then sharply looks at the lay of the political land with the horrifyingly haunting In Detention – the best kept for last.

It is in that melding together of the happy and the horrifying that Van Wyk becomes clearly and colourfully defined by his friend Zane Meas whose love of acting was first fuelled when he performed in a play based on one of the author’s short stories.

His love and knowledge of the writer is clear from the script, the way he has decided to tell the story with a lovingness that is hard to describe and shines through also in the performance.

Meas is masterful in his portrayal of Van Wyk and even if you didn’t know they were friends, you know that what you see on stage is the essence of the man in all his colourful cheerfulness even at the end when he reluctantly has to leave his family.

It is his spirit that lives on in his words, the way he views and explains his world, how he has you laugh, yet with a sadness at a life ended too soon. “We know the end,” says Meas both at the start and the end.

Zane Meas1 (photographed by Lungelo Mbulwana)
Telling it like it is…

And while the title says The Storyteller…, Meas is able to direct the writing in a way that tells you who this man was, how he lived his life, the empathy he exudes because of the family he grew up in, and the people he chose to have in his life. And then he shared these insights with the world.

He achieves what many writers can only dream of. His way with words is extraordinary but it is also accessible, something not easily done. He has both a common touch and the ability to appeal to the intellect as he plays with words and ideas without fear even in this country’s darkest days.

These were the things that touched him, the unfairness of it all, which he realised at a young age and the way his parents and granny engaged with his world and showed him a way out of the mess that surrounded him growing up.

He found his salvation in words and when wondering what impact he has had on his world, words are what start stumbling out and for those listening, an awareness that there is so much wisdom lost from this voice silenced too soon.

Meas is determined to honour his legacy and with his friend/colleague Christo Davids as both director and designer, they have pulled a rabbit from their theatrical hat. It could have been just another storytelling nostalgic trip and with Van Wyk speaking his mind, that would have been enough.

They have, however, elevated this performance with loving care and in the detail of the script, performance, design and direction.

Zane Meas (photographed by Lungelo Mbulwana)
It’s in the detail

The design shows that they started out with a clear picture in mind, helped by the short-hand between two actors who have a working life together on stage, know what each of them can achieve and then pushing way beyond those goalposts.

Davids worked the solo show as much as he can (pushing too hard once or twice with an ending that is overly-dramatic and must go) creating his own book of stories on stage, which allowed Meas a freedom to focus on the man and what every word he wrote or spoke, meant.

It helps when you’re intimately involved with the individual you’re trying to explore because in this instance it encouraged them to show the inner workings of Van Wyk’s soul. They’ve put together a life filled with love in words and pictures.

If you can’t make it now, watch out for this one because it should (and will, I’m sure) travel, and while this is a homage by friends, they have truly done justice to the wordsmith Chris van Wyk.

If you want to rush out to discover more of his writing, you know they have found the key. It is some of the director and actor’s finest work.

 

 

For Artistic Director of The Market James Ngcobo, Theatre Is All About Diversity

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Lerato Mvelase, Busi Lurayi, director James Ngcobo, Mona Monyane Skenjana and Noxolo Dlamini Picture: Brett Rubin

Into the second month of 2019 and things are pumping at Joburg’s Market Theatre where artistic director James Ngcobo has staged Nina Simone Four Women to celebrate Black History Month with this South African premiere. He speaks to DIANE DE BEER about his future plans in this, his second term, at this iconic theatre:

 

For James Ngcobo, Nina Simone Four Women written by Christina Ham, one of a quartet of hot female playwrights in the US currently, means many different things. Presented in conjunction with the US Mission in SA, he believes strongly in staging this kind of work which forms part of the Market’s 6th annual commemoration of Black History Month.

It’s all about the message, telling the story and the four actresses on stage who will be portraying different aspects of Nina Simone, as the title indicates. “The play is based on four characters Simone created in a song,” explains Ngcobo who sees this as an exploration of the landscape of women.

It was Nina Simone who said: “Music can’t just be about the art, but it has to be an expression of the good, bad and ugly in life.” A staunch activist in the Civil Rights Movement in the ‘60s, she wrote songs that told stories of people she observed in everyday life. It is because of that truth that her music still resonates so strongly today, argues Ngcobo.

On September 16, 1963, the day after the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, Simone’s career shifted from artist to artist/activist because she believed as an artist it was her responsibility to reflect the times. And in this sacred place, four little girls lost their lives.

Nina Simone Four Women is set in the sadness of the church and also uses the framework of one of Simone’s most blistering songs Four Women to portray a quartet of women who suffered from self-hatred due to the different shades of their skin. As if being black in those times in that place wasn’t damning enough, they further judged themselves on the light- or darkness of their skin.

It’s also about the conversations between the four women. It’s about who they are, how they fight the battle, how they escape for solace – and in the background lingers the death of four little girls. For Ngcobo, this story from the past reverberates with the racism of our time.

“Nina made a choice when she started speaking out. She knew that talking about some of the things she did was to the detriment of her career, but that’s what she had to do,” he notes. And like her songs, this play is also all about storytelling. “That’s why her music still has impact today,” he says.

His cast includes Busi Lurayi as Nina (who brought a flippancy to her audition that caught the director’s eye), Lerato Mvelase (who starred in Colour Purple and King Kong, as Auntie Sarah who is only interested in her livelihood, daily washing and ironing), Mona Monyane Skenjana (who was part of his Coloured Museum cast and he’s been wanting to work with again) and Noxolo Dlamini (representing youth and thus hope) as the four women in the title. There’s also a young piano player representing Simone’s brother who tinkles away in the background – as well as two extra singers.

Nina Simone Four Women is staged in the main, John Kani Theatre until February 24, while storytelling of another kind is playing in the Mannie Manim Theatre.

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Actor Zane Meas and Christo Davids director of Van Wyk The Storyteller of Riverlea

Van Wyk the Storyteller of Riverlea was created and is performed by well-known South African actor Zane Meas and directed by Christo Davids. These two have a previous links with Van Wyk as they both played in Janice Honeyman’s 2008 adaptation of Shirley, Goodness and Mercy which performed to full houses at the Market Theatre. This is the 5th time that they will be working together on stage in a partnership that spans over 12 years.

Anyone who has read Van Wyk’s books will know that he was foremost a storyteller. This particular piece explores his influences as a poet, as political activist and writer, his family life and his tragic battle with cancer.  It is an homage to his humour, political values and storytelling abilities, all of which add texture to the piece and insight into the writer’s life. (see review).

nailed starring khulu skenjana, aya mpama, katlego letsholonyane, zesuliwe hadebe and lunga khuhlane
Nailed starring Khulu Skenjana, Aya Mpama, Katlego Letsholonyane, Zesuliwe Hadebe and Lunga Khuhlane.

In the Barney Simon Theatre Nailed will premiere from February 8 to March 3. The production is sponsored by the Department of Arts and Culture’s Incubation Fund, aimed at assisting emerging practitioners to hone their skills from amateur to professional status.

If you want to tell the naked truth about post-apartheid South Africa, better do it through fiction believes The Market’s artistic director. Author Niq Mhlongo has long been a Ngcobo favourite and he believes he masters his art brilliantly.

His latest work, Soweto Under the Apricot Tree is a collection of short stories about contemporary Soweto, Johannesburg and South Africa and the one that caught Ngcobo’s attention. The stories are an account of township life with commentary on post-apartheid South Africa still grappling with many of the issues emanating from our past. “Every township house always had an apricot tree,” reminisces Ngcobo.

 It is a story about abuse of political power, infidelity and violence. It deals with corrupt, greedy and selfish politicians who are in the business not for the people but for self aggrandisement and personal gain.

This country knows better than many how behavior impacts on the lives of ordinary people and how it affects the morale of a country. That’s why this one will be fun to watch with an engaged audience as well as writing that comes alive on stage.

Nailed is directed by Luthando Mngomezulu, who was responsible for Isithunzi, the 2017 Zwakala Festival winner, and the cast includes Aya Mpama, Khulu Skenjana, Katlego Letsholonyane, Lunga Khuhlane, Nyaniso Dzedze and Zesuliwe Hadebe.

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Gregory Maqoma in Exit/Exist

Other exciting plays to watch out for is a reworking of Tsafendasby by playwright Anton Krueger starring Renos Nicos Spanoudes and directed by the exciting Jade Bowers, who will add fresh and young perspective; in Exit/Exist, dancer/choreographer Gregory Maqoma takes inspiration from his ancestral past as he blends storytelling with his powerful dance vocabulary and dynamic live music in this moving solo performance with live musicians. It’s an examination of race, political power, and the melding of past and present. (Also watch out for a return of the haunting Cion – inspired by the Zakes Mda book -which will be staged in September to celebrate the company’s 20th anniversary.

There’s also a lot of buzz around the new John Kani play which deals with the relationship between a dying white actor (Anthony Sher) and his black nurse (John Kani) directed by Kani stalwart Janice Honeyman which will be staged in the latter half of the year. The Baxter’s production of Strindberg’s The Goat starring the powerful combination of Jennifer Steyn and Andrew Buckland directed by Mdu Kweyana will also be staged.

Times may be tough, but theatre is as always inspired.

 

 

 

Books & Bones & Other Things Attempts to Unravel The Secrets and Lies of Old

An art exhibition is often exciting not only because of the creativity but also the idea that holds the project. Jan Coetzee’s Books & Bones & other things is an example of just that kind of imagination:

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DIANE DE BEER

 

From the beginning of time, individuals have at some stage of their lives questioned the meaning of life in some way.

It makes sense that a man who has spent his whole working life in academia, studying and researching, would use these tools to question his own life – and thus began what has turned into an exhibition, Books & Bones & other things, which Mark Read of Everard Read Gallery invited academic/artist Prof Jan Coetzee to present for the month of February in CIRCA.

Jan Coetzee started his career at the University of South Africa; later became Professor of Sociology at the University of the (Orange) Free State (1979‑1986); and then moved to Rhodes University (1987‑2010) as Professor and Head of Department. In 2011 he returned to the University of the Free State as Senior Professor of Sociology where he initiated and directs the programme: The narrative study of lives.

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Jan K Coetzee

Within this research programme, he became interested in books as documents of life. “Throughout my life I’ve always been attracted to old texts – maybe not surprising given the fact that I did classical Greek and Sociology as majors for a BA. Together with my interest in narratives, I’ve also been playing around for years with sculpting,” he explains.

In short, he says, he put together almost 60 installations of “bookworks” consisting of old texts combined with found and sculpted objects. Most of these are enclosed in acrylic museum cases. “The object of this whole exercise is to attempt a reading of these aesthetically pleasing old texts – all of them old and many of them written in closed languages such as Latin, old German, old Slavic, etc.

“The installations attempt to unwrap/open the meaning of this collection of old texts: to try to hear what they are telling us today.”

As an academic he has thoroughly explained this complicated yet fascinating exhibition which would appeal to both scholars and the lay public.

“From the very beginning, humans have been living in storytelling societies. The earliest recordings of our stories are found in art and artefacts, and later on, in documents — the predecessors of what we call ’books‘.”

 Books & Bones & Other Things is thus a dialogue with a collection of books serendipitously encountered across Europe and South Africa. What started as a collection developed into a project to make the author’s own life, as well as life in general, more intelligible to himself and to others, he believes – and hopes.

The books in the collection are old texts which have considerable aesthetic appeal which originated from and bear witness to the actions, intentions, motivations, joys and hopes, as well as the fears and sufferings of human beings.

Each text, he says, narrates a story. But as his process developed, he realised that our ability to hear what they are trying to say is undermined: most are written in old, inaccessible languages which meant that Coetzee could not merely present these books as is.

 

And this is where interpretation came into play. He needed to find a way to retell the stories, to break them open and even subvert traditional narrative conventions by presenting them in a way that conjures up new stories in his mind and – hopefully – the minds of his ‘readers’.

This is when he began critically inquiring into the aims, context, and content of these books by systematically engaging with the title pages of the texts.

“Only the title pages,” he underlines. It meant that without studying the rest of the texts and without examining the meaning of the inside pages, he set out re-imagining the texts by recalling stories from his own life and readings.

He also initiated conversations between the different books so that the individual stories would resound more emphatically.

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Imperial Principal

The bookworks, he says, explore the historical development of society and its structures — religion, colonialism, imperialism, racism, language, identity and time — all steeped in Western thought and tradition. “This I relate to the books themselves, and to the sculptures and the religious and cultural artefacts that accompany them.”

Coming to terms with yet another phenomenon of our time, an acknowledgement that in these European texts the voices of indigenous peoples are silent and their values, laws, and cosmologies — their very lives — are largely discounted.  He emphasises this in the use of sculls and chains for example. “What survives all individual authors, all human remembering and forgetting, I show in prehistoric fossils — a knowledge in the bones.”

He compares the results to a small private library in an ordinary family home which reflects something of the family. This collection of documents he feels, uncovers and reveals something of his own roots as it resonates with wider social, cultural, and historical refrains.

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Dominium and Control

“I cannot think of a more accomplished scholar of stories, or the narrative study of lives, than Jan Coetzee who in this ground-breaking book demands a reckoning with all those stories, of ourselves and others entangled in this post-1994 dance. This attempt at excavating the ‘knowledge in the bones’ is truly an exceptional piece of scholarship by Coetzee and an outstanding set of authors and should be required reading not only for sociologists but story-tellers and -listeners across the disciplines. It is the curriculum we desperately need.”

This is the recommendation of Jonathan Jansen, former Rector and Vice-Chancellor at the University of the Free State of Coetzee’s book which is at the centre of this exhibition.

The exhibition will end on February 28 with an endowment auction of these bookworks – conducted by Strauss and Co – the proceeds going to Kim Berman’s Artist Proof Studio and William Kentridge’s Centre for the Less Good Idea. The exhibition/auction consists of the almost 60 bookworks/installations that form the basis of a book Books & Bones & Other Things published by Sun Press in 2018.

 

US Woordfees Exemplifies a World of Humanity and Theatrical Diversity

The performance year kicks off in grand style with the US Woordfees, the first of the country’s arts festivals. DIANE DE BEER highlights some of the theatrical diversity in the programme of the Stellenbosch-based festival:

Endgame with Soli Philander and Antoinette Kellerman
Endgame with Soli Philander and Antoinette Kellerman Picture by Oscar O’ Ryan.

 

In her welcome foreword to this year’s festival guide, Director of the Woordfees, Saartjie Botha, points to the political dilemma in the country and how that sometimes detracts from the art festivals. But she’s optimistic. “The world of the arts is a gentler place,” she says.“It is confrontational sometimes – and it should be, but it is a world focussed on humanity. And finally creates understanding and empathy for that humanity.”

The University of Stellenbosch Woordfees, the annual arts festival with books as its heartbeat, runs from March 1 to 10 with a programme that has grown through the years and theatre arguably the one that has benefited most – and it needs that more than ever right now. But so do the audiences to get them thinking and talking. Right or wrong, arts festivals have become a lifeline for artists, and for many, one of the few times they have the opportunity to exercise their craft.

Apart from an extensive discourse programme which covers anything from the state of the nation to financial health as well as many book and author-related discussions, their entertainment and arts reach is an embracing one with fine arts, music (classical, jazz and pop), film, stand-up as well children’s theatre all given a strong platform. And added to that is WOW (Words Open Worlds), an empowerment project focussing on the youth of previously disadvantaged communities, which also includes the largest spelling competition in the country sponsored by Sanlam.

Theatre lovers will know that they must add the Woordfees to their calendar with a programme that this year especially sets the benchmark for the rest of the country and times ahead. It is a festival that benefits from its university connection as well as a community that supports the arts and has a strong cultural understanding. But it has also broadened its reach which has meant that its artistic offering has extraordinary depth and variety and that’s exciting. Diversity in the arts – especially in this country – is the only way to go.

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Toutjies en Ferreira

Director Saartjie Botha sets the tone with a piece that is branded both comedy and drama titled Toutjies en Ferreira with two directors, Wolfie Britz and Nicole Holm and a cast to die for, including Frank Opperman, Anthea Thompson, Aphiwe Livi, Malan Steyn, Melanie Scholtz and Antoinette Kellerman. If you have ever wondered about the backstage chaos an hour before the show starts at a festival, this is a rare glimpse into that world bolstered by drama and delicious comedy.

And launching into the stratosphere, extraordinary theatre maker Brett Bailey debuts with a new work, Samson, described as dance-musical theatre based on the Old Testament values of domination, treason and rebellion yet set in today’s world of political extremism, inequality, expatriation and violence. In the spotlight are opera, choirs, animation and electronic music and the vibe promises the brilliant theatre maker is anarchistic.

He explains that Samson brings the Old Testament story crashing into the 21st century, setting the myth of love, betrayal, ethnic tensions and violent revenge within our complex era. “I’ve been working on the piece for around 18 months, so it has been a very thorough process. I’m blessed to be working with some stellar collaborators: Vincent Mantsoe as choreographer, and Shane Cooper as composer. With a live band playing a very contemporary electronic score, huge projections, and some great voices and performers, we aim to deliver something very special.” Prospective audiences should take note.

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Endgame with Rob van Vuuren and Andrew Buckland.

In classical vein Sylvaine Strike follows last year’s inspired Sam Shepard with Beckett’s Endgame with Antoinette Kellerman, Andrew Buckland, Rob van Vuuren and Soli Philander. It has already had a sold-out season at the Baxter with Strike unleashing her magic with powerhouse performances as she dissects the playwright’s exploration of relationships between the controllers and the controlled. Her interpretations are unique, from this time and dealing with the human condition.

Director Marthinus Basson is a name with immediate appeal and with Antjie Krog’s Mi(SA)- Die Nuwe Verbond – ‘n Misorde vir die Universum (The New Covenant – a Disorder for the Universe) and a cast of singers that includes Amanda Strydom, Cecilia Rangwanasha (soprano), Makudupanyane Senaoana (tenor), Ané Pretorius (harpsichord), Erik Dippenaar (piano) and the Cape Town Opera Choir, fireworks are predicted. It is a complex thing (a Basson trait), with a trio of works, the Missa Luba, the Missa Criola and Krog’s new work with music by Antoni Schonken in conversation with the established and celebrated works.Basson pulls it all together with a blend of rites and liturgy to create a contemporary South African soundstage predominantly in Afrikaans but also adding many tongues like Greek, Latin, English, Xhosa and Khoisan words. The choir also brings depth to the texture with individuals telling their own stories and where they come from.

Other English productions include Carpets, a text which first surfaced at last year’s third Text Market initiated by Hugo Theart from Kunste Onbeperk (KKNK). With the help of the Baxter (which hosts the event) as well as NATI (National AfrikaansTheatre Iniative), new texts are constantly being developed and evaluated with some selected to be further developed and staged at the different festivals. At the last Market CEO of the Baxter Theatre Lara Foot added R100 000 to the sponsorship which was matched by NATI for 2019 with the intent of expanding the Text Market to include Xhosa texts in addition to Afrikaans and English. She stressed the importance of developing new voices – and also exposure of the different cultures to one another.And whileJenine Collocott; Carpets wasn’t one of the winning texts, it was selected for a performance at the Text Market where it has benefitted from that exposure. Playwright and director Caitlin Wiggil has written an intriguing story about an agoraphobic woman unable to leave her house because of an earlier trauma.

du toit alberze
Du Toit Albertze, the playwright of Klip Kween.

Two playwrights who were rewarded with writer’s bursaries will be presenting plays: Herschelle Benjamin with Slavenhuis 39 explores what it means to be a person of colour while Du Toit Albertze homes in on a young transgender woman who returns to her birthplace in Klip Kween to investigate her past. She sacrifices her last bit of sanity to go back to Namakwaland to reclaim her innocence from the local pastor. “The narrative becomes just as blurred as the characters’ morality when the pastor’s new victim becomes intertwined in this Christmas play-like tragedy,” explains the playwright.

“Director Jason (Jacobs) and I strive to honour the sisters before us, the daughters of District Six. Also to remind the ‘ooms en tannies’ of transgender existence and exposing the trans- and homophobic religious leaders still abusing their power.”. It’s important that all of this be talked about. “There are too many of us who hide away like vampires. Hopefully these stories will kick some of them out of the closets!”

stof with james cairns
Stof with James Cairns

Both of these young playwrights are worth checking out. It is early in their writing careers, but they have already made their mark as they tell stories that open new worlds.Another transgender story titled Rokkie showcases a 48 year old transgender woman from the Cape Flats, and is the solo debut of Charlton George, an actor with extraordinary talents; while Craig Morris returns with one of his breathtaking performances in Greig Coetzee’s Johnny Boskak is Feeling Funny.

babbelagtig
Babbelagtig – Picture by Hans van der Veen

 

It’s also going to be fascinating watching James Cairns switch to Afrikaans in his solo show Dirt (which he has translated as Stof), directed by Jenine Collocott, who is also in charge of the family-orientated clown show Babbelagtig with an extraordinary comedy ensemble with Jemma Kahn, Roberto Pombo, De Klerk Oelofse, Dean Bailie, Klara van Wyk, Thami Baba and David Viviers.

Marching in step is the Gerrit Schoonhoven-directed two-hander with partners Elize Cawood and Wilson Dunster in Narkose (Anesthesia). Two old clowns, Koos and Koos, are down and out but determined the show must go on. This talented trio have a way of sprinkling fairy dust whenever on stage, even when they gently let rip with the truth. Louis Roux, a young playwright, is helping with the text.

And finally, with a title like GodgOdgoD it’s hard to resist. It has already reaped some rewards with a cast as versatile as Charlton George, Ilana Cilliers and Wolf Britz. Described as experimental, language isn’t the star as the company explores identity, who we are, where we come from and exploding the myths and theories that want to determine the way we live.

That’s only a handful, a starting point especially if English theatre is more accessible at this mainly Afrikaans festival. But do yourself a favour, go online and have a look at their programme which is also available in English. Be prepared to be overwhelmed. It is a staggering offering from the arts in all its glorious diversity.