By BRUCE DENNILL
Couplet / Directed by Steven Feinstein / Theatre On The Square, Sandton, Johannesburg
The name of this complex new play refers to just one of the mechanisms used in its creation – the use of rhyming couplets in the dialogue and soliloquies. There is an enormous amount more to the piece than that, but it is just one of the facets that makes playwright and star Michelle Douglas’ piece feel in some ways like a Shakespearean play in terms of its density, pacing and verbosity.
Another is the production’s look and feel, which recall 15th Century morality plays. The red velvet curtain, travellers’ chests, puppets, coats and masks that make up the set and the props look fantastic on the Theatre On The Square stage, but there’s a sense that they’d make just as much sense set up in the town square of some European town where such tales have been told for thousands of years, or even brightening up a clearing in an ancient forest, with actors waiting for passing tradesmen to perform to.
The segments of Couplet seemingly inspired by such traditions are brilliantly handled by Douglas and co-star Julie-Anne McDowell, with not a word in the crowded script misplaced or stumbled over – a marvel in itself. Sandy Muller’s costumes are bright and eye-catchingly attractive and the original music from Jahn Beukes helps maintain the mood, which veers from chirpy to sinister.
Technically, then, Couplet is top-notch – well-rehearsed, slick and imaginative. The script, however, requires some tweaking. Douglas and McDowell play allegorical characters Fear and Doubt throughout, and introduce a number of other individuals, personified by masks and puppets, who are at the centre of various subplots interwoven throughout the piece. These junctions are the most challenging part of the production, as there often not enough of either a clear distinction or a smooth transition when taking one character out of the limelight and letting another step into it. The result is a need to pause and think back as you try to establish when a new narrative began, thus shifting your focus off the part of the script that is currently being unpacked, which means that you’re then late understanding the introduction to the next chapter.
This flow will doubtless be adjusted as the play continues to develop in this and further stagings. Perhaps distinct chapters rather than the single inter-connected chronicle will help. Regardless, other than that minor quibble, it’s not the fault of the production team that this material is challenging. They’ve passionately concocted something that re-connects wonderful age-old institutions and visual ideas with a contemporary audience. Said audience are likely accustomed to more accessible tales in simpler formats, but their lack of investment (generally speaking) should not undermine the efforts of this group of artists and their wider perspective.