By BRUCE DENNILL
Mannequin / Directed by Nataniel / Theatre of Marcellus, Emperors Palace, Johannesburg
Mannequin, like most of Nataniel’s output, is difficult to classify. Broadly speaking, it combines his skills as a stand-and-deliver spoken-word raconteur and as a musician while draping him and his surrounds in sumptuous fabrics, colours and textures. David Kramer, then, but possessed by Liberace.
It’s an invigorating mixture. Without the script, it’s still worth the ticket price. Nataniel himself is draped in layer upon layer of fabulous – yes, that word is clichéd in this context, but it’s the only term that really applies – Floris Louw cloth confectionary, which he threads throughout as his character morphs through a number of personae in the course of a long, complicated story playing itself out. There’s a massive, classroom-sized blanket that is particularly memorable. It’s an amazing prop that epitomises the approach to the show – incredibly intricate; hugely expensive; an enormous amount of work; and only utilised for a matter of minutes, so that its impact is as formidable as possible.
With the script, it’s always good and occasionally mindblowing. The narrative is strange, melancholic, funny, rude and tender, telling the story of a small group of outcasts – friends struggling with fitting in for reasons of sexuality, loneliness, social ineptitude or a handful of other reasons – who make a collective decision to leave the aggression and superficiality of the city to begin a bucolic, bizarre existence on a plot in some forgotten backwater.
Nataniel’s narrator is also the protagonist, and pulls off the neat trick of getting the audience to connect with him on a couple of levels while simply standing there and talking, all the while introducing and developing a squad of other eccentric friends and hangers on. The absence of a cast to portray all of those people matters not a jot – if you pay attention throughout, you’ll know all of the intangible crowd of personalities that exist in Nataniel’s imagination, intimately. And you’ll say, “thank you” for the privilege (inside joke; watch the show…).
Nataniel sings a number of originals and a few imaginative covers (his take on Whitney Houston’s I Wanna Dance With Somebody is sublime), backed by a top-notch band comprising Charl du Plessis (keyboards), Juan Oosthuizen (guitars), Werner Spies (bass), Hugo Radyn (drums) and vocalists Nicolaas Swart and Dihan Slabbert. The musicians often leave their instruments and join the frontman for dance routines and other brief interactions, and their chemistry – this is a team who have worked together for a long time – ensures that those sequences are usually funny and always warm.
Nataniel fills a niche nobody else does, so his are not the sort of shows that can be recommended on the basis of them being a bit like something else. Indeed, Mannequin should be endorsed for exactly that – its distinctive style and its creator’s unwillingness to write a script that leaves its audience feeling warm and fuzzy. Actually, in that last respect, he might have failed – the show oozes humanity and empathy. But it never pretends to be a fairytale, and is all the better for it.