Photographer: Lungelo Mbulwana
DIANE DE BEER
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.