Live theatre – or storytelling – for those of us who find it addictive, is alive and well even in the toughest times and when you look back at past year, predictions are that this year will be even better.
Highlights were many on the musical front but the two – on opposite ends of the scale – that set the bar majestically high were Jersey Boys with our local boys doing fantastic work to turn this into a nostalgic and memorable season, as well as Sunset Boulevard starring Jonathan Roxmouth and Angela Kilian in an inspired pairing by the whiz production team with Paul Warwick Griffin as director and Charl- Johan Lingenfelder as musical supervisor.
Sunset was much more drama than musical with two local stars who could combine both the acting and the singing skills to pull it off. They also had a powerhouse ensemble cast with James Borthwick leading the pack. It was magnificently staged as one of Pieter Toerien’s intimate bonsai productions which means it had a much more intimate feel than those staged on the larger Teatro stage. But what this team do so spectacularly is to enhance rather than diminish the production because of their fresh approach and the way they strip it down to suit the smaller venue.
They weren’t sure they could keep pulling them out of the hat, but this is no trickery, it’s sheer talent. A toast all around to production team and cast.
Theatre also decided they had to pull them in with both nostalgia and new voices. Two directors who shifted minds and hearts big time also stepped into new posts last year to shake up and scramble the theatre scene in Gauteng. James Ngcobo was appointed the new artistic director at Joburg’s Market Theatre, while the Sowetan Theatre appointed the rapidly rising Warona Seane as their first artistic director.
Add to this new team Xoliswa Nduneni-Ngema as chief executive of the Joburg City Theatres and the landscape has changed dramatically with a huge injection of energy and enthusiasm added to the mix. It’s going to be fun to watch them in action.
Before the announcement of her appointment, Seane was given the chance to show her stuff with a new US play, The Mountaintop, written by young playwright Katori Hall who took an icon and looked at him from a new perspective.
It was an electric production which was pulled together by a script that sparkles, and actors Sello Sebotsane and Mwenya Kabwe who gave a novel glimpse of Dr Martin Luther King’s last night. Deftly directed by Seane, who likes to use the word “groundbreaking” when talking about theatre she loves. This was absolutely that.
Ngcobo turned to Athol Fugard for his inspiration and first production as the new artistic master at the Market. It was the third in a trilogy of much-loved plays that he has wanted to do. It started with Master Harold and the Boys and Boesman and Lena and followed with the captivating Nongogo, first performed in Joburg in 1959. This time he played it with what could have been viewed as a celebrity cast including Tony Kgoroge, Desmond Dube, Masasa Mbangeni, Fana Mokoena and Hamilton Dlamini.
But the director knows these are people who love returning to the stage and they knocked every character on its head in a production that was as endearing as it was heartwrenching. It was the perfect start as Ngcobo typically paid homage to the past while infusing the production with new life.
That was also the intention of playwright and director Sue Pam Grant who staged a revisionist production of the play that initially brought her to everyone’s attention, Curl Up and Dye, and cast Quanita Adams, Robert Colman, Hlengiwe Lushaba-Madlala, Lesedi Job-Smith and Cindy Swanepoel in the re-energised play.
It’s amazing to go back to a time that seems so long gone and yet, when reflecting on it today, it brings different insights. That’s what Pam-Grant did with her artistic eye and a mind that simply never stops moving. It also allowed her to take different risks. This time it wasn’t so much political but artistic. What she was doing way back when she was pushing boundaries with the text.
Two shining lights, Atandwa Kani and Nat Ramabulana, turned back and grasped the future with the two productions they staged together this year. There was the brave The Island not only recreating the famous Kani senior’s role, but also calling on him to direct – and in the end, having Atandwa play the part his famous dad had brought to life. That’s brave stuff from everyone concerned and they pulled it off. And then they went back to their own beginnings with Hayani, a production that first emerged when they were Wits drama graduates together.
Polished and preened by Warren Nebe, the play has lost none of its power as the two actors reach back to their roots and shed light on their childhood.
New faces with bags of brilliance are always a joy to behold and one of these that seemed to be bouncing all over the place was that of the delightful Janna Ramos-Violante. Starting from a Durban base, that’s where she first had impact, but she’s moved her focus to Gauteng stages and started last year in the Pieter Toerien production Don’t Dress For Dinner. She followed this with Venus in Fur opposite collaborator and friend Neil Coppen, equally versatile and seen here on stage rather than pulling the direction strings as we have become more familiar with plays like Abnormal Loads and Tin Bucket Drum.
It’s a dynamic partnership but then Ramos-Violante was off writing and staging Callum’s Will (previously staged at the National Arts Festival) and also Phobic at one of our newest theatrical venues, PopART in the Maboneng Precinct, where artists are given the chance to try and experiment with new work.
She’s a force to be reckoned with, an exciting prospect who is working both mainstream as well as producing her own edgy material. In the future, she is looking forward to making movies with her husband but for now, she’s got her sights set firmly on stage where she is developing not only her own skills, but also offering opportunities for other young actors.
On the topic of actors, Patricia Boyer is another one to take note of. She spent many years honing her craft in England, and her most recent local performance was in the intriguing Testament of Mary which deals with the life of Mary, mother of Jesus, and looks at her as an ordinary mother who is worried that her son is putting himself in unnecessary danger. Like The Mountaintop, the playwright is taking something that’s written in stone and looking at it from a different vantage point which gets your head spinning and asking different ques-tions. It wasn’t so much controversial as theatrically interesting.
And then there were some showstoppers on the Afrikaans side with Saartjie Botha’s Balbesit (which premiered at the Klein Karoo National Arts Festival before its season at the State Theatre) playing with one of the country’s most emotionally charged games and using it to look at the state of men and how they feel about what they have to say.
With director Jaco Bouwer and choreographer Ina Wichterich, it was turned into a piece of movement theatre that hit you in the heart. Botha’s adaptation of Andre P Brink’s Bidsprinkaan was extraordinary and with director Janice Honeyman’s playful guidance and Elton Landrew’s exhilarating performance it’s something that should have played much much wider than it did, with only a few performances in Cape Town and Stellenbosch.
Similarly, with Nicola Hanekom’s two vastly different but blow-your-mind innovative site-specific works, both performed at festivals, the one in Oudtshoorn and the other in Potchefstroom. Trippie, again brilliantly directed by Jaco Bouwer, featured Hanekom and Stian Bam as two passengers on a bus with the audience also part of the journey. In little more than an hour, Hanekom created a thriller in which the woman manages to kill her victim in front of those watching without them understanding what was happening. Many were left tripping.
Later in the year at Aardklop, she was commissioned to do a work on Emily Hobhouse and the women in the Anglo-Boer War concentration camps which she titled Land van Skedels (Country of Skulls) as she stripped the layers to show the blood and gore of all the people affected in that horrific war – especially those who were sidelined. She is one of those remarkable artists who tells a story with a very unique voice. Her sensibilities are courageously sound and she never allows her artistic integrity to be compromised. We’re lucky to have this one. As a writer/actor/director, she’s the best of the triple threat.
A director who celebrated his 60th birthday, the extraordinary Marthinus Basson always overwhelms with his productions. This time it was the way he magically turned what could have been a dire situation into something spectacular. The money needed to stage the full show he intended wasn’t there so with clipped wings he minimised the cast, crept into the seams and crevices of what Shakespeare intended with Macbeth and came up with Macbeth, Slapeloos which chillingly captured the mores and morals of the everyday. With Dawid Minnaar and Anna-Mart van der Merwe leading a powerhouse cast, it was theatre Basson does best, targeting the senses and the mind.
From Bloemfontein appeared a group of young women led by Tereska Muishond with a piece she created, Te Veel Vir ’n Coloured Girl, which should tour the country with a brilliant text and performances by four women, three of whom had never been on stage before. “I was tired of watching what our community’s men were doing to the women,” she said about this strident piece as she showed there’s nowhere better than on stage to make your point strongly and succinctly. These are talents to watch and nurture. They also step out of a community who might have a voice on Cape Town stages, but not in the rest of the country. Talk about breaking through a glass ceiling.
There were more. Like Bianca Le Grange’s star turn in Blood Brothers, Megan Willson directing Bash for PopART and reminding of a talent sorely missed, a startling performance by Tim Plewman in Greg Viljoen’s My Last Moustache, Prince Lamla’s rivetting Asinamali and Sandra Prinsloo’s brilliant English version of Die Naaimasjien titled The Sewing Machine.
That’s exciting stuff. Let 2014 begin. With the National Arts Festival celebrating 40 years, the Klein Karoo Arts Festival turning 20, a dynamic trio setting the tone on Joburg stages as well as the leader of the pack, 20 years into our democracy, expectations are soaring.