By BRUCE DENNILL
Tobacco, And The Harmful Effects Thereof / Directed by Sylvaine Strike / Barney Simon Theatre, Market Theatre, Newtown, Johannesburg
Given that it’s based on a Chekhov play (by way of William Harding’s adaptation), it’s not surprising that Tobacco, And The Harmful Effects Thereof leaves you feeling a little confounded – not because the piece is poorly structured or confusing, but because it opens up a number of intellectual and emotional channels, getting audience members to commit to and connect with both the piece’s hangdog protagonist Ivan (Andrew Buckley) and its curiously familiar storyline before ending without everything being resolved.
Ivan is a man who is hen-pecked (Toni Morkel makes sporadic appearances as his wife) but never entirely rancorous. When he is given the opportunity to speak – at his wife’s command, he is giving a lecture on the ill-effects of smoking, even though it’s not a particularly problematic vice in his own life – he seizes the opportunity, opening up about all his frustrations and foibles and finding himself undergoing an unexpected metamorphosis as he does so.
Ivan’s tangible need to be appreciated for who and what he is – a complex person with a range of interests and a wide breadth of knowledge – is countered by his obvious insecurities, which are in turn highlighted by his physical tics.
The clever use of a shamanic transformation as a mechanism to explain the different states Ivan occupies is clever and entertaining, allowing – along with the aforementioned twitches – Buckland to give his remarkable physical theatre skills a full workout. It’s not just that every movement is quite obviously calculated or that the 70-odd minute piece is essentially one long monologue complicated by the use of different voices and a strenuous physical workout. It’s that Buckland is never for a moment anything but exactly on the mark, taking into his stride the reactions of each specific audience – there is no fourth wall – and, on the night I saw the show, the potentially distracting arrival of a visiting moth without skipping a beat. He speaks, he dances, he climbs, he has tantrums: it’s all magnificently delivered.
Ultimately, though, it’s what he doesn’t do – speak harshly of his overbearing spouse to the degree that the pain she has caused him would seem to merit – that givens the audience the biggest clue as to his character’s real fibre. And as audiences leave the theatre, they’ll begin to understand that Ivan’s issues, including loneliness, insecurity, anxiety and regret, are concerns they understand because they share them. And because the script doesn’t allow for neat, final outcomes, they’ll still be considering these issues when they arrive home after the theatre. And probably for the next week.
Smoking tobacco takes out the lungs. Watching Tobacco… tampers with the soul.