Denis Beckett is a writer and journalist. File picture: Nqobile Sithole

Shape by Boykey and Kate Sidley is not there just yet and play may need some “tweaking-plus”, writes Denis Beckett.

A decade ago Defending the Caveman was a remarkable Joburg stage show - proof that pale persons could still find the town of which they’d been 99 percent of residents for 95 percent of its life. Now they were foreigners, except around the corner of Beit and Sivewright where night after night, hundreds and hundreds of nights, the walls of the ancient Alhambra Theatre flexed and heaved to accommodate the laughter inside. Now I wonder: might Caveman’s successor have been born?

Last week the Auto & General Theatre on the Square launched Shape, by Boykey and Kate Sidley. Many times, memories of Caveman hopped into mind, partly the laugh rate and partly the subject matter. This was us taking the mick out of us, the people in the audience were the people on the stage, homegrown to the endth (indeed rather more than adapted Caveman).

Moreover, it wasn’t just the mick, it was spearing and punching and injuring, too, on ego and vulnerability and aloneness and the gap between where our lives are at and where our schedule had placed them.

On the R-word Race, too, where I’d have expected something along the lines I ride on, that you cope with race by ignoring race. No; different and more nuanced in interesting ways headed by a black man’s outrage at being expected to fit in a colour-coded box. In this and other arenas, Shape steps beyond Caveman - laugh.laugh.chunk-of-thought.laugh.whole-new-thought.laugh.

Now I come to the However.

To write for public consumption, in my view, your first duty is to the person whose time and attention you are claiming, not the people who you are writing about, friends as they may be. You inform your reader as best you can, entertain your reader as best you can, but certainly never deceive your reader.

Not for nothing does Shape conjure up a possible replication of the most successful theatre on record. But it’s not there yet. Lumpy bits, tailings-away and character-conflicts intrude and in this punter’s mind there’s not just tweaking to be done but tweaking-plus, along with the surely impending review of the ambitious device of a loudly absent participant.

I suppose no word clunks the soul of a brand-new playwright (why isn’t that word “playwrite”?) worse than the word “tweak”. In the end, though, it’s more useful than the longed-for word “perfect”. Just reminding.

* * *

The first thing I liked about Boris Gorelik’s book was its unlikelihood. An account of Russia’s links to the Cape Colony being launched in Joburg in 2016 by an outfit called the Van Riebeeck Society seemed to have escaped from Monty Python. That’s how I got to the launch of An Entirely Different World. I came to query. I stayed to cheer.

Cheered Boris, heartily. I’d cheer him anyway for appearing from afar and deciding that South Africa is where he wants to be. I cheer him more for what he adds. Boris started with a biography of our most famous Russian, Tretchikoff, and has now assembled the records of several Russian visitors in the 1800s. He picks out a magnificent collection of unexpected perspectives - on the Dutch versus the English, for instance; the Russians had no horse in that race and are sublimely caustic about both - and blends them with vigour that’s a knockout in its own right.

Cheered the Van Riebeeck Society, too, astonished to have not yet met it in its 98 years of publishing “primary texts of Africana that might otherwise be lost to posterity”. It’s done a book a year, in Xhosa, too, on the strength of members who pay the price of a good lunch once a year to keep history alive. Unsung heroes.

* Beckett is a writer and journalist

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

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