By BRUCE DENNILL
The Devil & Billy Markham / Directed by Jenine Collocott / POPArt, Maboneng, Johannesburg
Being privy to the development process of a new production (even if unofficially so) is a revealing, exciting and sometimes amusing process. Featuring Contagious Theatre members Jenine Collocott as director and the versatile James Cairns as the Devil, sneering bluesman Billy Markham and the narrator who connects their threads, this piece had a four-day run at POPArt as part of its bedding in ahead of the National Arts Festival.
As such, the opening night in Maboneng was the first time the show had ever been performed in front of an audience, which showed in a couple of tics – misplaced phrases and the response of the lightbox prop on which Cairns stands – that, while noticeable, did not greatly detract from the effectiveness of the performance overall.
The play uses Shel Silverstein’s epic poem of the same name as the script, giving the lines a smooth, satisfying rhythm. Cairns differentiates his characters with distinct voices, with Markham’s gruff aggression the most compelling. The poem and the play constititute another legend involving a man making a deal with the Devil, a la Robert Johnson (another bluesman) or Van Hunks (the Dutchman who shared a pipe with the Dark Lord on Devil’s Peak) and, as is often the case with such interactions, it doesn’t go well for the human involved and Markham is put through the supernatural ringer, surviving only because he’s so crusty that even hell-fire can’t fully overwhelm the spark that drives him.
It’s an inconclusive story, as survival doesn’t mean victory, and Markham’s soul is just another option for the Devil. But because the concept of selling your soul remains compelling (well, compellingly stupid), it’s still easy to engage with the story, not least because in a small venue like POPArt, Cairns is connecting with you from a couple of metres away. This introductory run will have seen Cairn’s dialogue polished, the platform on which he stands fiddled with to reduce squeaking and the improvised dance sequences that link sections refined to convey more meaning (or menace). Expect extra fizz and effect in Grahamstown.