It’s official. The Obz Cafe Theatre does not work for me as a theatre venue. I have seen stuff there before, sat in both rooms, and it is hell. Close it down. Bring in the bar counter and the pool table. There are just too many reasons why the space will never work. The audience sits in TWO SEPARATE ROOMS. Now that’s not only bizarre; as a performer you have no idea where to direct your performance. Do you focus on the small hole on the one side or the long hallway on the other? In desperation I see people performing to the corner wall. For an audience member, sitting in either section brings its own frustrations. Last night we sat in the long thin section. Omigod. It takes a serious effort to hear the performers above the clomping of feet above you, the revelers in the street, the patrons (who always sound the drunkest) of The Obz Cafe itself and those in the venue next door. We sat next to the separating curtain, that encloses the space. Which was a great way to make sure that we could hear the staff and even the kitchen! Lovely. To make matters worse, the sound and lights are so just plain shit and inadequate. I really feel that the disadvantages completely outweigh the fact that The Obz Cafe Theatre is one of very few independent theatres. It’s not enough to be that if you can’t create a respectful space for performers and an audience. It’s just too much like hell on earth for both.
Now, onto what brought us there in the first place – the opening night of Woman, Man… written and directed by Steven Pillemer and performed by Marthinus van der Berg, Mark Elderkin, Mbulelo Grootboom, Clyde Berning and Vaneshran Arumugam. The show does not start too well, with two of the performers Vaneshran and Clyde waiting patiently for the music to be turned down before they perform (on their guitars and Clyde singing) two songs. I have no idea why they do this. It’s horrible and embarrassing. Finally, Vaneshran plays guitar by himself while the others set up for the play, which is a relief. He is actually very good. But I don’t understand what the little musical intro is all about. It certainly doesn’t “set the scene”, which is a bar. The only good thing about the singing and guitars is the mics. We hear everything. But once that’s over, the mics are put away and there begins the hell of not hearing most of what happens on stage.
The play is a series of monologues by men about women. I think from what I heard of the writing that it is very good. Each performer gets two chances, and aside from Mark Elderkin, who plays the same bartender twice, the others do different characters. In fairness, I didn’t understand the second of Mbulelo Grootboom’s short pieces in Xhosa. My bad.
The play opens with Mark Elderkin, the barman, in a heartfelt lashing out at his model, recently ex, girlfriend, after having seen her with her new lawyer boyfriend. He gave a subtle, well thought out and moving performance that was virtually inaudible. I was desperate to hear him. It was also at this point that we realised that when there was no music coming through the speakers they made a terrible noise, not helping at all the fact that we were struggling to hear the actors.
Next up was a ‘drunk’ Mbulelo Grootboom, whose entrance from the audience was well timed and very creepy. His ‘dronk verdriet’ character is lovely and the build to his story is funny and clever. The only thing is, his diatribe is all told to the barman, upstage of him, so we missed a lot of what he said!
Unfortunately, Vaneshran’s monologue was like a radio play for us. He sat on the edge of the stage and from where we were we didn’t see him at all. We only heard him, and this with great difficulty. His monologue, beautifully written in a Berkoffesque rhyme was spoilt for me by the choice of further Berkoff -ing it with a cockney accent. How much more powerful, I thought, it would have been to do it in that style with any other accent in the world.
Clyde’s very ‘Cape Town’ monologue was cute and Martinus’s was even cuter. Both characters had lots of energy and physicality which really helped. And they were both funny and charming. It also helped tons that we heard them. Had they done good voice warm-ups before the show?
There ended the first half. After a short interval during which I hoped they’d sort out the speaker thing (they didn’t) we went back for the second half. Unfortunately the humour and lightness from the first half took a turn to the more bleak and maudlin and the direction of the monologues faltered for me here. (Clyde’s) was about domestic violence. And the director needed to steer the performance in a different direction. It was trite and drama schoolish, full of public angst and wroeg. Vaneshran’s piece, a kind of complicated make-up monologue, had moments of power but again the direction wasn’t tight enough to find the real sadness and beauty of the writing. Martinus had a go at falling in love over the internet which had a tricky and not very believable resolution. Pity. Finally, the barman ended. Steven was really, really good. And sensitive and beautiful. And too soft!
Big Friendly said, “please don’t only write horrible stuff. There were positives!” And he is right. The writing is really good. The performers are good. Please put this piece on somewhere else where it isn’t such hard work for an audience to enjoy it.