By BRUCE DENNILL
The Old Man And The Sea / Directed by Jenine Collocott / Auto & General Theatre On The Square, Sandton, Johannesburg
Contagious Theatre is a pocket-sized theatre company – just three members, but oh, what talent in artistic director Jenine Collocott and actors and theatre-makers James Cairns and Taryn Bennett – quickly building up a repertoire of high-quality productions, tailored to their unique style, which includes a good deal of mask work.
Augmented by Jaques De Silva (Collocott handles directing duties) for The Old Man And The Sea, the trio take Ernest Hemingway’s famous tale, adapted for the stage by Nick Warren, and give it a charming intimacy. That last phrase is worth something, given that Hemingway was a larger-than-life macho chauvinist and his book took in Cuban culture, fishing (with it’s associated traditions of telling tall tales and prejudice in terms of both age and gender) and being yanked around the Caribbean by a huge sea creature.
All of this is distilled into a compact, centre stage setting that allows the three actors to play twice as many characters in a number of contexts thanks to a mechanism that spins the platorm they’re working on, making it into an outdoor gathering space, a restaurant or a fishing boat, depending on the demands of the set.
Collocott’s masks have a quality of both obscuring part of what the cast can communicate to the audience (though the expressions created by the prosthetics make it easier to see the characters as people in their own right rather than recognisable personalities pretending to be someone else) and encouraging actors to give their characters more emotional input because of the barrier afforded by the papier mache layer covering their faces.
Add to this the formidable acting skills – superb accents and physical morphing to suggest different personalities of Cairns (as Santiago – the old man of the title – and another fisherman named Pedro), Bennett (as Santiago’s young apprentice Manolin, a cocky fisherman named Juan Carlos and a comely local woman) and De Silva (as Manolin’s father and as Raoul, the supposed pretender to Santiago’s spot as the leading fisherman in the region – and the story is suddenly peopled by a crowd of believable and loveable small-town types whose small-scale drama suggests much more pervasive themes.
Don’t expect fireworks or high action – the audience’s collective imagination is expected to fill in most of what happens under and around Santiago’s boat, for instance. But do look forward to a sensitive interpretation of a Pulitzer Prize-winning story and a level of craft often lost under the veneer of more complex costumes and effects.