By BRUCE DENNILL
RedFest 2017: Helen Of Troyeville & Kate Normington – Live At Parlour Songs / Directed by Lesedi Job & Rowan Bakker (respectively) / Redhill School, Johannesburg
The RedFest arts festival is now in its second year, expanding both is programme and its influence. In recognition of that latter facet, there was, on offer in a single evening, no less than a play written by Mike Van Graan and starring Gina Shmukler and the return to the cabaret stage of Kate Normington.
Van Graan’s Helen Of Troyeville is a difficult piece, being an hour of an old woman sitting in a locked bathroom talking about white privilege and the state of South African society. What’s more, here entire monologue is conducted in Van Graan-speak, the densely eloquent intellectual discourse in which Van Graan himself trades – compelling to listen to, but challenging to process.
The structure of the play takes this tricky exposition and makes it applicable and immediate. Shmukler’s irritable, fearful, outraged Helen is stuck in a bathroom because she’s locked herself in there while her house is ransacked by criminals – men she was willing to believe were not mere clichés. She’s an elderly woman, and as such is not unfamiliar with prejudice hereself – more reason, between worrying about her dogs and recalling a past in which she and her generation sat idly by as evil was perpetuated, to feel angry at the context in which she finds herself.
Helen’s railing against apathy and the righteous anger she directs at regimes past and present who enable and propagate hatred and division is, for any thinking person, bang on the money, but the likelihood of a woman who has just been the victim of robbery and betrayal of trust considering the bigger picture while she can still hear thieves at work elsewhere in the house seems low enough to invite some incredulity from the audience.
Shmukler, tasked with an immense amount of text and nothing much in the way of props to work off (other than the actress, the most active element of what’s on stage is a roll of toilet paper), gives the character her all, embodying in her intensity the hopeless rage of generations of South Africans who understand the tragedy of all that has been wasted in the course of our shared history and suggesting that, despite the obstacles in our path, there may be at least enough intent to begin to swing the pendulum.
After the weightiness of those themes, Kate Normington’s trademark mischief was, for a very different audience – packed with industry heavy-hitters who have at some point worked with the vivacious actress and singer – both an antidote and a reminder of the more or less limitless emotional range music and theatre can cover. Backed by an expert band including musical director Rowan Bakker, drummer Etienne Oosthuizen, bassist Rudo Pieterse and Brian Smith on a fascinating range of wind instriments, Normington performed a range of compositions from productions she’s been a part of over the last quarter of a century. Friends and industry counterparts Carly Graeme and Ilse Klink (both superb) were welcomed up for solos and collaborations that both gave the star of the show an occasional breather and further showcased the genres being celebrated.
But the spotlight remained, rightly, fixed on Normington, who revelled in it and accepted the unadulterated admiration of the crowd without ever suggesting that earned-but-annoying arrogance that many performers at her level exhibit. If she felt any nerves, they manifested as additional dynamism as she gave a masterclass in the deceptively complex art of all-round entertainment. Normington counts “comedienne” as one of her many titles and is able to deliver punchlines baldly profane and gently affectionate without a change of expression. The stories linking the songs were honest, often odd and mostly hilarious, but always with a note of warmth as she recalled co-stars, producers, directors, and particular productions and scenes that had a notable effect on her career.
In an intimate venue rather than the large theatres in which she usually plies her trade, it was possible to fully appreciate the technique and immaculate control with which Normington sings, including the range of different voices (personalities, as opposed to pitches – a couple of times she mentioned that a song was “an ingénue number – please excuse the high notes”) she can play with to add variety and dynamics to the her performance.
This show was put together because Normington, Rowan Bakker and producer Drew Bakker had been looking for an excuse to do something together and RedFest had offered a platform for it – another confirmation of the importance of the growing festival and other similar endeavours. And as a result, there is a superior show that is compact enough to tour and widely appealing enough to draw a significant assortment of audiences.
Job done, in terms of the development of new works and Johannesburg audiences? No – but what an encouraging step in the right direction.