Megan's Head

A place where Megan gets off her head.

Tag: Market Theatre

The Table – Friday night supper like every Jewish family knows it

When I got to Grahamstown The Table had just finished its run on the main fest and I had to listen to the radically differing opinions of my trusted friends. Some loved it while others hated it. I was delighted when I realised that I was going to be able to see it after all on my last night in Jozi.

It seems like an odd choice for The Market Theatre; a very niche story about a Jewish family friday night; not really the kind of stuff that I would imagine being very accessible to an 80 percent black Jozi audience. This was true of last night’s audience, for sure, being made up of 80 percent of a group of black, mostly wheelchair bound or on crutches young people, who were waiting patiently in the foyer when we arrived. It was the kind of audience who laughed at weird places and during all the “sensitive” moments.

The play, created by Sylvaine Strike, the director, and Craig Higginson tells the fraught story of how the three grown children of a family find out that the family maid’s daughter is their half sister. This all happens on a Friday night Shabbat dinner, where they have gathered a year after the father has died. Flora (Janet Carpede) the maid’s daughter (Khabonina Qubeka) is back from studying overseas, the matriarch (still beautiful in her seventies Annabel Linder) is in a private hell of her own holocaust memories, Daniel (brilliant Brian Webber) is sick and has been thrown out by his wife, Ruth (the amazing Karen van der Laag) has eating issues, and the baby Levi (William Harding) is in love with his soon to be revealed half-sister. It’s complicated.

I have had a very interesting response to The Table. It’s weird, but it feels like I really liked it, in spite of itself. The play is in two separate styles; a strongly stylised Sylvaine Strike movement based interpretive visual almost slightly grotesque mode, and then a terribly naturalistic ordinary kitchen sink-ish emotionally fraught purge. And I liked them both, but was never sure how well they got on with each other.

Then there is the story (and I love a story), which just feels like there’s too much of it. The discovery of the black half-sister who lived under their roof without them knowing (reminding me strongly of Mike Leigh’s Secrets and Lies), the mother’s holocaust drama (that includes the table and reminded me of the movie of Everything is Illuminated) and then all the fraught family stuff that includes a healthy Jewish guilt complex, unresolved and hideous jealousy issues, lots of love, childhood memory games and the usual sibling stuff when a bunch of adult children get together. Too much story.

While all the performances were really good (some characters definitely had more meat written into them) Karin van der Laag and Brian Webber were beyond amazing. This play deserves to be seen just for them. I absolutely loved watching them and when I wasn’t convinced about other stuff they helped me get over it.

Everybody has spoken about Sylvaine’s trademark style of direction being all over this piece. I haven’t seen enough of her work to know about this, but there are moments of really beautiful magic, where things are stretched and extended, weird juxtapositions happen, strange things take place with ordinary props and subtext is played out in slow motion movement. Some of these are breathtakingly lovely.

A funny thing happened to me during the show though. There was a constant nagging at the back of my mind, and I struggled with it all the way out into the parking lot, and then back home, when it hit me. During the Directors and Directing weekend Faniswa Yisa spoke about loving working with The Magnet Theatre company because she was sick of only ever having the option of the playing the maid in South African plays. She said that those were the parts written for black women. Put in a black maid. And there she was last night. The black maid; steadfast, loyal, hardworking, traumatised by her own personal secret, and in her housecoat and doek. Surely, surely there are other parts for black women when they are in white stories?

Death of a Colonialist

While it’s really difficult remembering everything I thought about the last three things I saw at the festival, I think I must try and write bout them; after all, that’s why I went in the first place. From the comfort of my own bed, in my own home though, things do look a little different.

The first of the last three shows I saw was Death of a Colonialist. This was a Market Theatre production directed by Craig Freimond and script by Greg Latter. I had very high expectations for this show; my gorgeous sister-in-law had highly recommended it after seeing it in Jozi. In fact, I even stayed at the fest an extra day to include the possibility of seeing it.

This is a ‘straight’ play in two acts, with an interval in between. It’s about a white school teacher in Grahamstown, his wife who has cancer, and their reunion with their two grown children who come back to visit from Canada and Australia. It stars Jamie Bartlett, and Shirley Johnston, Carl Beukes and Ashleigh Harvey play his satellites.

There is no doubt that the issues facing white South Africans are thoroughly (and sometimes poignantly) churned through the wheel of this play. Crime, education, fitting in, dealing with the guilt of the past, migration, belonging, being by-passed. A passionate history of the Eastern Cape, with a (for an old white guy) passionate and obsessive leaning to Xhosa sympathies, is the crux of the star character’s being misunderstood, by his family and the school.

My reaction to the play is one of ambivalence. While there were many moments of genuinely moving stuff and powerful ‘truth’ moments too, I found watching the play challenging and problematic. Here’s why. I think I like the bulk of the script, but immediately saw the challenges that it presented in staging. I know that Jamie Bartlett is a powerhouse performer, but here he felt too big for the role, and certainly for everyone else on stage. (Can I confess to it feeling like the Jamie Bartlett Show?) Yes, his performance was intense and magnetic, but it was also in another play. His most successful moments were when he was on his own, in front of us, his class, where he could be cock o’ the roost. His character had absolutely everything; a ball grabbing habit when he was excited, a funny walk, a cough, sniffing, weird little neck jerks, a voice thing, a cutesy leg thing when he kissed his wife, weird jerky hand things, and a powerfully emotional moving belly. My sense is was that it was just too much.

The super-naturalism of the others was eclipsed and annexed by the Jamie Bartlett show. It felt a bit unfair really, like we needed to care about them less, and this can’t be true, especially since the mom had cancer. I enjoy watching Shirley Johnson. She is a subtle, quietly natural performer, who didn’t stand a chance here. Just saying. So, I’m not sure if the issue is a casting one (in truth, having seen Jamie in the role I can’t really imagine anyone else doing it) since I am unsure about what serves the play. Usually I love Craig’s choices; here I was confused. The two others felt like moaning stage furniture.

I wasn’t convinced.

The Girl in the Yellow Dress

Simon saw this in G’town and absolutely loved it. I went last night, remembering that I will probably get a chance to see most of what was on at the festival right here in Cape Town, if I haven’t seen it already! It is on at The Baxter, @The Flipside, where the main stage is turned around, with the audience on stage too, creating another small (and freezing) venue. The Girl in the Yellow Dress is written by Craig Higginson, directed by Malcolm Purkey, and is a collaboration between the Market Theatre in Johannesburg and two UK theatres. It is a two-hander performed by British actress Marianne Oldham and South African Nat Ramabulana.

Seeing this play was the first in a bit of a theatre drought for me and I was really desperate to enjoy it. My first impressions of the set were, ok, we’re going to watch a proper play now, and that’s exactly what it was; a five scene play, with blackouts denoting the passing of time chronologically, in a very realistic style. The story is about a young, beautiful girl in Paris who develops a relationship with a young black man to whom she is teaching English. It’s got a bit of sex, psychology, identity, racial issues, and it’s all tied up with the bits and pieces of English grammar; all that ‘past participle’ stuff.

There is no doubt that the two performers are super talented and gorgeous. The story is very clear as the two get to know each other better; with not much left to the imagination. I guess the whole point is that we know that they are lying from the outset but this makes the revealing of the information less of a surprise and more of a ‘get on with it’. I found it all rather pedestrian.

I loved the blackout music and slides. I loved some of the witty lines although most of the “English’ stuff was too dense and sailed over this audience’s head.

I was irritated with the costume and set changes, particularly the last one, where in the dark the plastic to cover the furniture was so loud! I found the flowers trite and predictable. I hated that Pierre had to perform his dramatic stuff standing on bits of torn paper as if it wasn’t there. Truth is, I was bored; my worst thing to be in a play.

When it was done I tried to remember a play that I had liked and I thought immediately of …miskien. Also about a relationship, lies, revealing the truth and the complications it brings, I found the execution of it so much more satisfying. Style, lights, set, direction, music, performances, nuances, the extended moments, all worked better for me to create a heightened sense of theatre. The Girl in the Yellow Dress had moments of drama school cheese about it; that feeling of a director/lecturer getting his students to ‘reveal’, to ‘open up’, to ‘go to that place’.

It comes with massive credentials. It was a hit of G’town and it is off to the Edinburgh fest, England and then Stockholm. But if this is one of the best of the fest, I guess I wouldn’t have had too fantastic a time.

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