NAF 2015: TEN FRINGE PRODUCTIONS NOT TO MISS

 Andrew Buckland in Tobacco, or the Harmfull Effects Thereof (Pic by Marius Janse van Rensburg)

Andrew Buckland in Tobacco, or the Harmfull Effects Thereof (Pic by Marius Janse van Rensburg)

This feature was first published in Cape Times on 2 July 2015.

Steyn du Toit

Any thespian will tell you that it is often the Fringe component of any given arts festival that also offers its most unexpected viewing delights. But with a free-for-all format when it comes to The National Arts Festival (NAF) in Grahamstown’s Fringe programme, it can be difficult picking the most bang for your buck.

Here are 10 picks, consisting of both past festival favourites and debuts, well worth sampling this year:

BLUE (Dance)

Celebrating their 20th year in Grahamstown, no trip to NAF is complete without seeing a production by the Cape Dance Company (CDC). Under the artistic direction of Debbie Turner and consisting of four pieces by three leading choreographers, Blue is recommended for both fans of the company’s signature neoclassical style, as well as for those interested in exploring contemporary dance trends. As a companion piece also don’t miss Jilted, performed by the Cape Academy of Performing Arts (a feeder training company for the CDC), and featuring dance, drama and song.

DETRITUS FOR ONE (Physical theatre)

Dancer and lecturer Alan Parker has been interested in the notion of the archive for a while now, with each new production or academic paper he puts out on the topic taking him deeper into the way we record and document theatre and live performance. In 2013’s Detritus I watched a group of dancers, under his direction, emphatically reenact a series of pieces that they had seen the previous year at NAF. This time around Parker will browse through his own mental archive, and the results should be very interesting to see.

KAFKA AND SON (Drama)

While Franz Kafka and existentialism are often referred to in the same sentence, it is the author’s knack for the surreal that I find myself more often drawn to. Adapted from Kafka’s Letter to His Father by Mark Cassidy (director) and Alon Nashman (actor), this was one of the most memorable productions of NAF for me last year. Nashman, who plays Kafka, delivers a deeply felt yet intellectual performance against a strong visual backdrop of long shadows, cages and black feathers.

PIET SE OPTELGOED (Physical theatre)

Liezl de Kock in Piet se Optelgoed (Pic by Jesse Kramer)
Liezl de Kock in Piet se Optelgoed (Pic by Jesse Kramer)

Living in, and on top of some kind of post-apocalyptic wasteland, the macabre antiheroine in Liezl de Kock’s Piet se Optelgoed has a very dark tale to tell. Rooted in mime and physical theatre, this visceral tale of adaptation, trauma and, ultimately, survival, was hands down the best production I saw during last year’s Cape Town Fringe Festival. De Kock (Crazy in Love) not only delivers an overwhelming performance, but the production’s final metaphorical scene has returned to haunt me often since first experiencing it.

RETURN OF THE ANCESTORS (Drama)

2014 was the year that the spirits of struggle icons Steve Biko and Neil Aggett first travelled from the afterlife in order to come see what the South Africa that they fought for looks like today. What they found back here, however, seemed to go against the very grain of what the ANC originally stood for. Poverty, corruption, greed, violence, xenophobia, distrust, consumerism and nepotism; the current situation literally saw them turn in their graves. Written by Mike van Graan and starring promising young actors Siya Sikawuti and Mandisi Sindo, their funny and sobering journey to the foot of Nkandla continues.

TOBACCO, AND THE HARMFUL EFFECTS THEREOF (Drama)

Seriously, what more reason do you need than Andrew Buckland and Sylvaine teaming up together for a play? Described as “an adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s monologue, On the Harmful Effects of Tobacco, re-imagined, in cut-up technique, in collaboration with Franz Kafka, Edward Lear and Andre Breton, amongst others”, it is both an exercise in linguistics as well as in the poetry and movement of the human body. Don’t miss this opportunity to see why these two theatre makers are simply in a league of their own.

Wessel Pretorius in Undone (Pic by Louisa Feiter)
Wessel Pretorius in Undone (Pic by Louisa Feiter)

UNDONE (Drama)

You’ll struggle to find anyone who has seen it who isn’t raving about Wessel Pretorius’ Undone, and with good reason. Kicking off with a splendid rendition of CJ Langenhoven’s Liefdesonsin: ‘n wiegeliedjie, in this play his unnamed protagonist takes the viewer on a visually evocative mythological pilgrimage through transformation from boy to man. Religion, sexuality, self-discovery, theatre and poetry; it’s all part of this alluring production.

UNMUTE (Dance)

Choreographed by, and starring Andile Vellem alongside Nadine Mckenzie, Themba Mbuli and Zama Sonjica, UnMute is a physical piece in which disabled performers aim to overcome the limits of their own bodies. Simultaneously they also go about circumnavigating society’s perceptions of how they should be treated because of their condition. It’s a beautiful, athletic, fearless and captivating production where Vellem and his team physically achieve the impossible. It leaves the viewer to reflect on how patronising we often are as a society towards those with disabilities, instead of rather finding ways to supplement that which they are already more than capable of doing themselves.

VASLAV (Drama)

Presented in the form of a fragmented narrative, Vaslav revolves around Russian ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky’s 30-year battle with paranoid schizophrenia. Starring Godfrey Johnson as the artist often referred to as “The God of the Dance,” the script – by Johnson, Lara Bye and Karen Jeynes – was compiled from Nijinsky’s own diaries and journal entries. Against a backdrop of archive video footage, movement coordination by Fiona Du Plooy as well as period music played by Johnson on piano, what emerges is a portrait of a vastly gifted individual who continues to have an impact on our world nearly 100 years after he danced for the last time.

WE DIDN’T COME TO HELL FOR THE CROISSANTS (Poetry)

Subtitled Seven Deadly New Stories for Consenting Adults, there really isn’t anything you need to know about this production other than it’s made by the same people behind The Epicene Butcher and last year’s Amateur Hour! This time around Jemma Kahn has roped in some theatrical collaborators – including Louis Viljoen (The Pervert Laura), Nicholas Spagnoletti (London Road) and Tertius Kapp (Rooiland) – so the literary festivities should be all the merrier.

l NAF takes place from July 2 – July 12. For full show schedule and booking details, see www.nationalartsfestival.co.za and www.facebook.com/nationalartsfestival, or follow @artsfestival on Twitter.

Steyn du Toit is a Cape Town-based freelance arts journalist. For any questions please e-mail steyndutoit (at) gmail (dot) com. 

NAF 2015: TEN FRINGE PRODUCTIONS NOT TO MISS

REVIEW: DIE GLAS ENNIE DRAAD

Daniel Richards, front, and Gantane Kusch, back.
Daniel Richards, front, and Gantane Kusch, back.

This review was first published in Cape Times on 25 March 2015.

DIE GLAS ENNIE DRAAD. Directed by Sandra Temmingh, and starring Daniel Richards and Gantane Kusch. At the Artscape Arena theatre, Tuesday to Friday at 8.15pm, Saturday at 3pm and 8.15pm and Sunday at 3pm (Until March 29). STEYN DU TOIT reviews.

“If drug dealers make so much money, why are they still living with their mothers?” economist Steven Levitt and journalist Stephen J. Dubner asks in 2005’s Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything.

The process of reaching their conclusion is one of many reasons why this fascinating book proved so popular, but for the purposes of this review I’ll cut to the chase. Drug dealers and gang members still live with their mothers because, well, they actually end up making less money than the average McDonald’s employee.

Levitt and Dubner would have a field day here in the Western Cape. While our population might only be around one-tenth of the country’s population, the province nonetheless still manages to account for 60% of South Africa’s drug and gang-related crime.

Housing an estimated half-a-million Numbers gang members alone – seven times the staff compliment of the entire South African National Defence Force (SANDF) – the Cape Flats in particular would no doubt provide interesting research territory for the two authors.

Similar to their American counterparts, it is also most often the young men from places such as Lavender Hill that are sucked into this “profession”. Statistics show that a whopping 72% of males born on the Cape Flats will eventually go to jail for it, and a lot of them will return there so many times over the course of their lives that “going home” has become a euphemism for serving time.

With the odds so obviously stacked against you, why then would someone choose to become a Numbers gangster and tik dealer in the first place I hear you ask while reading this review and sipping espresso on your sunny suburban porch. The answer, of course, is that they don’t choose the lives they end up having to live out. They are, simply put, born into it.

Directed by Temmingh and starring Kusch as a mid-level general with an estimated 3000 gang members serving underneath him, through the various characters he meets (all played by Richards) in Die Glas Ennie Draad (The glass and the wire) the viewer is taken inside a bright young mind too promising to have been dealt such a heavy hand in life.

Named “Marlin” for the purposes of the play, by having Kusch interact with Richards as both a psychologist as well as one of Marlin’s fellow gangsters, we are also given profound insight into the complexity of the kind of individual the media (and those of us comfortably living in the upper to middle classes) all too easily want to refer to as the skidmark of Cape Town’s society.

Based on interactions Kusch and Richards had with an anonymous real-life former gangster, the play’s script fuses poetry and movement to explore a life destroyed before it had a chance to even begin. “Believing in oneself” and “becoming anything you want as long as you apply yourself” are not slogans Marlin heard growing up. Here it was only bowana in en bowana uit. Blood in and blood out.

Gantane Kusch, front, and Daniel Richards, back.
Gantane Kusch, front, and Daniel Richards, back.

Temmingh, who, after more than 25 years of lecturing have chosen this production as her swan song from UCT’s Drama Department, has her formidable actors demonstrate the inseparable nature of blood once it mixes. Incorporating rhythmic gang hand signs, the assembling of guns and other related mannerisms into their performance, we start to see how their unforgiving environment cyclically both spawn as well as consume them.

Kusch as the fearless yet conflicted gang leader gives a commanding performance, as does the Fleur du Cap-nominated Richards (Fergus of Galloway) in his various demanding roles. True to the play’s title, as a duo these two also do a solid job in demonstrating the interrelationship between higher-ranked gang “officials” (the glass) and their subordinates (the wire).

Performed in a mixture of English, Afrikaans, Cape Flats dialect and Numbers lingo, while there are parts that might be difficult to follow for non-native Afrikaans speakers, Die Glass Ennie Draad always makes sure to bring everyone back up to speed with frequent cuts to Richards’ anglophone psychologist.

While admittedly the past few years have seen more than a fair share of Cape Flats-related gangster films, plays and even photographic and art exhibitions, where this one differs is in its focus and intention.

This isn’t a play about scary characters, gratuitous violence or slow motion shootouts to the sound of Die Antwoord. Rather, it’s a gritty, psychological and often-abstract look at the fear and trauma related with simply being born on the wrong side of Table Mountain.

l Tickets are R100. To book, call Computicket at 0861 915 8000, or see www.computicket.com.

Steyn du Toit is a Cape Town-based freelance arts journalist. For any questions please e-mail steyndutoit (at) gmail (dot) com. 

REVIEW: DIE GLAS ENNIE DRAAD

REVIEW: BOOK OF REBELLATIONS

Lebohang Masimola as Tlhogo Moimele and Nkoto Malebye as Esmiralda.
Lebohang Masimola as Tlhogo Moimele and Nkoto Malebye as Esmiralda.

This review was first published in Cape Times on 17 February 2015.

BOOK OF REBELLATIONS. Directed by Monageng “Vice” Motshabi, and starring Xolile Gama, Nkoto Malebye, Lebohang Motaung, Tshepo Seagiso, Phosho Lebese and Bafana Ndlhovu. At the Artscape Arena theatre, Tuesday to Friday at 7pm, and Saturday at 3pm and 7pm (Until February 21). STEYN DU TOIT reviews.

The hills are alive with the sound of dissidence in Monageng “Vice” Motshabi and Kgafela oa Magogodi’s Book of Rebellations. Presented by the Soweto Theatre and set in a futuristic African country named Kanana, this allegorical fantasy humorously draws on stereotypes in order to comment on the cancers rotting our continent from within.

“Happy 30 Years of Freedom. The Revolution Continues!” a large banner reads on stage during the production’s excellent opening number. Accompanied by Bafana Ndlhovu on bass and Phosho Lebese on drums, the cast’s rendition of Halala, Kanana, Halala! is just sublime.

Marching in sync like automatons, their faces frozen in teeth-grinning expressions, the scene is made all the more hilarious when listening to the song’s words.

“Oh Freedom/Oh nation of many colours/Oh nation of togetherness/Oh Miracle of Miracles,” they sing in joyful unison similar to something one would see leaked from North Korea. “You saved us from war/You built us free houses/Viva People’s revolution/You gave us electricity/Viva revolutionary constitution!”

Under Magogodi’s musical direction, songs are frequently returned to in order to transport the action to another location, or to drive the plot forward. Described by the creators as “heightened moments in the journeys of specific characters”, also take note of how the music and tone for each new song gradually grows more ominous as the storyline moves into darker territory.

Drawing on various genres, it is most often Seagiso, who plays the part of protagonist Gogoa, who uses his impressive rap skills to compact otherwise long pieces of plot information into catchy songs of a few minutes each.

Highlights include Di Kokota, signalling a watershed moment in his character’s development; Thaa, which chronicles his journey to Kanana; as well as Goang, serving as a call-to-arms to the children of Kanana. And while a lot of Seagiso’s lyrics are sung in Setswana, about 90% of the rest of the production is performed in English.

Starring as diabolical dictator Tlhogo Moimele is Motaung. Watching his character utter a series of horrific things are made funnier because we can see how much he enjoys playing his exaggerated character. Howling demonically, snacking on the brains of children or complaining of an illness that is too good to spoil here; it’s all fair in panto and war for this commanding performer.

Nkoto Malebye as Martha, Lebohang Masimola as Tlhogo Moimele and Tshepo Seagiso as Gogoa.
Nkoto Malebye as Martha, Lebohang Masimola as Tlhogo Moimele and Tshepo Seagiso as Gogoa.

Thanks to director Motshabi’s carefully considered artistic vision, however, Book of Rebellations never loses sight of its real target: The reality of the atrocities referred to in the play. As a theatremaker he clearly understands the role that humour has to play in the telling of tragic stories.

Through Gama and Malebye respectively we are also introduced to various other characters affected by Moimele and his counterparts’ game of thrones. Real people are being displaced, raped or killed as we speak, yet the rest of the world seems more interested in when Kim Kardashian will be photographed bulging out of her next disgustingly expensive outfit next.

Gama, in a soft-spoken performance that grips you by the shoulders and looks you in the eyes, plays Sbu, an ordinary man who, after a horrific incident of genocide, has to come to grips with his new home in a refugee camp. “The stupid people they see me drown and they come save my life,” he reveals in broken English in reference to him surviving a suicide attempt. “I say to myself, ‘Why God, mara he?’”

Already a refugee after making it through excruciating atrocities back in her home country, Nkoto’s character, Esmiralda, finds herself placed in a fenced ghetto by Moimele’s regime as well. Speaking carefully and in a Namibian accent, she delivers another of the production’s most memorable performances.

A gifted, from-the-heart actress with loads of stage presence, also look out for her as Martha, Moimele’s vacuous assistant, as well as the faceless member of a mysterious group named the Order Members.

You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time, the popular saying goes. The gears are turning. The poor people of South Africa are getting restless. They’ve had enough.

Appealing, conceptually strong and executed with great stamina, Book of Rebellations is both an enjoyable production and a good example of what contemporary local theatre looks like.

l Tickets are R80. To book, call Computicket at 0861 915 8000, or see www.computicket.com.

Steyn du Toit is a Cape Town-based freelance arts journalist. For any questions, please e-mail steyndutoit (at) gmail (dot) com. 

REVIEW: BOOK OF REBELLATIONS