The balding man with the grizzled grey beard who is dressed in a regular grey shirt and braces holding up ordinary dark grey pants has white spats topping his shoes. Odd, that.
But then Lionel Newton (not to mention his director, Sylvaine Strike) is always full of idiosyncratic surprises. None more so than in this two-hander with cellist Kultwano Masote joining in as part of the narrative in an eccentric triptych of solos featuring Robert Browning’s The Pied Piper of Hamelin, Nick Warren’s The Hand-over and Newton’s self-penned Jasmine’s Jewel.
An unlikely pairing of performers this certainly is, but it works because Strike knows a thing or three about conjuring with physicality and theatricality. And, in terms of Browning’s epic poem, how to bring a classic text into the 21st century zinging with creativity and reverence as she did with Moliere’s The Miser.
The overarching title of Agreed is a play on the word “greed” which is a theme running through all three monologues. Binding the works together is Newton’s extraordinary prowess as an actor who has become synonymous with physical theatre pyrotechnics. In The Pied Piper of Hamelin (which originated as Newton’s inconsistent Rats!), secure direction enables him to fully express his storytelling genius and mesmerise with his craft. Masote’s interactions on the cello, which he plucks, scratches and plays to wonderful effect, adds enormously to the experience.
Accents and characterisations are ingested and embodied, infecting every one of Newton’s muscles and corpuscles which erupt into symbiotic movements and gestures, not merely illustrating the musical impetus and verbal poetry, but transforming and becoming the words in a liquid language of aesthetic expression.
The contrast with the highly topical Hand-over is stark. The scene is set by a costumed Mlindeli Zondi who carries on stage a plush red armchair and specific props. Colonial nostalgia scents the air. Enter a malevolent white South African capitalist oozing evil decadence from every ageing pore. This reptilian scoundrel is driven by Nick Warren’s lethally articulate, rabidly cynical text and a dangerously languorous performance steeped in minimalism.
This evening of compelling virtuosity and exciting experimentation ends with the only weak dramatic link in this sterling chain.
Jasmine’s Jewel, in which Newton portrays the geriatric waiter Boeta Jamad who is hankering for better days as well as restaurant customers, seems unfinished and suffers from indulgent repetition, lacking the tautness of the other two works.
Yet, what better way to begin the theatre year than with three South African masters at play.