By BRUCE DENNILL
Vaslav / Directed by Lara Bye / POPArt Theatre, Johannesburg
This is a short play (barely an hour) starring a single actor (Godfrey Johnson) playing a man (Vaslav Nijinsky) who was venerated for his talent and then neglected when he was tragically – for him and for his chosen art form, ballet – diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and placed in asylums for the second half of his life.
That Johnson lasts for the full hour is a testament to his focus and stamina as a performer: this is a production with no extraneous words or actions, and its star must sing, play piano, act and venture into the dark recesses of the mind of a superstar pronounced less than “normal” my medical science.
Nijinsky was nick-named “The God of the Dance” in his heyday, a step-up from even the ego-driven likes of Michael Flatley (the self-proclained “Lord of the Dance”). And the Russian star’s legacy suggests that the inflated self-image he enjoyed when feted around the world was built around achievements that really mattered, which makes his fall from that summit that much harder to bear – for him, obviously, but also for audiences watching his story unfold over half a century later, which is quite something.
The arc of the story has the protagonist degenerate as the play progresses. There’s plenty of room to manoeuvre, mind, as Johnson spends the first four or five minutes of the piece showing of an incredible affinity for piano playing (shared by Nijinsky, apparently), starting off playing well-known melodies and ending with a cacophonous pounding of the keyboard. As the dancer’s life plays out via song, monologue and occasional action, Johnson adds small but consistent details – a twitching thumb on one hand being the most obvious – to signal that all is not well, even as obvious talent is displayed.
And as the actor references the work – L’après-midi d’un Faune Jeux, Till Eulenspiegel, The Rite Of Spring (so challenging to audiences that it caused riots in Paris when performed there) and others – his character became famous for, time passes onstage and Nijinsly’s condition worsens. It’s an artistic paradox that almost hurts to watch, made even more uncomfortable by the intensity of Johnson’s performance. It’s ironic that an actor’s virtuosity can make his role demanding, almost gruelling, to watch, but that is what Johnson achieves here.
It must be marked as an achievement, though, hard going or not: Johnson’s piano playing, singing and whole-hearted inhabitation of Nijinsky makes him as exciting to watch (in a different context) as his sublime inspiration.
Vaslav is a masterclass in performance, but it’s tough for the very people who’ll buy tickets – theatre and dance fans – to take in, taking those enthusiasts behind the curtain to see that part of a famous artist’s life that is exponentially more difficult to celebrate than what they won awards for, but no less important to thoughtfully consider.
If this play doesn’t make you consider making a donation to the Theatre Benevolent Fund, nothing will.